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Elissa Malespina is a school librarian and a member of theSouth Orange/Maplewood Board of Education. Her views are not representative of the board or its individual members.
A little over a year ago, I was let go from my position at Verona High School and part of the reason given was that “Mrs. Malespina does a nice job with creating collections for display about equity, specifically regarding the themes of race and LGBTQ. However, the selections never seem to go beyond those two topics. This has created the perception that the library is about only two things and not necessarily about promoting a variety of different books centered around a variety of different topics.”
As a non-tenured educator, I had no recourse. I — like so many other school librarians — have become targets of the culture wars that are occurring in our country. These attacks greatly affect the incredible school librarians who devote their lives to instilling the love of reading, media literacy, technology, research and so much more in our students. We all work hard to create safe spaces for ALL our students.
School librarians also make sure that students — no matter what race, gender, religion, nationality or sexual preference — feel seen in the books and materials that we expertly curate and add to our libraries. It is now us who no longer are feeling safe because we dare to purchase diverse books and materials.
During this last year, I have faced slanderous attacks online and death threats. I have filed police reports and had to have security when I speak at conferences. All because of attacks that have occurred on social media and in emails but also emails addressed to my new employer that spread vicious lies.
I have been incredibly lucky to have found a new job and the students and staff have embraced me and have shown me so much love and kindness in a district that values diversity. But many are not as lucky as I am.
I have watched dear school librarian friends face being called pedophiles, porn mongers and so many more hateful and slanderous things. I am so proud of both my dear friend Amanda Jones and also my fellow New Jersey school librarian Roxana Caivano, who are fighting back by filing defamation lawsuits against their attackers.
But I have also seen the toll it has taken on them and so many others like the absolutely incredible and brave N.J. school librarian Martha Hickson who has battled not one but two book challenges at her school.
After I was let go from Verona High School last May, I suffered a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. I was placed on medical leave by my doctors and went through months of therapy and medication before I was able to speak about what happened to me without having a panic attack. Sadly, I am not alone in this. So many of my librarian friends who have been through similar situations have also suffered a mental and physical toll.
My therapy has been to turn my horrible experience into advocacy. School Library Journal published my story in October and since that point, I have had a chance to speak out nationally in different outlets against book banning and the censorship that is occurring in this country.
As the only school librarian on a school board in New Jersey and only one of a few in the United States, I have authored and gotten past some of the toughest anti-censorship policies, regulations and procedures. These policies were rewritten to help combat the rise in book challenges from such organizations as Mothers for Liberty and many local offshoots.
These new policies have been adopted by numerous school districts across New Jersey and the nation. I am proud, and also lucky enough, to work in a school district that adopted the policies I authored.
I am also working with local leaders and politicians to help advocate for a state law against book bans like one that recently passed in Illinois. I accept every invitation I am offered to speak on this topic and will continue to do so because I need to be a voice for all my fellow librarians who are scared to speak up because they might lose their job.
I had hoped that by speaking out that things might get better for school librarians across the nation but over this last year, book challenges are nearly doubled from last year and the highest in at least 20 years, when the American Library Association began compiling data about censorship in libraries.
Censors targeted a record 2,571 unique titles in 2022, a 38% increase from the 1,858 unique titles targeted for censorship in 2021. Of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community or by and about Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. The trend does not seem to be ending anytime soon.
This fight is not about saving a book. It’s about saving a child who needs that books to feel seen and heard. “Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe,” which was the No. 1 most challenged book in the U.S. with 151 challenges, according to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, is an incredible graphic novel memoir that is a great resource for teens or really anyone who identifies as nonbinary or asexual or those who know someone who identifies as such. There are not many resources out there for nonbinary and asexual students and this book allows those children to feel seen and heard something.
“The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison was ranked as the No. 3 most challenged book last year with 73 challenges. This literary classic is about a young girl who wishes for blue eyes so she can fit into her surrounding where she is constantly made to feel like she is ugly and does not belong because she is Black. So many teens go through feelings of self-loathing and shame and can relate to this character. The book also talks openly and frankly about racism and helps students understand the lasting effects of bigotry.
LGBTQ+ and students of color are already the most marginalized in our schools. Taking those books away from them only reinforces the idea that these students don’t belong. Everyone deserves to feel like they belong and for many students, the library is the only space in the school where that can occur.