A 10-week long debate in Newtown over whether to remove two largely-unread books from the high school library took an abrupt turn this week as tensions escalated in the affluent Fairfield County community over how to resolve the issue.
Two of the Republican members of the Newtown Board of Education — Janet Kuzma and Jennifer Larkin — resigned Wednesday on the eve of the board vote. Both previously voted — in a split decision divided along party lines — to ban the book. Democrats now hold a 3-2 majority on the board.
Whether the books will remain on the library’s shelves is expected to be decided tonight, although the final vote will likely end up being different than it would have had it been held even two days earlier.
“It is with great sadness that I have to announce that Janet Kuzma and Jenn Larkin have resigned from the Board of Education. They both were very committed to all of our students and families, as well as dedicated to the overall work of the Board,” said Board Chair Deborra Zukowski in an emailed statement. “Their energy, tenaciousness, team spirit, and constructive contributions to our discussions will be sorely missed.”
The controversy in Newtown about the books — “Flamer” by Mike Curato and “Blankets” by Craig Thompson — echoes the rising trend of book challenges across the country, often including texts that have characters of color, characters with an LGBTQ background or include some type of sexual content. Nearly 1,700 books were banned in the U.S. between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, according to Pen America.
Supporters of removing Curato’s and Thompson’s books called them inappropriate, while opponents argued the books’ subjects and messages were important for students to read.
It seemed almost irrelevant that neither book was checked out much. “Flamer,” which was among last year’s suggestions for the governor’s summer reading challenge, has never been checked out of the Newtown school library. “Blankets” has been checked out twice, most recently in 2015.
Much of the debate in Newtown focused on Curato’s graphic novel about a 14-year-old Filipino-American boy scout who experiences bullying as he navigates the journey of understanding his sexuality.
Some argued “Flamer” could save the lives of teenagers.
“Flamer is just the kind of book that we should have available to our high school students as they mature and come into their own identities. I know because Flamer is the book I wished I had as a teenager,” said Timothy Stan, a Newtown parent, at a local board of education meeting in April.
Stan, who identified himself as a bisexual man, said he grew up in a time when “being queer was not only shamed, but it was dangerous.”
“In the 1980s there were no positive stories in books about the experiences of queer kids. There were no characters on TV or in movies that affirmed my experience. The only mention of queeness was in jokes, or hostile condemnation and the isolation and pain was crushing,” Stan said. “I attempted suicide at 17 years old. I don’t want any young person to grow up in such an environment.”
Others saw Curato’s book differently, arguing that their opposition to the book had nothing to do with its LGBTQ+ protagonist, but was rooted instead in the book’s sexually explicit content.
“This is not a political issue. This is not a diversity and inclusion issue. This is a right and wrong on behalf of our children. I don’t care if the content is homosexual, if it’s heterosexual – if it is pornographic and explicit in nature, it does not belong in our schools in any context,” said Jennifer Nicoletti, a Newtown parent, at one of the board meetings. “I find it incredulous that this is being asked to be included under the guise of inclusivity. You mean to tell me that we cannot find books that support diversity and inclusion, which I am all for, without having to include graphic and sexual content? I send my child to school to learn skills like math, reading and science. Not to learn about games that require drinking others’ bodily fluids and talking about [oral sex].”
Since December 2020, librarians across Connecticut have used an online spreadsheet to track official reconsideration requests, informal complaints and threats at schools and public libraries.
Kate Byroade, a library director in Colchester, said the list needs updating, but currently documents around 40 incidents in that time period.
“[Challenges] have exploded across the country. They have exploded here in Connecticut,” Byroade said. “If you look back at the American Library Association, [they’ve] been tracking incidents around the country for 20 years or so and most of them have been in school’s libraries. It’s LGBTQ content. It’s sexuality. … It’s even been Harry Potter.”
The complaints in Connecticut are in line with similar issues nationally.
The Washington Post recently reported that nearly 1,100 formal complaints across 35 states were filed throughout 2021 and 2022. Of 986 total challenges in school libraries, 61% were cited as being inappropriate, and about 42% of the texts included LGBTQ characters or themes.
Book bans are most prevalent in Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida and Tennessee, according to Pen America. A 2021-22 report the organization released estimated at least 40% of book bans were “connected to proposed or enacted legislation, or to political pressure exerted by state officials or elected lawmakers to restrict the teaching or presence of certain books or concepts.”
In Connecticut, Byroade believes complaints and challenges are usually made by outside groups like Moms for Liberty, which has pushed against curriculums that focus on underrepresented communities. The organization has chapters in Hartford and Fairfield counties.
Doug Lord, president of the Connecticut Library Association and director of Cyrenius H. Booth Library in Newtown, agreed, adding that school libraries have been “hit the hardest,” since “parents have the most skin in the game.”
“I’ve seen two or three websites that point out particular titles with the particular sections of those titles in there. One is called Book Look, where you can look up the title ‘Flamer’ and it’ll give you like a nine page summary document, with a look at the cover of the book, a summary of the book and they give this little content warning and stuff like that.”
Lord said the resource is great for parents, but that it often “strips out these non-contextual quotes,” which can change the way a book is interpreted.
This legislative session, Senate Bill 2 proposed protections for public libraries, such as the creation of a “sanctuary public library,” or a library that lends books that have been banned in other contexts and doesn’t prohibit the availability of books or other library materials.
The bill underwent its public hearing in late February with vast support from librarians across the state. The librarians, in addition to testifying, also answered concerns from lawmakers such as Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, who asked several questions about pornography in libraries.
“My library has $53,000 a year to spend. We’re not buying pornography,” Byroade said in response to a question from Dauphinais about children having access to “pornographic books.”
“Pornography has a very strict legal definition. The mere presence of nudity or sexual acts is not enough to make something pornographic. Many people read books with sexual content. James Patterson, bestselling author, has sexual content. A lot of kids will start picking up those books at 14, 15 years old,” Byroade continued.
The Senate unanimously approved the bill but changed the language about sanctuary libraries to instead allow public libraries that have a clear process for residents to challenge library materials to become eligible for certain grants.
Over the years
Book bans aren’t new, yet over the course of time there are patterns that have developed in what kind of literature is challenged in churches, schools and public libraries.
“It’s the same old argument with new people, new voices or people,” Lord said. “The last version of this that we had was the real bad stuff here in the early 1950s. It was the HUAC Committee — anti-communistic type stuff — the McCarthy era. All of the old timey books were under consideration at that time — anything that was pro-socialism or pro-Black at the time. It was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘1984,’ ‘Brave New World.’ … This stuff bubbles up in American history and over the course of the world from time to time.”
The Hartford Courant’s archives show countless examples of book bans in Connecticut over the years, including in September 1936 when three Bridgeport high schools banned “Les Miserables,” by Victor Hugo, and Alexander Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” and “Twenty Years After.”
“Two school commissioners condemned the books, bringing their objections on religious grounds and claiming the novels ‘tough on immortality in general’,” the Courant wrote. The article included quotes from the school commissioners who said “some groups … take great delight in destroying church and religion,” and that “there comes a point where [freedom] must be limited.”
Book bans continued into the early 1940s through the 1950s, when the Connecticut Society Sons of the American Revolution considered “debunking” school books that pertained to Communism. In the same decade, the state legislature also passed a law that banned comic books that had crime, sex, horror and “girlie” content.
The archives showed arguments in favor of book bans typically carried the same themes, including that the texts were inappropriate, “satanic,” full of “profanity, blasphemy and obscenities,” controversial, offensive, unacceptable for students, sexual or “immoral.”
Despite this being a pattern throughout history, Lord said the challenges always lead to a dangerous, and slippery, downhill slope.
“Just because you remove a book from a shelf doesn’t make some sort of issue go away,” Lord said. “It’s not a good idea to pull things just because they don’t conform to the worldview of a particular culture.”
The issue in Newtown
Complaints about “Flamer” and “Blankets” began in late March, after the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Anne Uberti, received an email from a board of education member about a parent who was concerned with the material in “Flamer.”
Within a week, principals at the middle school and high school were asked to meet with their library media specialists to review the book. Curato’s book was then taken out of the middle school because book organizations recommended the reading age for the text to be 14 and older. The book was also “taken out of circulation” at the high school while the principal read it.
By March 28, Uberti said she had received nine “formal Citizen’s Requests for Reconsideration for the book Flamer.” One of the forms was not filled out and another seven were filled out almost exactly the same, with only changes in personal information and signature. The following day, a reconsideration request was also submitted for “Blankets.”
“This moved the challenge to a new phase of the process, one that calls for the formation of a special review committee,” Uberti said at an early May board meeting where she shared the committee’s findings.
The committee — made up of Uberti and several staff members at the high school including the school’s principal Kimberly Longobucco, library specialist Liza Zandonella, English department chair Abi Marks and a social studies teacher Dave Foss — reviewed the requests for reconsideration on April 20.
The complaints about Curato’s book said it had “pornographic images,” “sexually inappropriate materials,” “sexual[ized] minors,” and may expose students to “poor coping skills, emotional disturbance, poor boundaries and sexual misdemeanors.” Thompson’s book was also accused of being “sexually graphic.”
According to the group Newtown Allies for Change, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the names of the challengers, three of the book opponents were public officials: Lisa Kessler, a GOP member of the Legislative Council, Kersti Ferguson, a Republican member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, and William DeRosa, a Legislative Council member and the chair of Newtown Republican Town Committee.
The other seven opponents are also registered as Republican voters, according to public records.
“Flamer” was purchased last August in a “district initiative to increase the diversity of books in our libraries in order to be more representative of the world in which we live,” Zandonella said in the committee’s report. It was never checked out prior to the complaints. “Blankets,” purchased by the school in 2013, had only been checked out twice, in 2014 and 2015.
Since the book challenge discussion, both books were checked out by a student on May 15, Zandonella told the CT Mirror.
The committee unanimously voted to keep both books at the high school.
In its defense of “Flamer,” the committee cited how it was a suggested book on the 2022 Connecticut Governor’s Summer Reading Challenge and was a finalist for the Nutmeg Awards, which is sponsored by the state’s library association and Connecticut Association of School Librarians. The committee also argued that 19 high schools near Newtown also had “Flamer” in their libraries.
“Excerpts and images taken out of context from the book are not representative of the book’s overall message, and in fact, distort the message when viewed or read in isolation,” one of the points in the report summary said. “It is critical that students read books that relate to what is going on in their lives or in the lives of their peers. The story line deals with sensitive subject matter in an age-appropriate and engaging way and is supportive of students who may share the types of struggles portrayed in the book.”
As for “Blankets,” the committee said “the book references the serious, but important, topics of sexual, emotional and physical abuse of children, but they are not explicitly depicted in the illustrations,” and added that “the removal of books from the library is a serious matter and they should not be removed based on selected words phrases and illustrations that are taken out of context.”
The committee further explained that neither book is part of any of the school’s curriculum, “but rather a part of a comprehensive high school library collection that houses over 18,000 … materials,” may help prepare students to learn about sexuality and sexual reproduction and although the books may make “some feel uncomfortable, many students and families have had conversations, and/or experiences with many of the themes” of the two texts.
Christopher Melillo, the district’s superintendent, also submitted a recommendation in favor of keeping the books in the high school.
“Originally, when I was made aware of these books, I made the mistake to also review the pictures and text out of context. I too questioned the appropriateness of the material. Then, after reading the novels and evaluating it holistically, I’ve totally changed my mind,” Melillo said at the May 2 board meeting. “[This] discussion … revolves around removing books from our school library that may satisfy the interests of some at the expense of limiting access for all others. … Today the discussion is about books, tomorrow will it be something more? This is a slippery slope.”
Over the last few weeks, about 100 residents spoke throughout the course of four board of education meetings. Most public comment was in support of keeping the books at the high school. Despite this, and the unanimous recommendations from district leadership and school personnel to also keep the books, the local school board has the final say.
In two separate meetings in May, the board engaged in discussions about whether first amendment violations exist and whether there was an opportunity to set “guiding principles” to define what age appropriateness means and looks like. In several votes on May 16, the board — with one member absent — deadlocked on how to proceed.
One failed amendment proposed that access to both “Flamer” and “Blankets” would only be accessible to students 16 and younger if they had written consent from a parent or guardian. Another failed amendment proposed that students 16 and older would have unrestricted access to the texts, but students under the age of 15 would only be able to check out the book with written consent.
The inability to agree led to a new vote, scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m.
In her resignation letter, posted on the Newtown RTC Facebook page, Kuzma said she had resigned not because of the book challenge vote, but because of the “abhorrent and vile behavior” exhibited during the May 16 board meeting at which the votes were held.
“I do believe that the May 16th meeting should not have happened in the first place, and should’ve been postponed to accommodate a fellow board member who was caring for his dying wife, which is why I made the motion to postpone,” she wrote. “The chanting, booing, yelling, swearing, and constant disruptions that followed that motion were unprofessional and completely uncalled for.”
She also said her family has recently been “brought into the conversation” as well.
“Every resident of Newtown should be concerned, and frankly embarrassed, that elected volunteer officials can be subject to such behavior without impediment,” she said. “I have too much respect for myself and for my family to continue working in such a hostile environment.”
In response to Kuzma’s letter, the Newtown Democratic Town Committee said it didn’t “condone the disruptions or insults at the May 16 meeting,” and added they were “unaware of any credible reports of actual or threatened violence.”
“We would reject any such behavior,” said Democratic Chair Alex Villamil. “We think that the conduct of a fraction of the attendees at the BOE meeting is being used as a pretext to exit.”