Kristen Nemoto Jay
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Once a month for a year now, members of the Muskego Community Book Club have gathered at the Muskego Public Library, located in Muskego, Wisconsin — a suburb district that’s located 15 miles southwest of Milwaukee — to discuss the month’s book of choice. Founding members Ann Zielke, Kellie Nimphius and Emily Sorensen started the book club in August last year after their local district school board officials decided not to move forward in allowing Julie Otsuka’s book “When the Emperor Was Divine” — a novel about Japanese American incarceration — to be included in the school’s upcoming school year Accelerated English grade 10 class curriculum. Apparent disparaging comments from nearly all of the school board members regarding their reasoning for not approving the book, including that the novel focused too much on the Japanese American experience, led the Muskego community to rally together a 300-plus signed petition, demanding the school board declare more transparency as to their reasoning for not moving forward with approving the book to be taught. The debate caught nationwide media attention, especially when an influx of attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries across the country continued to surge in 2022 with 1,269 challenges compiled by the American Library Association (ALA) – nearly double the total from 2021, the highest record its been since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.
It’s been over a year since Google searches of Muskego were bombarded by news story headlines such as “Wis. School board members dismissed book about Japanese American incarceration” or “Wisconsinites rally around book rejected by Muskego board” yet Zielke and many others still remember it as a learning opportunity for community members to get involved; to stand up when history, especially about those who’ve been marginalized, needs to be told in order to benefit the next generation.
“It was rough and brutal but I think we turned it into something that’s nice and beautiful since then,” said Zielke, who’s a local parent in the district, in a Zoom interview with The Hawai‘i Herald from her home in Muskego. “When the Emperor Was Divine” was the first book that Zielke and other members of the Muskego Community Book Club read and then continued on with “banned books” that have been known to be controversial for many libraries across the country. “We read a whole gamut of things now but Julie’s was our first.”
Zielke was there during the start of “dicey” happenings within her local school board district when it came time to deciding books that would be taught within the local school district’s Accelerated English grade 10 classrooms..
“I just have a tendency to pay attention,” said Zielke, who especially kept close attention on the school board members who ran and won their campaign based on promoting “anti-critical race theory” in schools. According to Zielke, it all started when the school board brought back the “defunct” educational services committee in November 2021 for the first time since 2015. The role of the committee, said Zielke, was because the board wanted the public to see “how the sausage is made.” In this case, it was so that the public could learn how the curriculum of the local school district was being decided upon. The lack of transparency, when it came down to highlighting books that showed diverse content and authors, however, caused many community members, especially Zielke, to pause and question the Muskego-Norway School Board District’s intentions.
Therefore on Monday, April 11, 2022, when Zielke attended the Muskego-Norway school district board educational services committee (ESC) meeting, Otsuka’s book – along with another book entitled “Human Geography Textbook” – was then mentioned by the members that the committee needs more time to review the materials. This was the first date that Zielke and others in attendance were made aware that there might be an issue with one of the titles of books approved by the curriculum planning committee (CPC), which consisted of faculty and staff members, an instructional coach, administrator, a librarian, the department director, and followed by a larger discussion before presenting the picks to the school board members. After the meeting was adjourned and prior to the next meeting of the ESC, Zielke reached out to board members by phone on Monday, May 16, to ask why they needed more time and what was the issue with needing to review the book choices. According to Zielke, in her phone conversation with then ESC member and now current Muskego-Norway School Board District president Terri Boyer, Boyer told Zielke that the same class that would read “When the Emperor Was Divine” will also read a short excerpt from a nonfiction book about Japanese incarceration (“Farewell to Manzanar”) and will therefore create an “unbalanced” account of history to have two texts in the same class from the perspective of Japanese incarcerated during World War II. She said that the students need the “American perspective.”
When Zielke pressed Boyer on what she meant by “American perspective” and that the majority of those incarcerated during World War II who were of Japanese descent were Americans, Zielke said Boyer told her that the students need to understand the perspective of the American government.
“I told her the other side is racism, and we got into a deep yelling match at that point,” said Zielke. “I told her that the American government has since apologized, including a formal apology from former President Ronald Reagan.”
Zielke then told Boyer that if “the point of all of this was to not discuss racism, then talking about the reasons of the American government for incarcerating Japanese Americans was not the way to go about the issue.”
When Zielke also questioned Boyer if she thinks Asian students deserve to see themselves in the curriculum, Boyer responded that “they can go to the library and check out any books they want” but that books for the curriculum cannot be chosen because they would make the curriculum more diverse.
Zielke then called Chris Buckmaster, the then- school board president by phone after her conversation with Boyer and received the same concluding remarks as to why the board members were leaning towards removing Otsuka’s book from the curriculum entirely.
According to Zielke’s conversation with Buckmaster, he said “oppression, oppression, oppression, we get it” and reiterated the “imbalance” in perspective about Japanese incarceration because an excerpt from “Farewell to Manzanar” was in the same course. When Zielke pressed what type of balance he was seeking, Buckmaster said that the class should learn about the “rape of Nanjing in order to understand the historical context of the viewpoint of the American government.”
“I was in shock at first,” said Zielke, in her initial reaction to Buckmaster and Boyer’s response to her. “I naïvely thought I could fix this. That they don’t understand and perhaps I can help them understand what Japanese incarceration was about.”
As a former librarian, with a master’s degree in library science and history, Zielke knew where to outsource the documents and research in hopes to find material to further inform the “uninformed” school board members. She then spent weeks thereafter conducting primary document research and its ties between equity, diversity, curriculum, and how “we can help build empathy for our students and the positive things that are tied to students being able to see themselves in the curriculum.”
“It’s also that mirror-window complex,” continued Zielke. “That a student can see into someone else’s experience and then students of color can see their own experience. It’s being able to find that common ground and to create more empathy in general is what makes that special, to connect with someone who is different than yourself.”
However, after Zielke sent the materials to the ESC and the school board members, she did not receive a response back.
Then on Monday, June 13, 2022, the ESC met again, along with all of the Muskego-Norway school board members, for 15 minutes, which included time for the public to attend and comment.
“That was a real treat,” said Zielke as it was made clear to her, and the other 10-12 parents in attendance who supported Otsuka’s book, that the ESC and school board members did not care to provide time for public discussion. The ESC – which was updated and announced that evening to consist of school board members Terri Boyer, Tracy Blair and Laurie Kontney – concluded that the book “Human Geography Textbook” was moved on to the board without comment but that “When the Emperor Was Divine” was moved back to the CPC without explanation.
“There were about 10 of us screaming questions at that point because the board members just wanted to leave,” said Zielke. “We started just asking ‘Why?’ or ‘What’s your reasoning?’ for Otsuka’s book not to be pushed through.”
Blair then responded that she “didn’t like” the book and that after she Googled it, the book “didn’t have great reviews.”
Zielke said back that this “isn’t a book club” and that she and other parents don’t care if she liked the book or not, the book was chosen for its value and content for the grade 10 Accelerated English curriculum.
A parent then pointed out whether the ESC and school board members were “OK with students not being adequately prepared for higher-level English class” because at the last meeting they were a part of, the parent heard directly from one of the CPC members that the students were not prepared for higher-level English classes, that they were not learning enough with the current book they were reading “Taming of the Shrew,” which is why “When the Emperor Was Divine” was chosen to replace the book.
An alumnus then spoke and asked if there are parts within the book that doesn’t meet the criteria that’s needed, then to explain that criteria. The ESC and school board members could not.
Though the meeting concluded with questions from the concerned unanswered, Zielke had organized a petition already signed from community members and had given it to the ESC and school board members that day. A letter from the Japanese American Citizen League and Knopf publishing (Otsuka’s publisher) – whom were also contacted by Zielke and informed of the pushback – was also sent to the board in support of Otsuka’s book being used in the curriculum.
When the school board was scheduled to meet again on Monday, July 18, 2022, and a request was made by Zielke for an open public forum, her request was denied. Kabby Hong, an English teacher in the Madison area and Wisconsin’s 2022 Teacher of the Year and first Asian American to represent the state in the national teacher of the year program, was also denied a chance to speak.
Zielke and other community members therefore organized a “teach-in” session outside of Muskego High School where the school board members held their meeting. Local and national media outlets were in attendance for the teach-in session, which included talks from Muskego residents, former alumni students, Zielke, Hong, State Rep. Francesca Hong and Ron Kuramoto – president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League whose family was incarcerated during WWII. They all shared demands for the board to approve the book, trust the CPC and the expertise from the teachers recommending the book’s content, and to recommit to the district’s social justice plan, which includes “exploring ways to embed inclusion, equity and social justice into the curriculum review cycle … understanding the history of marginalization and the positive impact we can have on a daily basis when we use an equity focused mindset that addresses disparities.”
The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of Wisconsin handed out 100 free copies of Otsuka’s novel and Zielke announced the start of the first book club meeting to be held the following month for those who’d like to read the book.
“Ann is remarkable and a force of nature,” said Hong in a Zoom interview with The Hawai‘i Herald from his home in Wisconsin. After Hong learned about the Muskego school board controversy through Rep. Hong’s Twitter account, showing a news article about the removal of Otsuka’s book from the district’s curriculum, he contacted Zielke through Facebook and have kept in touch since then. “I was so upset because it was deeply triggering for me and so many Asian Americans being told that you need to be invisible and that you’re taking too much space.”
After the teach-in event, Kevin Zimmermann, one of the school board members, sent a statement by email that the book was not “rejected” but needed to be reconsidered without an objective to “pick a book from a non-white author,” which he claimed the CPC had been told to do. The claim, which was told to Zielke prior as one of the reasons for the ESC and the school board’s decision to send it back for review, was never substantiated and according to a conversation between Zielke and Buckmaster in a previous conversation, Buckmaster investigated the claim and found no proof that ever happened.
In a recent email sent to Zimmermann from The Hawai‘i Herald for further comment, Zimmermann reiterated the school board’s stance on that claim and that “selection of instructional materials shall not discriminate on the basis of any characteristics protected under state or federal law … this book issue has nothing to do with what the book is about or who the author is. It has everything to do with the policy not being followed.”
“I have never had a kid tell me that they were offended by the diversity in our book selection or our lessons,” said Hong, who has been a teacher for 22 years, in response to Zimmermann’s statement. “The problem isn’t with the kids. The problem is actually with the adults who are trying to erase the identity of so many people.”
The Muskego issue, said Hong, is the concept of going back to a time when marginalized people were invisible, when people were comfortable.
“I think the mere presence of a person of color and their story represented in a textbook or lesson can be deeply terrifying, unfortunately, for some people,” continued Hong. “I think that in the last few years, we actually need to build more empathy and not less empathy. And the only way you build empathy with people is if they can see themselves in a story of someone who might be different from them. That’s why books are so powerful and that’s why books are so controversial because people understand the power of a book. For many people, though, the erasure of people of color and marginalized groups is absolutely and part of their intent.”
When asked for his response about the ESC and school board denying Otsuka’s book to be used in the school’s curriculum on the basis that it was too “one-sided,” Hong continued to say that the book was “overridden by a school board who is truly ignorant of our nation’s history” and that they are basing their reasons “not on any valid educational reasons, but on their own bias and their own lack of knowledge about basic American history.”
Kuramoto, in a Zoom interview with The Hawai‘i Herald, agrees that the ESC and school board “unfortunately represents” the viewpoint of many throughout the United States when it comes to who looks American and who is allowed to tell their story from their own experience.
“I think it’s a sense of belonging … Who belongs here and who doesn’t,” said Kuramoto. “It may come down to something as simple as that. That you don’t look like you belong here. And it just starts then taking on all sorts of permutations through a variety of things.”
Kuramoto was especially disturbed by the fact that Buckmaster believed in order to show a “balanced” narrative of why the Japanese were incarcerated was that the students needed to learn about the “rape of Nanjing.” Though he said that it is important history to learn in general, Kuramoto was shocked to learn that the school board’s president was comparing extreme nationalists to the American experience.
“I mean, what does that have to do with the Japanese American experience?” asked Kuramoto. “It just shows how he and the other board members view Japanese Americans. That we’re not American.”
In response to the school board’s push on the agenda against “critical race theory” and that providing context from diverse authors would create a reverse discrimination to occur, Kuramoto would like the school board to explain what they mean specifically by being against critical race theory.
“I’m opposed to teaching a lot of critical race theory like Nazism, apartheid, Jim Crow,” said Kuramoto. “No, you shouldn’t teach those to kids in schools. But to say that includes diversity or that we cannot look to diversity to help us create a more inclusive curriculum … I really don’t think they understand and they pick up these buzzwords but really don’t know what it is about.”
Currently there’s hope, says Kuramoto, in helping to share diverse narratives within Wisconsin schools without pushback or being accused of having a political agenda. A bipartisan bill called Assembly Bill 232 is currently going through the Wisconsin legislature, which will direct school boards to “include instructional program information related to understanding human relations with regard to Hmong Americans and Asian Americans.” While he says this is a huge step forward, Kuramoto hopes that the community and especially the funds to back up this instructional mandate will support Wisconsin’s already burnt out teachers. As reported by the Wisconsin Examiner on June 10, 2022, the school district of Waukesha (a 16-minute drive northwest from Muskego) has received at least 54 resignations from April 1 through June 5 of last year, a 93% increase from the year before.
“I would like to see this bill pushed through but to also see that the funds will help our teachers to really implement this curriculum,” said Kuramoto. “My hope is that teaching Asian American history would be something that becomes part of the curriculum because it’s viewed as actually a valued part of education. That it’s put in the resources that are necessary to help teachers do a good job and everything else that they have to do. For Asian American education is American education.”
Along with the good news of Assembly Bill 232 being moved forward, Kuramoto has a positive outlook on what’s ahead for the Muskego community.
“Even bad experiences are not wasted,” said Kuramoto, adamantly, referring to the Muskego Community Book Club and his new connections and friends he’s made in the Muskego district. “You learn something from it. I think there’s a lot of things to learn even if it’s from bad things that happen.”
“We’ve picked up more people than we’ve lost,” said Nimphius, who – along with being one of the founders of the book club – is a parent of two and self-proclaimed “book nerd” currently working for the Milwaukee county federated library system. “I hope that this book club is a safe place for people to go to and enjoy themselves.”
Nimphius, whose great grandmother was in the Holocaust, understands the importance of keeping history alive so as to not make the same mistakes in the future.
“We need to take the things that happened that are not squeaky clean and learn from them otherwise there is no growth,” said Nimphius. “As a cis-gender White lady, I get told sometimes ‘why are you defending this’ or ‘why are you saying this when it’s not even being brought up,’ but compliance is silence. I don’t want to live in a community where a school board can do whatever they want. We can’t pick and choose what we want to erase or not learn.”
When Zielke was also asked why she felt the need to speak up and say something, she said she believes “strongly in the value of diversity and inclusion in all parts of life.”
“As a human, librarian and historian who believes racism is wrong, this whole thing offended me in every possible way,” said Zielke, with tears in her eyes. “For the [school board] to say that this issue has two quality sides – that’s not the way we look at history. That’s not the way things work. The one side is that the American government was wrong and the other side is that people of mainly Japanese descent were incarcerated due to overt racism.”
Though Zielke says that the whole thing was “a painful experience,” it also brought about “beautiful pieces” such as the book club and meeting and making new friends.
“I learned a ton,” said Zielke. “That was really great and I think the whole point of this, really. I talked to and got to meet so many wonderful people.”
To learn more about Assembly Bill 232 and its updates, go to docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2023/related/proposals/ab232.
Note: All board members of the Muskego-Norway School District were contacted but declined to comment other than Kevin Zimmermann.
Kristen Nemoto Jay is the editor for The Hawai‘i Herald. A native of Waimānalo, and proud graduate of Kailua High School, Jay received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Chapman University and master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University. In her spare time, she teaches yoga and enjoys practicing as well. She currently lives in Kailua with her husband, toddler and baby on the way.