Oklahoma teacher is still fighting book bans, now from Brooklyn

With PEN America and the Brooklyn Public Library, Summer Boismier is training the next generation of free speech advocates.

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By Lisa Tolin

Summer Boismier is 1,500 miles away from Norman, Oklahoma, the place where the high school English teacher was called a pedophile, threatened with murder, and worse. (Yes, there’s worse.) 

Boismier lost her job after she gave students a QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project. Now she’s in  charge of teen initiatives at the library, and will be part of its Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute with PEN America. The free, online four-week training program will teach high school students to combat book banning in their schools and libraries.

Boismier’s long journey to Brooklyn started when Oklahoma passed HB 1775, known as the anti-Critical Race Theory law. The law punishes school districts for teaching lessons designed to make students feel uncomfortable or guilty because of their race or gender.

Boismier was told to weed her classroom library — a library full of books she’d spent her own money to buy over the years. Instead, she draped red paper over them with the words, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” She gave students a QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project, which gives students anywhere in the country access to its books.

The response was immediate. A parent filed a complaint and wanted Boismier criminally charged for offering access to “porn.” Boismier received death threats, and was removed from her classroom. 

She chose to resign, but her fight isn’t over. The state education secretary called for her license to be pulled, accusing her of providing access to “banned and pornographic materials.”

Boismier joined the team at Brooklyn Public Library and is adjusting to a new life in the city. Living in a fifth-floor walkup means she does laundry less frequently, and takes breaks on the stairs. She’s a fan of long walks on sidewalks, though, and the five or six dogs she sees on the way to work. 

“They’re almost always wearing clothing, and I love that for them.” 

The threats she received online still rattle through her brain from time to time when she hops on the subway. 

“I’m not going to lie and say it hasn’t changed a little bit of who I am,” she admits. “But there’s a kind of privilege in that, as horrible as that is, it’s temporary.”

“I’m not going to lie and say it hasn’t changed a little bit of who I am. But there’s a kind of privilege in that, as horrible as that is, it’s temporary.”

She said students, on the other hand, are being told by the adults in their lives that stories about people in their communities are not appropriate for them, or pornographic, and don’t belong on library shelves. She can’t imagine the message that sends. 

“As horrible as that experience has been for me, it was the only way I can think of to make sure that not only am I not one of the adults sending that message, but that, if I can take any of the heat from those amazing young people walking into our classrooms and trying to figure out who they are in the world, I’m willing to do that,” she said.

Although she was the target of hate, Boismier also received encouragement from her community, her students – and the Brooklyn Public Library. Within a week, the library’s QR code was sprouting up on yard signs, stickers, buttons, and T-shirts. 

The QR code for Brooklyn Public Library's Books Unbanned program.

The QR code for Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program.

“It had gone from the four walls of my classroom to the hallways of my school, and that is entirely due to the community and the wider public’s support.”

That support was breathtaking to Boismier, and evidence that the people calling for book bans are not the majority – they’re just loud at libraries and school board meetings. Boismier said she would do it again “in half a heartbeat.”

“In a way, I traveled 1,500 miles to get here, but I don’t really view that as coming from 1,500 miles and leaving home behind,” she said. “It just made my definition of home bigger.”


Recommended Reading

Summer Boismier’s must-read books for teens include many from PEN America’s Index of Banned Books. The Oklahoma English teacher is now serving as Brooklyn Public Library’s teen initiatives project manager.