When school’s out for summer, I’ll often reach for feel-good teacher memoirs like Teacher Man by Frank McCourt (2005), or Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell (1999), later for the screen in a 2007 film starring Hilary Swank. Although I’ve gotten weary and disheartened by so many memoirs by young, inexperienced white people changing BIPOC students’ lives overnight, my hunger for “teacher stories” is insatiable—and I’m always eager for the next exciting voice in educator literature (should we call it “Ed Lit?”). As a school librarian, I’ve long harbored the hope that our next blockbuster educator memoirist will provide a clear-eyed and reassuring book by a radical librarian. No one can “shush” us!
This May, my dream came true with a Publisher’s Weekly announcement that one of my far-flung colleagues in Louisiana, Amanda M. Jones, landed a deal with Bloomsbury to publish her memoir in the fall of 2024. According to her publisher, That Librarian, is “a David and Goliath story of Jones’s battle against book banning” and provides “a deeply intimate look at the onslaught of harassment she faced and her courageous decision to fight back.” Stories about educators and librarians seem more urgent than ever, and I can’t wait to go deeper than the news articles about free speech warriors.
Jones was School Library Journal’s 2021 co-librarian of the year for her innovative work. That same year, she attended a public library board meeting where she defended patrons right to access to LGBTQIA+ books. After this meeting, she was attacked online, received death threats, and stunned the whole country by suing her harassers. Although Jones lost in court, she has filed an appeal, and recently asserted her determination to take her battle all the way to the supreme court.
Her lawyers have estimated that Jones will spend up to $160,000 in legal fees by the time the case is over (she has a GoFundMe on her website). Even when she was publicly defamed and ostracized in her “two stoplight town,” and found it difficult to attend school events or shop in the grocery store without people whispering and pointing at her, Jones has continued relentlessly advocating for kids’ right to read.
I reported on Jones’ journey for my article “Stress Tested,” School Library Journal’s cover story in May. After its publication, I followed up with Jones to find out what was happening with her book deal, eager for news. As a longtime public school librarian in New York, I followed the twists and turns of Jones’ story with great interest, especially through articles by SLJ’s brilliant censorship expert, Kara Yorio.
As I read about Jones, I kept asking myself what I’d do if I were in her shoes. What was I willing to risk for the love of reading? Financial security? My well-being? My family’s safety? Jones has risked it all—and her nonfiction book will layer memoir with cultural history, exploring the roots of her motivation and legal battles, and her insights into life in the rural south and white nationalism.
What was I willing to risk for the love of reading? Financial security? My well-being? My family’s safety?
When I asked what prompted Jones to take her anti-censorship battle to court, she said she felt a “responsibility” to make the most of her platform as SLJ Co-School Librarian of the Year. “I’m white and straight,” she said. “It shouldn’t be up to marginalized people to fight….People who are privileged need to take a stand.”
When Jones put her mind to becoming a published author, she drew on her resources as a masterful researcher to make it happen. When she learned that a #WeNeedDiverseBooks fundraiser was auctioning various literary services, she bid on the chance to speak to a literary agent. Sarah N. Fisk from the Tobias Agency met with Jones and answered her questions about how to write a book proposal or query a book.
“I did not know the first thing about any of it,” Jones admitted. “It was just a meeting for me to ask questions. I was fortunate that Sarah and The Tobias Literary Agency emailed me later that day and asked if I was interested in signing with them.” Anton Mueller, Senior Editor of Bloomsbury, heard Jones’ NY Times First Person podcast and contacted her just two days after her meeting with Fisk to ask if she’d considered writing a book. And from there, everything fell into place.
Teachers and librarians have always had something to say—and it’s more critical than ever that we progressive educators speak up. If only eleven parents were responsible for sixty percent of book bans during the 2021 – 22 school year, working behalf of such groups as Moms of Liberty, I don’t know why their voices are so loud and powerful. We educators can do more to fight back. Think of all of the research skills, persuasive writing, speaking and media savvy that a whole nation of teachers can channel together.
I’m glad that one of the first books about censorship is coming out of the south, and I’m also eager for books by BIPOC librarians and educators. After Jones’ PW announcement, I wanted to follow up with Jean Darnell, another librarian I profiled in my SLJ article, to ask if she would also consider writing her memoir. A Black librarian in Texas, Darnell published a moving essay, “All I Can Do,” about surviving a school shooting in American Educator, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) magazine.
Darnell’s essay reflects the vital role of the librarian and all educators to provide emotional support and guidance to students. When I emailed Darnell to ask what her own librarian memoir would include, she shared her vision of a book about her experience teaching “emotional literacy” to teens. As she wrote, “I could fill that book with every salacious detail [of working in the library]” and her work helping students overcome everything from “teen drama” to “parental violence” and “embarking on bodily discovery/sexuality.”
Darnell’s students have asked her to adopt them because they longed to live in the library with her in the safe space she provided. “I’ve been their counselor, emotionally healthy adult, magical resource godmother and feedback friend,” she said.
Our roles as librarians position us to have some of the clearest insights into some of the biggest crises that America faces, from school violence to immigration to mental health to the future of our whole society. Darnell describes herself as a “responsible gun owner” haunted by the PTSD scars of a shooting at her former school. Her perspective about school violence is one that politicians and lawmakers should be hearing; she knows more than almost anyone.
Darnell argues in her American Educator essay that schools spend too much time on active shooter drills without addressing the true problem—mental health. Schools lack sufficient counselors and psychologists, so educators and librarians often fills the role of providing emotional support.
“We need to teach emotional literacy as a preventive strategy beyond the primary school years so that kids know how to ground themselves, work through their feelings, and realize there are alternatives to harming themselves or others,” Darnell asserted. When I read another essay of Darnell’s, “Unpacking Black Librarianship,” I trusted her compelling narrative style and wanted to hear everything she had to say.
In my research on recent educator memoirs, the most exciting book I found was, in fact, a group memoir by public school students, by well-regarded scholar Jeanne Theoharis and her colleagues. I hadn’t been aware of the 2009 book, Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Public Education. Unfortunately I expect to see that many of the problems from more than a decade ago have gotten worse. I hope that new generations of students will write about their experiences of book banning and fights over what they should be allowed to read. Young people’s voices are so crucial to this story.
I am eager for more publishing opportunities to be available to teenagers, especially young people of color. After working as a high school librarian for fourteen years, I know that young people are tired of adults talking about them and making decisions for them (often, the teens are smarter than the adults!) We shouldn’t underestimate what teens can do.
Think of Emma Gonzales, the school violence activist, and Greta Thurberg, climate change activist; these are just two examples. Many more can be found in Teen Trailblazers: 30 Fearless Girls Who Changed the World Before They Were 20 (2018). So who will be our teen spokesperson fighting for anti-censorship? Maybe our teen activist will be one of the York, Pennsylvania students who protested book bans and won this fall.
I’m also a huge fan of a book that hasn’t received nearly enough attention from the literary community. Amanda Oliver’s Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library (2022) is a personal and cultural history of the library, and paves the way for Amanda Jones’ book even though they cover different territory. Jones’ forthcoming book focuses on the culture wars while Oliver’s examines the way that libraries and librarians carry the unfair burdens of serving people in dire crisis without the proper resources or training. Oliver argues that librarians are being asked to fulfill too many roles for society, but that many decision-makers—and librarians themselves—are guilty of ignoring the institutional failures in libraries because, well, we all love libraries and want to be nostalgic and idealistic.
Will death threats become just another, routine part of a librarian’s day, something that might happen between locating a missing Ursula LeGuin paperback and helping a toddler’s parent locate the most fun ABC book?
American freedoms are coming unraveled, librarians of all stripes are getting caught up in these battles—and making this our work too. School and youth librarians are often hit the hardest, and we can’t really afford any extra stress. Most educational librarians work largely alone. In schools like my former one in New York City, we are expected to manage rooms of fifty or sixty students at a time without an assistant (although it’s technically not allowed, it’s very typical).
Through Oliver’s experiences serving as a librarian to some of the most vulnerable Washington, DC public school students, and later at a public library that mostly served unhoused people, she saw that librarians were often first-responders in emergencies; she and her colleagues regularly administered lifesaving measures such as Naloxone, for example. Oliver professed her love of libraries throughout the book, but also made compelling arguments that if we truly value libraries, we will reassess this underpaid, under-supported (which, like education is mostly done by women).
We need more free speech activists, more people fighting for librarians, and my hope is that Jones’ memoir will inspire a wide variety of citizens to join the fight.
We can’t exercise magical thinking around libraries, Oliver says. By this token, we cannot praise Amanda Jones as a “librarian superhero” (I’m going to call her a “warrior,” but she deserves to remain a human!). Jones’ fight, while admirable, reflects just how much trouble we’re in as a society.
So, while I applaud her, I don’t want to see any other librarians taking on what she has. Jones cannot simultaneously educate young people and fight censorship—no one can. As I noted in my SLJ article, Jones was on a semester-long sabbatical for anxiety and depression. We need more free speech activists, more people fighting for librarians, and my hope is that Jones’ memoir will inspire a wide variety of citizens to join the fight.
Teachers and librarians are being targeted, criminalized and demonized (as the “arms of satan”) not only in southern states like Louisiana, but even in liberal New Jersey suburbs within commuting distance of New York City. In Verona, a school librarian was fired recently for displaying books featuring LGBTQ and BIPOC stories. A librarian I know here in New York was threatened online after hosting an LGBTQ Coming Out gathering and displaying relevant books in her library.
If this is happening in my city, we are all in trouble. “You should write about this,” I urged my colleague, Lindsay Klemas. Not longer after, I emailed with Electric Literature contributing writer Deirdre Suguichi that she was contemplating writing about her years as a school librarian in Georgia.
Every few hours, my google alert tells me of a new book banning controversy, but I’m sure I can reset the alerts so I can hear about all the victories happening too. This morning, my New York colleague, Klemas, texted with an update. The HuffPost published her essay, “I Was Labeled a Pedophile and a Groomer in a Viral Video—and It Blew Up My Life.”
So, write on, librarians! Hate and fear might threaten to overpower us, but in the end, we need to believe that readers, writers and librarians in our country will have the last word.