Darien school board says 'Mermaid' appropriate for 2nd graders despite some parents upset by gender message

The award-winning book “Julián is a Mermaid,” is by author/illustrator Jessica Love. 

The award-winning book “Julián is a Mermaid,” is by author/illustrator Jessica Love. 

Fairfield Library / Contributed photo

DARIEN — A children’s picture book that stirred controversy among some Darien parents for its depiction of a gender-nonconforming child has gotten a district OK to remain available to teachers as part of the curriculum.

In a memo sent to parents, the curriculum team explained that the book met the district's core values of diversity and inclusion and supports acceptance and empathy.

The memo added that the book's inclusion of gender identity is not the main theme of the lesson unit but "may be relatable to some students." While the publisher may list the book under gender identity among other tags, "a book tag in no way determines or limits the scope of a lesson or a teaching point."

Parent Megan Watros brought “Julián Is a Mermaid” to the attention of the Board of Education at a recent meeting after it was read in her second-grader’s class.

Written and illustrated by Jessica Love, “Julián Is a Mermaid” follows a young boy who dreams of dressing as a mermaid after seeing several participants in the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade. The book received widespread acclaim for its artistic style and message of acceptance and earned several prizes, including the 2019 Stonewall Book Award.

The book falls under the social and emotional learning curriculum in the Darien Public Schools and was selected “to support the acceptance and unconditional love of differences,” Superintendent Alan Addley said.

At the school board meeting Oct. 25, Watros said she is “all for” diversity in education, but called the book “inappropriate” for a second-grade class given its discussion of gender themes and what she interpreted as promoting gender transitioning.

“Education on changing gender should be completely off-limits,” she said. “If this is the path the school wishes to take with the social and emotional learning, because that’s the guise that they’re hiding this under, then we should be able to opt out.”

Her concerns sparked a debate in the meeting and have since circled through the community of Darien parents after an anonymous email appeared in some parents' inboxes on Nov. 13, nearly three weeks after the meeting. 

The email, sent from an encrypted Proton Mail address listed as "protectdarienkids, reiterated some of the points Watros raised, including the book’s depiction of “a young non-gender-conforming boy dressing as a girl, several pictures of drag queens and the boy being paraded semi-naked with adults.”

“Given the lack of transparency and the question marks around age appropriateness of this material, it is only fair that parents should know,” the email says. 

The message also lists the names and contact information of the members of the Curriculum Committee and the Board of Education. It is unknown how many parents received the email.

Alicia Johnson, whose children are in first and third grade in town, said she was surprised to receive the email. She had not heard about the complaints at the Board of Education meeting, though she knew of the book because of its critical acclaim. 

“Darien’s a rather smallish town but I still want them, despite that, to learn about the greater world," she said in support of reading the book to her children. “I don't want them emerging from the Darien school system with an inaccurate picture of what the world is.”

She said she was “suspicious of whoever the sender is,” and alerted members of the school administration as well as local government officials to the email.

“I think the sender is making up an organization and pretending that they represent or are a member of an organization which does not exist — it has no internet presence — and that is frustrating,” she said.

Johnson replied to the sender that same day, asking how they obtained her contact information and stating that she disagreed with the message’s “agenda.” She has not received a response.

Though she did not receive the email, Stacey Tié was notified of it by several other parents, including Johnson, within parent group chats.  

Tié said the anonymous email was part of a trend of anonymous accounts she has witnessed online and on social media in recent years over issues such as Open Choice and curriculum in the schools.

“Nobody puts their names to any of these things,” Tié said. “They spread fear and lies, quite frankly, and misinformation to scare parents and get them to come out and speak against things, and to stop really good things from happening in the district.

“This is just another fake anonymous account spreading misinformation and getting parents riled up for no reason, and it’s cowardly,” she added.

Watros said she did not receive the email, either, though said she knew several parents who did.

“I feel badly that people feel they have to be anonymous with raising concerns regarding their children,” she said. “ We should be able to speak openly and have meaningful conversations.”

While she said “sending anonymous notes is not (her) style,” Watros understood that some parents might not feel comfortable speaking publicly as she did and did not want anonymous concerns to be dismissed for that reason.

Several parents have reached out to thank her for her statement at the Board of Education meeting, she said. 

“After speaking out, I found there were many other parents who shared the same sentiment,” she said. “I’ve had kind, supportive letters left in my mailbox.”

It is “not uncommon” for school administration to receive anonymous emails from parents, Addley said.

“There's not going to be any retribution to any member of the community for commenting or asking questions about curriculum or any other aspect of teaching,” he said. “We're professionals. That doesn't happen.”

“I’d certainly much rather people put their name to it,” he added. “Some people have, and some others are having some concerns about this, and we're trying to address it.”

Shortly after the Oct. 25 meeting, Addley referred concerned parents to the Oct. 13 Curriculum Committee meeting in his weekly email. 

In that curriculum meeting, Director of Elementary Education Julie Droller said teachers referred to the Teachers College units of reading and writing study and other trusted sources such as the American Library Association and literary awards when determining elementary school readings.

Social emotional learning books are chosen by curriculum teams and guided by library media specialists.

“We’re focusing now, as is Teachers College, on authorship and our books and wanting the books in our classroom libraries to be mirrors where students see themselves and their lives and also learn about others in the world,” Droller said.

After evaluating the book, the district curriculum team determined “Julián Is a Mermaid” will continue to be an option when teaching lessons about acceptance and will remain in circulation in school libraries.

The memo to parents, after listing reasons why the book will remain available, also addressed parents' concerns about the young protagonist's brief appearance in underwear, referencing Mowgli in "The Jungle Book" and "Captain Underpants" as popular examples of semi-dressed characters in children's literature. 

Darien Public Schools will hold a parent workshop on social emotional learning in December.