O.C. parents enflamed by graphic novel in K-6 library; district mulls book policy
The recent discovery of a graphic novel containing frank references to homosexuality, bullying and self-harm at a Costa Mesa elementary school has Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials reviewing how books make their way into school libraries.
Administrators at Wilson Elementary School were apprised of the situation last month, when a group of parents found several copies of “Flamer” by author and illustrator Mike Curato on the shelves of the K-6 library.
The 2020 novel tells the story of Aiden, a 14-year-old Filipino American raised in the Catholic faith who grapples with issues of sexuality and masculinity while on a scouting trip before the start of high school. Intended for high school readers with parental guidance, it contains explicit descriptions of puberty, sexual references and slurs against gay men.
Its content concerned some parents, who spoke about the book’s age inappropriateness during a May 17 school board meeting.
“I read this book — it was terrifying,” said Rosa Mejia, mother of three Wilson students. “I do not know how these books got here to our school. I just want them out of the library.”
Erica Villalpando, who pulled her son out of NMUSD prior to this school year out of what she described as a growing concern for the district’s pandemic response and curriculum choices, shared copies of several scenes in the book with school board members at the meeting.
The Costa Mesa mother of two teaches dance classes at the Wilson Learning Center, where many Wilson Elementary families send their children for after-school programs. Although she no longer has children in the district, she said Thursday she wanted to speak out on behalf of upset parents.
“What I’m interested in is exposing the truth about what’s happening. All I did was let the trustees know what’s going on,” said Villalpando, who suggested the formation of a book review committee. “Anything should be checked and approved.”
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Newport-Mesa Unified Supt. Wes Smith assured parents at the May 17 board meeting school officials responded swiftly to the situation and said the district would examine its library book selection process.
“We have an obligation to make sure that the material in our libraries is age-appropriate,” Smith said. “And if there is some suggestion that it isn’t, we’re obligated to act immediately to close the library to search for those books and to see where is the process?”
NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco confirmed by email Wednesday the Wilson Elementary library was closed ahead of the June 10 end of the school year so officials could conduct a thorough search for all copies of “Flamer” and other potentially troubling titles.
“We also reviewed all elementary school libraries and did not find copies of the book in question,” she wrote. “As part of the end of school closeout, our elementary school libraries are closing, and we are taking this opportunity to review age-appropriateness of content in all elementary school libraries.”
The district further plans to review how library books are ordered and correct errors or loopholes in the process. For community members like Henny Abraham, who also pulled her son out of Newport-Mesa Unified last year, that’s a start, but not enough.
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Abraham helps run a Facebook group “Newport-Mesa Uncensored,” created in April to track school board candidates, district actions and policies and hold officials accountable, she said Thursday. She posted photos there of the pages in “Flamer” that have parents concerned and she is organizing a petition and letter to present to NMUSD board members.
Although she said the recent controversy is not about political affiliation, Abraham, an active Costa Mesa Republican, acknowledged her group is looking for people to run against incumbents for four school board vacancies coming up in the November election.
“Because we feel everything we’ve tried to get our board members to do has fallen on deaf ears, we are actively looking for people to run against them — anybody who cares about the kids and who will work for the kids,” she said.
Cardine is a staff writer with Times Community News.
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