WOODBRIDGE/AMITY/ORANGE — Calls for the removal of young adult books containing “sexually explicit” material from school libraries were met with a wave of support for the school librarians and insistence that the books remain available to students.
At a Board of Education meeting on Monday, parents, students and community members on both sides of the issue gave their perspectives, some saying that parents should have more control over what their children are exposed to and others saying that the books provided diverse perspectives and fostered empathy and critical thinking.
Orange resident Michele Tenney read excerpts from two books — the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. One of the excerpts talked about the pleasure of masturbation and the other mentioned sexual activity, including oral sex.
“The school is receiving funding for keeping this garbage in our schools,” said Tenney. “How is this acceptable to any of you?”
Tenney also provided the board with a list of 87 books that she felt should be removed from the school library. The list contained books with topics such as teenage pregnancies, homosexuality, drug addiction, transgender youth and suicide.
Books on the list included Slaughterhouse Five, The Hate You Give, Fun Home, The Kite Runner, The Bluest Eye, Lolita and The House on Mango Street, along with many books of young adult fiction. A few of the books on the list had a question mark next to them, indicating that the book “seems benign.”
“I remind you that they are not your children. They are ours,” Tenney told the board.
Parent Kristen Turkosz said that if the district wasn’t willing to remove the books, she believed the Board of Education should require that parents sign a consent form if their students want to check certain books out of the library.
“I just want to state that it’s completely inappropriate that these sexually explicit books are available to children without parental consent,” said Turkosz. “The availability of these texts also shows that you are extremely insensitive to students whose family, religious beliefs, conflict with the pornographic texts and images contained within their pages.”
The book mentioned multiple times in the discussion, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is the story of a teenage boy with disabilities who grew up in poverty on a Native American reservation, and his experience transferring to a high school in a majority White town.
According to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, the book has made the list of top 10 banned books in eight of the 10 years between 2010 and 2020.
Jennifer Byars, superintendent of schools for the district, said that the book was in the libraries of all three schools in the district — two middle schools and the high school — and that it was listed as an optional resource in the 10th grade English curriculum. Byars also noted that the book had received numerous awards and has been part of the district curriculum since 2017.
“I would say that the book was written for a young adult audience, and while a fictional book, offers insight through the lens of a Native American teenager. It offers a perspective of life on a Native American reservation in the Pacific Northwest that is different from anything our students experience as suburban students in Connecticut. However, the commonalities within a coming of age story allow readers to connect to the characters,” Byers said.
At the meeting, a handful of parents told board members they wanted the books removed from circulation, but most expressed appreciation for the library staff and educators. The district also received 30 letters from parents supportive of the library and efforts at diversity.
Liam Roselle, a freshman at Amity Regional High School, pushed back against the idea that the book was “pornographic,” and questioning whether the outcry against the book was related to the sexual content or because the book spoke about racism against Native Americans and bullying in schools. He pointed out that the story was a coming of age book and said the book should not be banned.
“This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I don’t like to read!”
Another freshman student, Remmy, who characterized herself as a “voracious reader,” told CT Examiner that some of her favorite books were on the list of books that people wanted banned. Remmy said that she didn’t understand why banning the books was necessary.
Ann Roselle, Liam’s mother, said that the context of the passages needed to be taken into consideration when judging whether a book is appropriate. For example, she said, the passage about masturbation was actually a commentary on the protagonists’ love for geometry.
“At the end of the day, we have the trust in our kids and what we have taught them and what their interests are when they walk in and make their selections,” she said.
She also mentioned other books that have been “banned,” including Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Jodi Picoult’s 19 Minutes and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis — books that deal with the issues of poverty and alcoholism, school shootings and growing up during the Iranian Revolution.
“Shouldn’t we really be celebrating literacy instead? Celebrating the fact that our kids were in a library, reading, exploring stacks, examining books and thinking?” she said.
State Representative Mary Welander, D-Orange, who has two children in the school district, told CT Examiner that getting books approved in a school curriculum was an involved process that took parent feedback into consideration.
“The protocols and standards are more complicated than parents realize,” Welander said. She also said that librarians, who go through six to eight years of training, were there to guide students to appropriate materials.
Another parent who said she runs an organization that works with law enforcement to combat sex crimes against minors said at the meeting that there were “bigger fish to fry” than trying to “sanitize” the books that high schoolers were reading.
“If I was a parent worried about sex crimes, worried about sexual perversion, I joyfully watch them swap any amount of time with Snapchat for a book,” she said.
Board Chair Paul Davis told CT Examiner in an email that the board encourages comments from the community, and that he has asked Superintendent Byars to “review information on current procedures relating to these issues” so that the board could make a decision about how it would respond to parents’ concerns.
“No matter what [the] outcome of this particular issue I feel the public can be confident that every member of the Amity Board of Education places the highest priority on the safety and the educational success of our students. We have the greatest respect for our district and school administrators, teachers, and all the support staff who work so hard to make Amity an outstanding school district,” Davis told CT Examiner.