GUILFORD – An attempt to challenge five books on the shelves of Guilford school libraries prompted parents, students and residents to turn out to the Board of Education meeting Monday to oppose the measure.
The complaints were made in June by former school board candidate and parent Danielle Scarpellino, who filed five separate requests to reconsider the educational materials. The board is expected to make a decision regarding the appropriateness of the books in two weeks.
The books subject to the review include Flamer by Mike Curato, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel published in 2020 about a 14-year-old gay Filipino boy who struggles with being bullied by racists, and for being overweight and gay. He is also trying to navigate the conflict between his sexuality and his Catholic upbringing.
Also targeted is Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, a semi-autobiographical novel about a boy struggling with the American Dream as a gay Mexican American.
At a March meeting of the Board of Education, a Guilford parent, Gloria Gibney, called the book vulgar for its repeated use of words like “fuck,” “dick,” and “fag,” rather than directed toward positive solutions.
“Instead of being a guidebook with solutions to overcome mixed sexual identity, minority status, struggling family existences or suggested pathways to overcome lack of educational or vocational training … the book has in it the characters who are addicted to porn, gambling on sports games, doing drugs, bankrupt employers, and language that is vulgar,” said Gibney.
Other books that have come under fire include It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews; and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison.
In her complaint, Scarpellino warned that the books may result in “unwanted accidental exposure to sexually explicit material,” emphasizing that this was not an attempt to ban books. She suggested that parents decide what age group these books are appropriate for and asked the board to go on record regarding the appropriateness of the books for children.
On Monday, Guilford resident Anita Porto thanked Scarpellino for challenging the books, saying, ironically, that it gave her the opportunity to read the books in two book clubs, meet new people and make new friends.
“I’ve learned so much more about the books,” she said.
She added that the town would be on a slippery slope if it began banning books, pointing to what she said were analogous situations in Houston.
“That’s the kind of slippery slope we’re talking about,” she warned.
Local resident Dana Regett questioned the motives of the complaint.
“Maybe the individual bringing these book challenges really is opposed to the mostly minor sexually explicit passages in the novels. But it is striking that no book with heterosexual white characters was challenged,” Regett told board members.
“I support respect for our school librarians who choose books representative of many perspectives in school libraries,” she said. “I support respect for all peoples, especially for groups that are being actively marginalized and vilified by some people in our society. This includes respect for Black people and all people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ. … Let’s avoid adding layers of bureaucracy by expecting librarians to make certain books difficult to access or requiring librarians to notify parents.”
Resident Amy Triche told board members she hated the idea of banning books.
“It’s not a new idea and has never been a good one,” she said. “Banning books is a way to control the thoughts of others. I want my child to have his own thoughts and opinions. There are those who say they don’t want other people to influence how their children think, but by trying to ban books, that’s exactly what they are doing.”
She said that reading about various subjects and characters is an “excellent way for adolescents and young adults to learn about the world around them and inform their own opinion.”
Triche, who said she is a pediatrician, said “It’s Perfectly Normal” is based on scientific fact and has often recommended the book as a resource for older children and adolescents.
“The idea of banning such an excellent resource that consists solely of fact is upsetting and terrifying,” she said.
Eighth-grader Fay Robinson said she has loved books as long as she can remember, describing reading a book as her escape from the world when she needed it. “Flamer” in particular, she said, impacted her recently.
Robinson said that the excerpt describing several boys masturbating is not what the book is about. “If you only look at the excerpt out of context, you don’t know that the main character denies joining them and reaffirms his bodily autonomy by telling them ‘no.’”
Resident David Melillo said there’s a tremendous amount of support from the Guilford community for the board to not ban the five books.
“It seems to me here and across the country, everything is about sexuality and race,” Melillo said. “There’s a real desire to cover that up, put that away. I don’t understand it.”
He said he believes the resistance toward these books is based on the idea it can make straight white children feel awkward.
“I don’t think that’s a good reason,” he said. “I think you need to get through things, not avoid them. It is a pretty orchestrated attempt across our country to close up, shut down, or ban or challenge books about people who are minorities that are oppressed.”
Board Chair Kathleen M.B. Balestracci said the board will discuss the five books during its workshop meeting on Sept. 26 at the Guilford High School library.
Responding to a request for comment on Wednesday, Scarpellino replied at length in an email with passages that she deemed inappropriate, writing that:
“Parents must be alerted every time a sexually graphic book is made available to their minor, dependent children. Full stop. Someone needs to be the adult in the room and forewarn our children of what they are about to encounter. Any adult who is tasked to oversee the safety and wellbeing of a child and would knowingly and willingly place these books in our children’s reach without any warning, is negligent.”
Scarpellino also took aim at those claiming she supported the banning of books, noting that her complaint to the board used only avenue available:
“Those who want to make this a political issue are disingenuous at best. I stand by my request for the Guilford Board of Education to go on record regarding the appropriateness of these books for children. And again, I emphasize, the documents that GPS insists that parent MUST submit in order to even enter into this conversation is entitled ‘Request for Reconsideration,’ not ‘Request to Ban.'”
This story has been updated to include written comment from Scarpellino