The Cover-Up: Under Pressure, Some School Librarians Alter Illustrations to Avoid Book Challenges

Fearing book removal or losing their jobs, library professionals conceal bare butts and other exposed body parts in picture books.

Alex Willan illustration of a naked GIlbert the Goblin being chased by an ink roller
Illustration by Alex Willan

In rural Oklahoma, a copy of Zonia’s Rain Forest sits on the school librarian’s desk. Caldecott Honor and Sibert Medal–winning author and illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal’s story of a little girl in the rain forest of Peru doesn’t deal with controversial topics that have been getting books banned in record numbers these last few years.

“It’s a gorgeous book, about a little girl living in a culture most of my kids will never get to visit,” says the Oklahoma elementary school librarian who spoke with SLJ on the condition that her name not be used.

On a single page, there’s an illustration of a mother breastfeeding her baby. “I don’t have a problem with it, and I know the huge majority of people won’t have a problem. But it only takes one,” says the librarian.

“The book will probably go up on the shelf, but I’ll probably cover it, and I hate that,” she says. “But what’s worse is pulling the book from the shelf and keeping children away from it. I hate to cover the picture, but I feel like my hands are tied.”

In a written statement, Dana Belcher, president of the Oklahoma Library Association (OLA), said that her organization is unaware of any librarian altering images. Belcher added, “OLA recognizes that redacting information from a book to avoid a challenge is, in fact, censorship.”

[Also read: "Fed Up and Filing Suit for Intellectual Freedom"]

Every school librarian interviewed for this story agreed that censorship of any kind is wrong. But in states around the country, librarians are choosing between altering illustrations to keep books on shelves or risk losing those books entirely and possibly losing their jobs.

It’s easy to criticize those who choose to deface books and alter illustrations. But that’s a stance safely taken by those who don’t have a state superintendent who claims schools and libraries are choosing to “peddle porn,” like Oklahoma state superintendent Ryan Walters routinely does. Or when they don’t have to worry about their school receiving a bomb threat after a librarian posts a TikTok saying that her radical agenda is teaching kids to love books and be kind, as happened at a Tulsa, OK, elementary school.

Elsewhere in Oklahoma, a library media specialist has taken a black Sharpie to two copies of No, David! by David Shannon, drawing shorts to cover up the image of a small boy’s bum. It’s her tradeoff to keep the book available to students in the face of recent state legislation that prohibits pornographic or sexualized content in school libraries—at the risk of school districts having their accreditation downgraded.

“It’s something I’d rather not do, and I know my colleagues would rather not deal with. But it’s the reality of what we’re facing here in Oklahoma,” says the library media specialist, who also requested anonymity.

samples of doctored book illustrations
Left to right: Doctored characters from Unicorns Are the Worst! by Alex Willan; “A Bride’s Story” by Kaoru Mori; It’s Hard to Be Five by Jamie Lee Curtis, illus. by Laura Cornell; “Barefoot Gen” by Keiji Nakazawa; and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak.

Dressing Mickey

Saundra Jimmerson is in her tenth year as a library media specialist in Polk County, FL.

When she first arrived at her current school in 2016, she opened a new library with a collection created for 700 students. On the first day of school, 1,200 students showed up, so she was in no position to lose books. But as she was looking through her shelves, she came across Maurice Sendak’s classic In the Night Kitchen. She hadn’t read it before, and when she got to the scenes of naked Mickey, she knew there could be trouble.

Even before this current wave of book censorship, Jimmerson worried about what kind of reaction she might receive from parents. So, to be proactive, she asked an artist friend to draw on a pair of shorts to cover up Mickey, closely matching Sendak’s style.

A few years later when book challenges began in earnest, her decision would, unfortunately, prove prescient. First she was forced to move several titles from the elementary section to the middle school section. Then a lawsuit was filed by Citizens Defending Freedom against the Polk County School Board for allegedly allowing sexually explicit books in their classrooms.

When Jimmerson received an email from her district office telling her to check her copy of In the Night Kitchen, she sent back a photo of the clothed Mickey. There was no issue after that. “I don’t like that I did it, but it kept the book in the library,” Jimmerson says.

[Also read: "Dictionaries on the Chopping Block | Scales on Censorship"]

This wasn’t the first time Sendak’s Caldecott Medal–winning picture book was altered. Almost as soon as In the Night Kitchen was published in 1970, copies began to appear with diapers or pants on Mickey, the little boy who falls out of his clothes as he visits a magical kitchen in his dreams.

In December 1971, SLJ ran a letter from a Louisiana librarian who shared that a staff member of Caldwell Parish Library, “knowing that the patrons of the community might object to the illustrations…solved the problem by diapering the little boys with white tempera paint.”

Sendak was outraged by these visual amendments to his work. “It reduced a book I had worked on for more than three years to nothing more than sheer idiocy,” he said in a speech at the 1991 American Booksellers Convention.

At the American Library Association’s (ALA) 1972 midwinter conference, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee denounced the defacements as a violation of the Library Bill of Rights, ruling that such alterations deny “library patrons their right of access to the materials and infringes equally on the rights of authors, artists, and publishers.”

Considering the issue 52 years later in Polk County, Jimmerson doesn’t think that drawing underpants has taken away from the meaning of the story. “But it does give a child an opportunity to look at the book, because without the underpants, especially now, I would have had to take that book away.

“The rule in Florida is if you provide pornography to students, that’s a felony,” she says. “I’m worried someone is going to be made an example. These people—Citizens Defending Freedom, Moms for Liberty—they are looking for someone to be a test case for them, to see what exactly our governor is going to allow in Florida, and I don’t want it to be me.”



Copyright violation? It’s complicated.

Kansas elementary school librarian Erin Schramm is very much against the idea of tampering with illustrations. Aside from what she says are the obvious censorship issues, she’s also concerned about copyright laws.

“Altering an illustration might be a violation,” Schramm says. “That’s a case-by-case basis, but something we should always be wary of. I feel like that’s problematic.”

ALA makes clear that altering or editing any part of a library resource is censorship and violates their Library Bill of Rights. But a trickier question is whether altering images violates copyright. The organization notes that expurgation without permission may violate copyright law.

Jonathan Band, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property and who has also been ALA’s longtime council on intellectual property, says that, as with all copyright law, it’s complicated.

“Once a library buys a book, it can pretty much do what it wants with that copy of the book, other than reproducing it,” Band says, citing the protection of the “first sale” doctrine, which is what allows libraries to lend book books without legal permission in the first place. “In theory, if a library wants to black out some images, it could do that.”

For many school librarians, the laws they are concerned with aren’t theoretical.

“I used to be adamantly against doing this, but given the current political climate, I felt I had to do something to protect myself,” says an Arizona high school librarian who began altering illustrations in her graphic novels collection.

“I’m sure what I’ve done is shocking to some librarians,” adds the educator, who asked not to be named. “But I work in a state where libraries have become a target for some lawmakers and parents. So I think I did what I needed to do to help protect myself while also keep[ing] books on the shelf.”

Schramm feels for librarians in states and districts being bombarded with book challenges. But she personally would rather not purchase a book than have an altered copy in her collection.

“It reinforces the idea that there are offensive things that need to be covered up, even in books that are professionally reviewed as being appropriate. That’s putting someone else’s ideas of appropriateness above free speech rights,” Schramm says.

She thinks this current battle over books will eventually fade. “But right now it’s really tricky, and for some people who could lose their jobs, it’s very difficult and very tenuous.”


About that goblin’s butt

In Indian River County, FL, the battle over books shows no signs of slowing. Most recently, controversy ensued over a goblin’s butt.

While that might sound ridiculous, Indian River County is home to Vero Beach, and Vero Beach is home to Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty. The local chapter, led by president Jennifer Pippin, has been active in challenging hundreds of books for perceived sexual content.

In November 2023, Pippin challenged the picture book Unicorns Are the Worst! over an illustration of protagonist Gilbert the Goblin’s bare backside. But Pippin was willing to allow the book to stay on the shelf under one condition: cover up the nudity.

Today, every copy of Unicorns in the district features a goblin with drawn-on black shorts.

“My first reaction was, ‘seriously?’” Unicorns author and illustrator Alex Willan told SLJ in an email. “First, I think it’s important to note that there’s nothing inherently sexual or pornographic about nudity. Second, and perhaps more importantly, goblins are not real. Lastly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, butts are funny.”

Adds Willan, “Making kids laugh is my number one goal with all of my books, because I believe that humor can help even the most reluctant readers realize that books can be a source of joy.”

But new laws in Florida have turned this kind of visual humor into something far more serious. “A lot of people are afraid,” says an Indian River County elementary school librarian, who also asked that her name not be used. “For me, I don’t necessarily agree with doing all this, but at the same time, I want my kids to have fun books to read.”

Florida’s House Bill 1069, which was signed into law last summer, states that “school districts must remove any material subject to an objection on the basis of pornography or depiction or description of sexual conduct within five school days following the objection and such materials must remain unavailable to students of that school until the objection is resolved.”

Not only does the law restrict the content allowed in school libraries, but it also holds librarians who violate the restrictions liable to third-degree felony charges, which can include fines and possible prison time. As one Indian River County middle school librarian puts it, “I don’t want to lose my retirement over a goblin’s butt. We’re caught in between, and that’s what gets so frustrating and disgusting. Where is the sanity?”

In a written statement to SLJ, Indian River County district says, “We adhere to Florida state law and statute while taking every step possible to maximize student access to literature.”

“It puts the district in a tough position, because [district officials] don’t want to be known as the place where Tiffany Justice got her start,” says the Indian River County elementary school librarian. “They are trying to protect us against these new laws and not getting ourselves into trouble.”

Where does it end?

In addition to Unicorns, Pippin also challenged No, David!, because of the drawing of the backside of a little boy running out of his house naked. Shannon says his book has already been banned in other places, “so this was just more absurdity on top of ridiculousness.

“We’re talking about a funny, child-like drawing that’s about as innocent as you can get,” Shannon said in an email to SLJ. “That picture of David running down the street naked is by far the kids’ favorite—they think it’s hilarious! And there are tons of moms who’ll tell you their kid did the same thing.”

Joe Bertelloni, a library media specialist in Rutland, VT, knows some of those kids.

“The number of kids I have who remind me of David from those books—who would run out of their house with no clothes on—they need to see themselves in a book to know they aren’t alone,” Bertelloni says. “These authors and illustrators use comedy as a coping mechanism for kids, and it’s terrible that groups of people are saying these kids aren’t allowed to see themselves in these books.”

The Indian River County middle school librarian used the book as a teaching tool with elementary students.

“As a kindergarten teacher, I used No, David! my entire career as a springboard at the beginning of the school year to talk about rules and how things David does aren’t right,” she says. “You get to that part with his bare butt and the kids would literally laugh their heads off. It made it fun, and they got so intrigued by the story.”

Shannon sympathizes with librarians and their feeling that “an altered book is better than no book at all.” But he worries about what comes next with this sort of “piecemeal censorship.”

“Next time are they going to take that Sharpie to David’s pointy teeth—round them off a bit? Or change No!to Please reconsider your actions, David? Pretty soon it’s not the book I made at all. It’s also not the book that the majority of parents, educators, and kids want to read,” Shannon says.

Willan shares those concerns.

“I do worry about the practice of altering books in this way,” he says. “Do we tear out pages or cover up text that a small but loud group of people find offensive? Do we let them decide what everyone else’s kids get to read? I think that librarians need the help and support of their communities to push back against this type of censorship.”

Andrew Bauld is a freelance writer covering education.


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