Newport Beach library trustees vote to relocate one book, uphold decision on another in appeal hearings

Almost 40 speakers lined up to offer their voices during public comment.
Almost 40 speakers lined up to offer their voices during public comment on a Newport Beach Board of Library Trustees’ meeting Monday on book appeals for “Melissa” by Alex Gino and “Prince & Knight” by Daniel Haack.
(Lilly Nguyen)

The Newport Beach Board of Library Trustees, after considering appeals of residents who objected to the library director’s placement of two controversial children’s books, ruled Monday evening one of the titles should be moved to the teen section, while the other could remain in place.

The books up for review were “Melissa,” which was previously published as “George,” by Alex Gino, and “Prince & Knight,” by Daniel Haack.

“Melissa” was first published in 2015, while “Prince & Knight” was published in 2018. Both have been considered to be some of the most challenged books in circulation by the American Library Assn. for their LGBTQ+ content and conflict with religious viewpoints. Applications submitted to the city that sought the review of both books in September last year reflected similar sentiments, with some library patrons describing the books as inappropriate for children.


“Melissa” focuses on a transgender fourth-grader, Melissa, navigating a world that perceives her only as a boy named George, while “Prince & Knight” tells the story of a prince who falls in love with a knight after the two of them fend off against a dragon that threatens to destroy their kingdom.

City library services director Melissa Hartson rejected requests for the removal of these titles from the childrens’ section in November. Her decisions on both titles were appealed to the Newport Beach Board of Library Trustees, who formalized an appeals application and process in January of this year after patrons inquired about what that process looked like.

Appellants Haley Jenkins, Debra Klein and Sydni Webb on Monday presented the case for moving “Melissa” to the library’s teen section, instead of placing it on shelves with books for younger children. They read excerpts from the book, wherein the titular character peed and “tried not to think about what was between her legs” while bathing in two separate scenes.

The book is designated for children between the ages of 8 and 12.

“How deep are you willing to go for little children? In the past, has this library given out reading materials to children with medical advice like [how to obtain] hormones and surgeries?” Jenkins said. “Viewpoint discrimination cannot be an argument when there are over 100 children and teen books in the LGBTQ category in the catalog and many of those are not as vulgar as this. If age appropriate only means mindlessly placing on shelves whatever books ... book review sites tell you were good, then using the term ‘age appropriate’ in your policy is meaningless.”

Klein asserted her perception that book reviewers do not examine review conservative books and that many review sites are skewed to the left. Webb said she would have been liable for sexual harassment if she discussed “female or male genitalia, surgically manipulating children’s bodies, pornography and looking up girls’ skirts” at work and so questioned the inclusion of a book that included those references in the children’s section.

Newport Beach Board of Library Trustees' chair Paul Watkins.
Newport Beach Board of Library Trustees’ chair Paul Watkins listens as members of the public deliver their comments during an appeal hearing Monday.
(Susan Hoffman)

Public comments on the appeal of “Melissa” on Monday largely called on the trustees to uphold Hartson’s decision. Nearly 40 individuals spoke at the hearing.

“I can’t tell you how many times a librarian put into my hands a significant book for me to teach from or [to] put in my students’ hands — books that made a difference in their lives at that time,” said Carrie Slayback, a Newport Beach resident and former teacher in the Fountain Valley School District. “If citizens feel strongly, I believe they can enforce their right to control their children’s reading. If they would like to send their children to a school that is like-minded, I understand that completely.

“But, in regards to our public library, I would like to hand the decisions to the professionals — the librarians.”

Slayback reiterated similar sentiments felt by those opposed to the reshelving of “Melissa.”

Irvine parent Foz Meadows, who is trans, said he wasn’t planning on speaking at the hearing on “Melissa” but decided to speak up on the basis of what was being said.

“The fact is that when challenges of this nature come out towards these books, it’s not about the books themselves. It’s about the people they represent,” said Meadows, the parent of an 11-year-old child. “I suspect [to the applicants] ... I would be deemed inappropriate to be around [their children] by virtue of my existence.

“The other trans parents I know would be deemed inappropriate to be parents to their own children and that is absurd. It is absurd and bigoted,” Meadows continued. “There’s no other word for it. The concern that people have [for] these books, this material, is pornographic is nonsensical. It’s like calling a biology lesson pornographic because it uses the word ‘penis.’ You can discuss things that relate to bodies that relate to gender and relate to sexuality, yes, even to children without it being pornographic.”

Many expressed their trust and faith in librarians while others said that the mere mention of genitalia wasn’t inherently sexual, arguing that the relocation of the book only made it more difficult for children to access who may have recognized themselves in the character Melissa.

Those supportive of moving the title to the teen section reiterated similar refrains as the three appellants, describing the book as inappropriate because of its in-text references to genitalia, pornography and hormone therapy.

Board chair Paul Watkins refuted this, saying, “I’m not a fan of book removal unless the title is clearly obscene or pornographic. I do not believe that ‘Melissa’ is pornographic.”

Watkins said they received more than 140 emails speaking to both sides of the argument for both books appealed Monday night and he ultimately voted, alongside trustees Antonella Castro and Chase Rief, to relocate the book to the teens’ section.

‘Prince & Knight’

By comparison, the appeal filed by Bill Dunlap over where to shelve “Prince & Knight” was less contentious, though close to 20 people still commented on the matter, including former Councilwoman Joy Brenner.

Dunlap, in his remarks, said it was not his intention to suggest the banning or removal of books but its relocation.

“It’s for ages 4 to 8, so we’re talking about basically pre-K and second-grade. Comprehending the difference between hetero and homosexuality should not be discussed at this early age. At a time when the child is closer to adolescence, we believe a parent or guardian has the right to share with their 4- to 8-year-old the material they deem appropriate,” Dunlap said. “However, we do not agree that a public library should offer this book to 4- to 8-year-olds without parental consent. This, we believe, is an ... informal way of grooming.”

The majority of speakers, as was the case with the first hearing, were against the appeal, noting there was nothing in the book that was sexual in nature.

“It’s a very sweet book. I remember when my kids were young and when my grandkids were young, they loved everybody. The boys loved the boys,” Brenner said. “The girls loved the girls. The boys didn’t love the girls and the girls didn’t love the boys as much as they loved each other, and I think we’re making a big sexual thing out of this, but it’s really not.”

Brenner said she’d once been watching a play at Mariners Elementary School and commented that one of the children should become an actress. Her daughter, she said, explained the girl had transitioned in the fifth grade. When asked how the children responded, Brenner said her daughter replied the children weren’t concerned.

“The kids are willing to just let people be people and are fine with it. My thought is that if you’ve got somebody who’s in the fifth or fourth grade and they are having these sorts of thoughts, the library is the place we want to teach our young people that you go for information,” Brenner said.

Trustees agreed that the book was not explicit and unanimously voted to uphold Hartson’s decision to keep the book in the childrens’ section in the library.

Twelve applications have been received by the city on eight different titles, according to the city. The next three books up for review are “It Feels Good to be Yourself,” by Teresa Thorn; “Who Are You?” by Brook Pessin-Whedbee; and “Not My Idea” by Anastasia Higginbotham, at the board of library trustees’ meeting in May.


11:18 a.m. April 23, 2024: A quote was added by Newport Beach board of library trustees board chair Paul Watkins to clarify that “Melissa” does not contain porn.