Censorship Stories From SLJ's Tips Hotline

SLJ asked readers to report censorship and received dozens of submissions to our tips hotline. Here are just a few of the stories librarians shared.

SLJ asked readers to report censorship, and we received dozens of submissions to our tips hotline. We attempted to get more details on a few of the submissions and contact all parties involved in the events. Here are those stories.


Port Washington, NY

Weber Middle School librarian Kate Herz has spent 26 years working in her Port Washington, NY, district. Until this year, only one of her books had ever been challenged: My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel by Derf Backderf. The student who checked it out wrote about the book in his journal, prompting a school administrator to question Herz.

She explained the protocol for challenging a book and also contacted the publisher, Abrams ComicArts. First, let’s talk about it informally, she told the administrator. If they can’t come to an agreement, the complainant may complete a reconsideration form to start a formal review process, standard practice as recommended by the American Library Association. The dispute resolved quickly. No form was submitted, and the Dahmer book remained on the shelf. Herz didn’t think much about it again.

But an incident last semester brought the memory back. Herz ordered a series of books on social justice, including What Is White Privilege? by Leigh Ann Erickson and Kelisa Wang. She created a display for students to find them more easily, as she always does with new arrivals. A few weeks later, a teacher checked out Erickson’s book, and two union representatives from the Port Washington Teachers Association approached Herz and questioned her.

“It was sort of offensive as a professional librarian,” said Herz, who says she reads professional reviews and aims to select books that are age-appropriate. (SLJ rates the series as “highly recommended” for grades 3–7.) “Unfortunately, I feel like it’s a sign of the times,” she says. “People are very emboldened, and there’s a divisiveness out there, which unfortunately filters into all different kinds of settings.”

Undaunted, Herz explained to the union representatives—who relayed the message to the teacher—the process for challenging a book. She then gave them the reconsideration form and waited to see if the teacher would return What Is White Privilege? by its due date. The book was returned and it never escalated to a formal challenge, but the incident heightened Herz’s awareness to what’s going on in school libraries across the country.

“There are so many more books being published—diverse titles, inclusive books,” Herz said, adding, “Books can offend one person, but can then be a source of information to another person. That’s part of intellectual freedom.”

Requests for comment from the Port Washington School District superintendent and Weber Middle School principal were not answered.


East Stroudsburg, PA

Jennifer Marmo is an English teacher at East Stroudsburg (PA) North High School, as well as the Genders and Sexualities Alliance advisor. She is also a parent with a child at the school where she teaches.

In November, her child tried to check out a book about an LGBTQ character from the school library and was told that book had been pulled from the shelves. Marmo learned that it was one of two books—Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue—that had been pulled with seemingly no explanation. So, in her role as a parent, Marmo wrote a letter to the East Stroudsburg superintendent, other district officials, and school board members, expressing her concern.

“Today is the first time I have ever been disgusted by this district,” she wrote. “I learned to be an empathetic human being who cares about those around me because I was able to access books not only related to me and my life but to those of people who are different from me. I am doing the same for my children. That is my right as a parent of children in a public school.”

Only the board members responded, and it would be weeks before a meeting was held to discuss library book selections and permissions. Board members and administrators
at that January 5 meeting were instructed not to talk specifically about the two books in question, but rather policy around book selection.

The administration proposed a plan to create a reserved collection for “explicit material,” which means a student would need parental permission to check out a book from that collection. Marjory Gullstrand, a high school librarian in the district, outlined a different plan, in which parents could select book titles, authors, or certain subjects they don’t want their child to read, but all books would otherwise remain available for other students to check out without needing permission.

Superintendent William Riker questioned Gullstrand, asking how parents could know ahead of time which books they want to opt out of. Another school board member asked how they could agree on what’s “explicit” and how they could know a book’s entire content without reading the whole thing, saying there were too many books in the library to make that possible. Others raised concerns about the constitutionality of creating a restricted section of books, saying it would violate students’ First Amendment rights.

For Marmo, watching this all unfold was disheartening. She has been an English teacher in the district for 18 years. In that time, she has had parents raise concerns about her book selections before, but in those cases they agreed the child would read an alternative and the rest of the students would proceed with the original title. She worries this incident will lead to censorship and limit student access to crucial books.

“Libraries to me are like a temple,” Marmo says. “In the area that we live in, public libraries are very hard to get to, so all a lot of children have are our school libraries. They tried to dance around the use of the word ‘censorship,’ the use of ‘banning.’ But essentially what they are trying to do is censor for everyone when I don’t believe that’s their right.”

Superintendent Riker did not respond to a request for further comment, and Gullstrand declined to be interviewed for this story.


Klein, TX

In Klein ISD, about 45 minutes outside of Houston, one high school librarian began to see hints of possible book censorship last fall. The librarian, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she has seen videos of parents at school board meetings reading excerpts of library books they deemed explicit or inflammatory and identifying which school libraries had the books.

Just before Thanksgiving, the librarian was told that administrators from the district’s central office would come to remove some books from her collection. Throughout the district, several titles have been pulled, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, books by Toni Morrison, and a nonfiction title about the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case. She was not told why or who was challenging the books.

“They came to our campuses and I was told, ‘We’re just trying to protect you,’” the librarian says. “Well, I’m a trained professional. I do not need protection. I know how to do my job.”

The librarian says that before this year she has only had one book challenged in many years working in the district. With the previous challenge, an American Library Association-recommended procedure was followed. The librarian had an informal discussion with the complainant, who wasn’t satisfied and filled out the reconsideration form. A review was formed with an administrator, a teacher, a community member, an English teacher, and the librarian. They read the book in its entirety and concluded it should remain on the shelf, and the complainant was satisfied. This time, the librarian says, no protocol was followed to her knowledge. She worries about the lack of transparency and books disappearing without any explanation and how that will affect the diverse student population.

An updated submission to the hotline reported that more books were removed for the “review process” in January. In addition, according to the report, the district now automatically emails parents and guardians telling them what book was checked out by their student from any library in the district.

Requests for comment from other Klein librarians and the district superintendent were not answered.

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