Amid a nationwide campaign to dehumanize trans people, the Wake County Public Libraries have added Johnny the Walrus to their collection, a transphobic picture book that compares being transgender to pretending to be a walrus.
Johnny the Walrus, published in November 2021, was written by Matt Walsh, a conservative columnist for The Daily Wire and anti-trans activist. In a podcast last year, Walsh compared gender-affirming medical care for trans youth to “molestation and rape.”
Walsh went on to attack doctors who provide such care, calling them “Nazi-scientist evil” and “pedophiles.” Walsh characterizes transgenderism as a mental illness and has accused liberals of indoctrinating children. In fact, America’s leading medical researchers, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association, support gender-affirming care, saying it yields long-term mental health benefits.
Although Walsh’s extreme and unfounded views have resulted in protests and cancellations of speaking engagements, Johnny the Walrus quickly became a best-seller on Amazon. Within a day, it hit number one on the website’s “Movers and Shakers” list, which documents biggest sales gains in 24 hours.
In the first seven months following publication, Amazon sold nearly 100,000 copies of the book, in which Johnny, a boy, is forced to “transition” into a walrus under pressure from “internet people.” In the book, Johnny’s mom is persuaded to feed him worms after bringing him to a doctor, who also suggests cutting off his hands and feet with a saw and turning them into fins.
“On the one hand, it is horrifying,” says Rowan Dalzell, a part-time library assistant who is also transgender. “It lies, it deliberately misunderstands, it misleads. Reading as a trans person and realizing that many, many people think about us like that was gut-wrenching.”
“On the other hand, I don’t want to make it out to be more than it is, which is the broadest, stupidest, most bad-faith parody imaginable,” Dalzell continues. “The book itself is pretty meaningless: what’s upsetting is what it represents.”
Dalzell is angry about the book, given that it contains disinformation and “could definitely hurt people,” they say. But what they find more upsetting are the actions of senior staff at the Wake County Public Libraries.
“What concerns me is that senior managers at WCPL are once again fanning the flames of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred, intentionally or not,” Dalzell says. “I truly don’t know if it is intentional, but also it doesn’t matter. If someone walks up to you every Monday and accidentally drops a cinder block on your foot, it doesn’t matter if they meant to: you still have broken toes.”
A new policy
The Wake County library system purchased 20 copies of Johnny the Walrus in July after receiving two requests for the book from library patrons, according to county spokeswoman Alice Avery. The library received the book in late September.
In mid-October, emails started circulating among staff raising some concerns about the book, namely that it was profoundly anti-LGBTQ+. Several staffers responded, including Leesville Community Library manager Kate Taylor, who recently led the development of the library system’s new book selection and removal policy.
The policy, which took effect in March, was developed after a controversy over the abrupt removal of LGBTQ+ graphic novel Gender Queer from library shelves. Senior staff at Wake County Public Libraries—namely senior collections manager Theresa Lynch and deputy library director Ann Burlingame—faced inquiries earlier this year after they decided to remove the book without the input of staff in the collection department or the library system’s board of directors.
The incident prompted administrators to review their book selection and removal policies, and they eventually developed a comprehensive new policy. In an October 17 email to a concerned librarian, Taylor writes that although she disagrees with the “sentiments” Johnny the Walrus expresses, and “it is not a book that I personally would read to my children,” she believes it fits the library system’s new selection criteria.
“It presents an ‘alternative point of view’ to the more mainstream one that we present elsewhere in the board book collection; it is a newer title; and there have been materials requests for this book,” Taylor writes. “It is very uncomfortable to be in the position of defending a book’s inclusion in the collection when its content goes against my values—but here we are, and it’s the price of the freedom to read.”
Taylor cites the parts of the policy which state the library system purchases titles that “may contain controversial, unorthodox, or even unpopular ideas” and that the “location and display of materials will not be influenced by the possibility that materials might inadvertently come into the possession of minors.”
“While I don’t like this book, I believe [Collection Development Services] made this purchase in alignment with WCPL’s selection criteria and with careful consideration of a) the potential blowback for including it, b) the potential blowback for not including it, and c) the possible (very public, as we saw earlier this year with Genderqueer [sic]) ramifications of both decisions,” writes Taylor.
It’s worth noting that while senior staff seem to have followed best practice in purchasing Johnny the Walrus, it is much less in demand than books like Our Skin and Antiracist Baby. Where Johnny the Walrus is stocked at 142 libraries nationwide, the other two are stocked at more than 1,000.
Johnny the Walrus may be challenged by library staff or patrons, but it’s unlikely to be removed from the library, based on Wake County’s new policy and general guidelines from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Per the library’s new book removal policies, challenged books are reviewed by a panel of professionals, and decisions are made based on the First Amendment, which generally protects all speech, with a few strict exceptions. Dalzell has said the book contains misinformation, but it’s unclear if that would serve as grounds for removing it from the library.
Dalzell is more concerned by what this means for library staff. During the controversy over Gender Queer, librarians alleged Lynch and Burlingame created a “vindictive” work environment, retaliating against staff who expressed concerns about the library collection, criticized decisions made by upper management, or talked to the media.
Burlingame refuted these claims in a statement earlier this year, writing that retaliating against employees is inconsistent with her and Lynch’s management style. Burlingame added that decisions about promotion and advancement are based on the input of many employees at different levels, and that the library has safeguards in place to ensure no one person can “impair advancement in the library.” The INDY asked for additional comment this week; Burlingame and Lynch did not respond by our deadline.
Following the controversy over Gender Queer, some librarians were hopeful that the work environment at the library would change. But the library’s recent response to concerns raised over Johnny the Walrus has discouraged many.
“I had a lot of cautious hope coming out of that whole debacle, but time has made clear that was foolish,” Dalzell says. “No one was removed, the power structure and players all remained exactly the same, and so here we are again.”
Dalzell is frustrated by the way senior staff are talking about this book, refusing to acknowledge the message it sends to the public and to trans staff, they say.
On October 28, Lynch sent an email to all library staff about the recent concerns raised about Johnny the Walrus, explaining why the library purchased the book, how the purchase follows the new policy, and how staff might file a request for the book to be removed. Her points mostly align with Taylor’s, noting that the library received requests for the book and their new policy defends the purchase of “controversial” titles.
Ironically, Lynch used the library’s new selection policy to defend the purchase of Johnny the Walrus as a board book when, just months ago, she and Burlingame used the library’s lack of a formal policy to defend the decision to remove Our Skin and Antiracist Baby. Their argument (which seems not to apply here) is that books with social or political commentary did not belong in the board book section of the library, where they could be accessed by children or toddlers.
Also concerning is that Lynch did not name the book or its author in the email, nor did she address the larger controversy around LGBTQ+ books in public libraries.
“[Lynch’s October] email completely ignores the national campaign to remove LGBTQ+ and especially trans people from public life,” Dalzell says. “It doesn’t address things like Proud Boys attacking a storytime in Wilmington or libraries completely shutting down because they wouldn’t censor their collection …. Finally, Theresa’s email ignores trans employees in WCPL. I have no idea how many of us there are, but I know I’m not the only one.”
Librarian Daniel Sumerlin is also worried about what Lynch’s email means for the way senior staff communicate with librarians. Following the allegations of a hostile work environment, senior administrators (including Burlingame, library director Michael Wasilick, and community services director Frank Cope) pledged to increase transparency in communications between librarians and senior staff.
Lynch’s email casts doubt on the library’s commitment to that transparency, Sumerlin wrote in an email sent to Wasilick, obtained through a public records request. Since the removal of Gender Queer, “work has been done to build a better relationship between senior management and staff, but mistrust lingers,” he wrote.
“Furthermore, not identifying the book means not acknowledging why it would become a point of controversy …. Johnny the Walrus is a book written to mock the legitimacy of trans people’s very existence. It exists in the context of a movement to demonize and attack trans people, to deny them equal rights up to and including that of physical safety,” Sumerlin writes.
“It is possible to acknowledge this while also explaining and defending the process by which the book was purchased and will be reviewed for reconsideration; failure to do the former has exacerbated doubt in the [senior library manager] team’s commitment to protecting and supporting their trans employees.”
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