One library’s cautionary tale

The Moon Township library in December 2021 received pushback after posting a photo of the children's book "The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish." Librarians had to disconnect phone lines and temporarily close the library. The book has been flying off the shelves and is always on reserve. (Post-Gazette)

After the posting of a children’s drag queen book on Facebook, librarians in Moon faced a barrage of angry calls and violent threats.

The Moon Township librarians rushed around the normally quiet library one December day locking the doors hours before closing. The phones relentlessly rang off the hook as callers on the other end threatened violence and called the librarians groomers and pedophiles. Eventually, the phones were disconnected.

It was less than 24 hours after the children’s book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” a play on the nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus,” had been posted on the children’s department Facebook page.

The calls started coming in soon after the post. Besides the disturbing comments, some named the librarians’ children. Others said they were sending Kyle Rittenhouse to the library. He was acquitted of all charges after he fatally shot two people during a 2020 protest in Wisconsin.

The barrage led librarians to call Moon police who documented the incident in the event the situation escalated. Officers returned the next day to supervise an already scheduled library fundraising event in case picketers showed up.

“It did not stop,” library board President Kathleen Madonna Emmerling said. Many of the phone calls appeared to be from outside Pennsylvania. “The librarians were being doxed on their personal accounts with their addresses, with the names of their children and they were very unsettled … They were really scared.”

The children’s books “My Papa is a Princess,” and “And Tango makes Three” have drawn controversy. The first is about a small girl describing her father, a hairdresser. The second is about a penguin whose two parents are male. (Post-Gazette)

That December 2021 social media post, which has since been removed, has caused repercussions for most of the past year – and not just from irate callers and emailers. Township supervisors have been regularly questioning the content of materials at the library.

Several township supervisors did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.

But Ms. Emmerling believes the political ramifications have led to static township funding despite pleas from library staff for more money, along with signals from the elected officials that there will be little to no movement on finding a new building “until what they perceived to be the culture of the library and board are reflected to be the values of our township.”

Challenges to books aren’t new, but over the past few years the number of objections being brought against public libraries has surged across the country, throwing libraries such as Moon into the political spotlight as parents and community members hone in intensely on books that include mentions of sexual orientation, gender identity and race.

While Moon has been “one of the more extreme situations,” there were at least five challenges at public libraries across Allegheny County last year, Amy Anderson, CEO of the Allegheny County Library Association, said. “Others have just been smaller complaints or smaller issues brought before the library,” she said. “It’s varying in levels but it’s definitely out there.” No challenges have been reported to the organization so far this year.

These local challenges largely mirror national trends. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2022 more than 1,650 individual books were challenged, the American Library Association found. That’s a spike from 2021 when almost 1,560 books were challenged the entire year.

“It’s a hot button issue right now,” Moon library board member Sam McCrimmon said. “I think what’s playing out in Moon is a microcosm of what’s playing out around the country.”

Book bans

''A Girl's Bill of Rights'' is another children's book that some people have had issues with, Moon library officials said. (Post-Gazette)

Book bans and challenges nationally have largely taken place in school libraries, a trend that gained attention a year ago when a Tennessee school board voted to ban “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, for what they said was inappropriate content for students.

Since then, state lawmakers around the country, including some in Pennsylvania, have increasingly looked into legislation that would determine which books are appropriate for school libraries, with a focus on content that they believe is “sexually explicit.”

Pennsylvania school districts have also fielded complaints. In Hempfield Area in Westmoreland County, parents questioned two books, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “The Black Friend: On Being A Better White Person” by Frederick Joseph.


Norwin School directors next month will consider replacing the resource material “Al Capone Does My Shirts” by Gennifer Choldenko, which is read by fifth graders. Some board members were concerned over what they deemed sexual innuendos, references to rapists who are in the prison and the use of an outdated word when describing a person with special needs.

Central Bucks over the summer approved a policy targeting “sexualized content” in school libraries. The policy was deemed by library experts as one of the most restrictive in the state, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But increasingly, bills from places such as North Dakota are targeting public libraries. Local decisions are also leading to fallout at individual libraries including one in Michigan that could close after voters rejected its funding when library staff refused to remove LGBTQ books.

Gayle Rogers, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s English department, said challenges largely stem from people thinking libraries are overstepping with provided materials. He suggested that public libraries have not only recently bolstered their children’s sections, but also made efforts in the past few years to increase the diversity of materials in those departments. That has, in turn, led to deepening criticism of public libraries, he said.

“I think that’s also just intensified the focus on what their holdings are and – for the same reasons that school libraries get that focus on them – whether the materials they’re holding meet community standards for what should be in a public libraries kid’s section,” Mr. Rogers said.

Moon challenges


The Moon Township Public Library was founded in 1981 after an almost two-year push from community members for improved library services. The library today sits on the other side of the Parkway from the old Pittsburgh airport. It serves the suburban community that is home to Robert Morris University and sprawling neighborhoods where nearly 25% of the township’s almost 27,000 residents are between the ages of 20 and 40.

The library, which last year lent more than 99,500 materials, is filled with thousands of novels. Its robust children’s section brims with brightly colored decorations and stuffed animals like the pigeon from the book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”

More than 5,700 children’s books are available to borrowers at the library. Of those, 33 feature LGBTQ characters.

Lil Miss Hot Mess is an American drag queen and one of the first drag queens to participate in the Drag Queen Story Hour events aimed at children ages 3 to 11. Her alter ego is an assistant professor at the Institute for LGBTQ+ Studies, University of Arizona. (Wikimedia Commons)

The goal, Ms. Emmerling said, is to have a selection that represents everybody in the community.

The pushback to “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” by Lil Miss Hot Mess – who serves on the board of the national nonprofit Drag Queen Story Hour – led to several tense discussions between library board members and township supervisors. While the library is not a township department, supervisors provide about one-third of the facility’s funding and are charged with making final appointments to the library board. This year, projected revenues from the township total $212,800, budget documents show.

So far, those conversations have focused on whether the book was displayed in the library; but Ms. Emmerling noted that the book, which is still available, never was “because it is always on hold and checked out.” The post on social media was part of the library’s Picture Book of the Day series, which features every picture book that comes through the facility.

During a November meeting, supervisors continued questioning library materials. While the drag queen book did not come up, supervisors asked about a Disability Pride Month display in July. Because the display had the word "pride” in it, some people thought it was tied to the LGBTQ-focused Pride Month, which is celebrated in June. Supervisors challenged a second drag queen book, “If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It,” also by Lil Miss Hot Mess. The book is a play on the song “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

At that meeting, Supervisor Allan Bross said the board does not want to ban books, but said he feels the library board is not applying “common sense” to the community, according to meeting minutes.

Library Director Heather Panella responded that she follows ethical standards laid out by the American Library Association and the Pennsylvania Library Association. Ms. Panella, who declined to comment for this story, said during the meeting that she is required not to discriminate against a specific set of materials.

“Treating them different is censorship and we cannot do it,” Ms. Emmerling said.

Ms. Anderson, with the Allegheny County Library Association, said books are chosen based on a library’s collection development policy, meaning “it’s not just blindly buying whatever the librarian wants.”

According to Moon library’s bill of rights, books and library resources should be provided for the interest, information and enlightenment of all people in the community. Materials should not be excluded because of background or views. Additionally, libraries should provide materials presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Libraries should also challenge censorship.

It’s a set of guidelines that was written by the American Library Association and is used by other area libraries, including the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

To meet those standards, the Mt. Lebanon library states they will “intentionally develop collections that recognize, reflect, and value the diverse experiences and multiple identities within our community,” according to their collection development policy.

Oversight and funding


In Moon, librarians and the director are charged with upholding those principles.

The library director – who is hired by the board – also chooses which books are included in the facility’s collection. The library board is not involved in that process.

Still, supervisors have made several changes to the library board’s membership over the past few years.

In all, four people appointed to the seven-person board have not been endorsed by library board members but were chosen by supervisors. Typically, library board members will interview candidates and send their recommendations to supervisors. The supervisors hold a final vote on appointees.

“I just think that [the supervisors] felt they wanted to have a little bit more inside control of the board itself,” said Ted Dengel, a former board member who was not reappointed last January, a month after the drag queen book was posted on Facebook.

It was not clear if the appointments were connected to the controversy over the book.

Mr. McCrimmon said he believes that supervisors have “been involved to the degree they want to” in the selection of library board members.

“Are they perhaps concerned with what happens if the board of trustees and the library keeps pushing for the inclusion of books that are in the ALA recommendations? Yeah, that may be but that’s an individual supervisor point,” Mr. McCrimmon said. “I wouldn’t collectively attribute that to all the supervisors.”

Moon library board member Kathleen Madonna-Emmerling believes the political fallout from the “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” book has led to static township funding despite library staff pleas for more money. (Post-Gazette)

Additionally, library officials are seeking a 20% increase in township funding to help them stay afloat, Ms. Emmerling said. Without it, officials have said during public meetings, they will need to reallocate funds used for various things like book collections, programming and staff.

They also need additional funding to help find a new location for the library. The facility is currently in a building owned by the Moon Township Municipal Authority. The building is also home to the Moon tax office and other government entities. As things currently stand, the library has a 10 year lease with the authority. They are about halfway through the rental agreement.

Library officials have considered renewing their lease, buying a new facility to house the library or building new. Additional space is needed as the library continues to grow – with more than 50,000 visits to the facility last year – and upgrades to furniture and bookshelves are necessary. Officials are also hopeful the library could be used for community events.

With the library growing, Moon library staff have considered renewing their lease at the municipal building, buying a new facility or building a new library.

For Ms. Emmerling the question remains: How does the library board have a functional work relationship that grasps the mandates of a public library while satisfying the township supervisors who control important purse strings?

“What is the future, what kind of town do we want to have,” Ms. Emmerling said. “Do we want to have a welcoming town with a vibrant public space or do we want to say that we want to be enforcing a town culture? This seems to be an impasse.”


Author interview

As book bans and challenges continue to rise across the country at unprecedented rates, Pittsburgh-area libraries are seemingly the latest target.

Lil Miss Hot Mess, an Arizona-based drag queen, reads her book "The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish" during an event at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson. (Tammy Orr Wyant)

At Moon Township Public Library, a barrage of comments and threats hit the library in December 2021 after librarians highlighted the children’s book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” by Lil Miss Hot Mess, an Arizona-based drag queen.

It was one of at least five challenges at public libraries across Allegheny County in recent months.

Lil Miss Hot Mess – who serves on the board of Drag Queen Story Hour, which has been at the center of protests across the country – sat down for a phone interview with the Post-Gazette to discuss the current political climate around children’s books and challenges facing “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish.”

Question: What was your inspiration behind writing “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish”?

Answer: The inspiration really came out of doing drag story hours and trying to find new ways to engage children to not just passively listen to books but to really actively join in. It actually started as a song I would sing with kids. I came up with it pretty quickly, like literally on the subway on my way to a reading one day. I was just sort of thinking about how drag often uses parody and satire to draw on elements of pop culture and give them a little bit of a queer twist and I kind of thought that was something aesthetically kids could appreciate and learn from if I did that with children’s music or children’s songs. It kind of all just came to me very quickly. It was fun to think about the ways such a popular children’s song like “Wheels on the Bus” could be rewritten to be about drag queens.

Q: Have you received any pushback to the book?

A: I have. I haven’t done the best job of tracking it but I do know unfortunately it has been challenged in a number of places and appeared on a number of lists. I don’t know if it’s been actually pulled off of shelves or fully banned but I do know that it has received challenges.

Q: Were you surprised the book received pushback?

A: I can’t say I’m surprised just given the political climate and all the attacks we’ve faced with Drag Queen Story Hour. I’d say I’m disappointed. On a basic level I don’t think we should be banning books for any reason. I think it goes against the values of free speech and free expression in our country. And I think that they’re fun. I think they invite kids to take risks and to potentially explore different ways of kind of showing up in the world. It’s a shame that people want to take that away from children.

Q: What was the inspiration for starting Drag Queen Story Hour?

A: I didn’t start them, I just kind of got in at a good time. But they were started in San Francisco in 2015 by an organization called Radar Productions. I think in some ways it was such a wild idea whose time had come. I think that the inspiration was really about seeing the affinities between drag in so much of children’s education programming. I think that drag, it is about LGBT culture and it is about playing with gender norms and other kinds of assumptions or expectations in culture but it is kind of fundamentally about play. It’s about dressing up, it’s about making yourself over and then in doing so imagining how the world could be a more sparkly and fabulous place. So I think that’s something that kids really are primed for and can kind of easily understand and can kind of quickly join in those playful celebrations.

Q: Tell me about the pushback those story hours have received.

A: We’ve received pushback since almost the very beginning of doing story hours including in some of the bigger more seemingly liberal cities as well as smaller towns. It really intensified in the last year. I would say even since spring of 2022 when we started seeing really kind of violent threats and protests with white nationalist militia groups like the Proud Boys. And then also kind of building off of that seeing a lot of conservative politicians starting to introduce legislation at the state level but also at the federal level to try to criminalize drag performances and children's attendance at drag performances and to classify drag as an adult form of entertainment and restrict where it can take place and things like that. I think at the end of the day it’s fundamentally unAmerican to try to restrict our creative expression and I also just think it’s sad. I mean drag is all about play, imagination and spreading a sense of joy and love and belonging. Drag tends to be a pretty awesome artform. We’re all about building community and having a good laugh together so it’s always kind of sad to me that people want to try to shut down the party.

Q: Why is it important that children have access to the books and story hours?

A: I think it’s important that kids see the world they live in reflected back to them. LGBT people are in every community whether we’re in drag or not, whether we’re at the library or not and kids deserve to learn about our contributions to our communities, our cultures. I think it’s fun. I think it helps kids learn to express themselves, to stand up for what they believe in and to make the world a little more fabulous.

— Megan Tomasic