After a school year of fighting personal attacks and opposing the removal of LGBTQ books from school libraries, North Hunterdon High School Librarian Martha Hickson was awarded the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity by the American Library Association (ALA).
In June, Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket, presented Hickson with the award − a $10,000 prize, a certificate and an “odd, symbolic object” from Handler’s private collection − at the ALA’s annual conference in Washington, DC
The Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity was established in 2014 by the ALA in partnership with Handler and is co-administered by ALA’s Governance Office and the Office for Intellectual Freedom. The award annually recognizes and honors a librarian who has faced adversity with integrity and dignity intact.
“The jury is very proud to honor Ms. Hickson for her energy and bravery in the face of such persistent and ongoing hostility,” said Lemony Snicket jury chair Becca Worthington, ImaginOn children’s librarian at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. “In the midst of adversity, she has remained a firm advocate for first amendment rights and a proud defender of her students’ right to read, and the jury is thrilled to celebrate her triumphant spirit.”
During the 2021-22 school year, Hickson was personally targeted when parents and other community members sought to remove five books that are LGBTQ-themed from the North Hunterdon High School library, which she opposed.
Related:Why some North Hunterdon parents want certain LGBTQ books removed from the school library
Related:LGBTQ books will remain in North Hunterdon, Voorhees school libraries
At the beginning of the school year, during “Banned Books Week,” a community group comprised mainly of parents attended a school board meeting and demanded several award-winning books with LGBTQ+ themes be pulled from the library shelves. The group then began attacking Hickson herself, labeling her by name as a “pornographer” and “pedophile” for providing children with access to the books in question.
For months, Hickson was subjected to personal attacks in the form of hate mail, threats, nuisance vandalism and questions about her judgment and integrity. She said the adversity became so pervasive and extreme that her blood pressure and anxiety rose to a dangerous point and her physician removed her from the workplace.
“For school librarians across the country, this year of book challenges and personal attacks has truly been a series of unfortunate events worthy of the title The Lambasted Library,” Hickson said at the ALA award ceremony.
Hickson persisted, defending her students’ right to intellectual freedom and right to read, inspiring a group of community allies to attend the school board meetings, gathering testimonies from LGBTQ+ students, recruiting local author David Levithan to write a statement of support and even consulting and offering advice on censorship battles to the library community at large.
At a school board meeting in January, the resolution to ban the five books in question was voted down. All five remain on the North Hunterdon High School library shelf.
“The last 10 months have been — by far — the most difficult of my working life,” Hickson said. “To be falsely and publicly accused of truly hideous crimes, have my employer refuse for five months to speak a word on my behalf, get hate mail at work and be smeared online was painful and humiliating. The stress of it all affected my physical, emotional and mental health, resulting in anxiety and depression, sleeplessness, digestive distress and cracked teeth from grinding my jaw. I’m still struggling to get back on track, and I honestly don’t know if I ever will. Every time I walk into that school building, it all comes flooding back. And because the protesters continue to malign the library at monthly board meetings, it’s like the movie Groundhog Day, minus the Sonny and Cher music.”
The Lemony Snicket award was created to acknowledge the work of librarians who have gone above and beyond the normal requirements of librarianship to stand up in the face of adversity with dignity and honor, and to recognize the significant sacrifices and contributions that librarians make to improve the quality of life and their communities.
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Hickson said she hopes to use the platform she’s been afforded to draw more attention to local school board elections, which have been recent targets of far right and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
The North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District school board election this fall will continue to highlight the rhetoric as several candidates running for office were vocal in their efforts to ban the five books.
“Taking over school boards is actually a goal of this censorship movement,” Hickson said. “Some of the same people who tried to ban books are now running for school board. I am fearful that board meetings between now and November will deteriorate into the same kind of malicious mudslinging we saw last school year in an effort to manufacture outrage and get attention.
“Community members who value the right to read need to show up and speak up at school board meetings. Otherwise, book bullies get unfettered, uncontested access to broadcast their baseless claims. It’s vital, too, that voters research and vote carefully across the ballot from school board on up.”
Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter forMyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: Cmakin@gannettnj.com or@CherylMakin. To get unlimited access, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.