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Rutgers alum wins national librarian award for opposing book banning efforts

Martha Hickson, a Rutgers alum, received an award for her efforts to stop five books from being banned from the North Hunterdon high school library in Annandale, New Jersey.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The Judith Krug Outstanding Librarian Award from the National Coalition Against Censorship was given to Rutgers alum Martha Hickson for her advocacy against book banning, according to a press release.

Hickson, a current librarian of North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, New Jersey and co-founder of the Rutgers Association of School Librarians, protected the removal of books from her high school library, specifically works focused on LGBTQ+ and minority stories, according to a Rutgers School of Communication and Information article.

She said that prior to book-banning efforts in 2019, she would only occasionally have parents show concern about certain books in her school's library.

To address these concerns, an alternative reading would typically be offered as a solution to the student or parent based on the needs of that family.

This changed in 2019 when the school superintendent challenged the inclusion of the book "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel. He claimed the graphic novel was pornographic and dangerous to students’ morality, she said.

After the superintendent’s request failed and Bechdel’s book remained at the school, Hickson said it became the first of many books brought to the school board’s attention.

In September 2021, parents had pushed for the banning of four books at a school board meeting for North Hunterdon High School, she said. These novels included "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," Maia Kobabe’s "Gender Queer: A Memoir" and Jonathan Evison’s "Lawn Boy."

"This happened to be during Banned Books Week … They stood up and started reading isolated sentences, even words, just single words off the pages," Hickson said.

During the board meeting, she said she was called a "pornographer" and a "pedophile" who allowed students access to unethical literature in her library. Following the events of the meeting, Hickson said she received hateful letters at work, and coworkers shunned her.

"I spent from September (2021) to January (2022) defending those books," she said.

During an October 2021 school board meeting, the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Intellectual Freedom Fighters organized around 400 community members to voice their concerns about book censorship to school board members.

Hickson initially created the community group in 2019 after the complaints against "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" were lodged, she said.

Current students also participated in the board meetings, with one student retaining over 200 signatures for a petition supporting the books and students giving personal testimony to the school board in defense of the books, Hickson said.

The school board created a reconsideration committee and reached a verdict that deemed four books appropriate for students. "This Book Is Gay" by Juno Dawson was not included, Hickson said.

As the only librarian at her high school, she said she was aware of the importance of Dawson’s book to students. As such, Hickson sought to find an influential voice to defend the novel at the next board meetings vote.

Eventually, in January 2022, the North-Hunterdon Voorhees Board of Education decided all five books will stay in the library and be accessible to students, she said.

"It's not really defending the books because I'll do this for any book. It's the principle, and the principle is students' right to read. So it really doesn't matter what the book is, if it's in my library, it means it's here for a reason. It means it met our selection criteria. So I'm defending the principle, not necessarily the individual title — students' right to read what they want to read," she said.


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