Despite claiming she is “not a book banner,” an Oregon parent has launched a crusade against Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, claiming the book is too sexually explicit and violent for seniors in AP English to handle.
After hearing concerns voiced by her son, Katrina Montgomery researched the controversy around The Handmaid’s Tale. She indicated that she read reviews and analyses and spoke with educators and friends before agreeing with an acquaintance who is a former educator that “any of the ideas in this book that would have been worth considering, like law and women’s rights and government control, they’re so buried in all the graphic and violent and sexually explicit contact… that any learning opportunity is completely lost in this book.” Notably, Montgomery did not consider the work as a whole — she didn’t read the entire book during her research, only excerpts.
Montgomery approached the AP English instructor, and her son was offered an alternative assignment in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. He and eight other students took the alternate assignment, while more than 70 students in the district continued with The Handmaid’s Tale.
This is the first year the book has been required reading in the district. It was added to the curriculum during the last textbook adoption period. Jason Hay, the school district’s director of secondary curriculum, indicated that the adoption committee considered diversity, the instructional curricula of other AP courses, and recommendations from the College Board in adding The Handmaid’s Tale to the AP course:
“The team desired to balance the curriculum between older, classic texts and more contemporary, highly acclaimed texts,” he said in an email to the Democrat-Herald. “It was also hoped that the curriculum would reflect the world we live in today and would provide a variety of perspectives: male, female, African, European, American, and Asian. Ultimately, the benchmark for each text’s selections was being a high quality piece of literature worthy of study in a college-level course.”
The Handmaid’s Tale certainly meets the desire to increase diversity and the number of contemporary books in the curriculum. Published in 1985, the award-winning dystopic scifi tale focuses on future dominated by a Christian theocratic dictatorship in which the rights and even the personal identities of women have been stripped away and women have been enslaved. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the Nebula Award and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The book has become a staple in English classrooms around the country for its examination of gender politics. It has also become one of the most challenged books in the country, making ALA’s most frequently challenged list several times since publication.
Montgomery filed a challenge with the West Albany High School, which has convened a review committee made up of eight people from the community and the district staff. She attended the first meeting of the committee along with about a dozen supporters (none of whom had filed challenges themselves) to voice her concerns. Montgomery argues that she isn’t trying to ban the book, she just wants to be informed about what her son is reading:
“I’m not a book-banner. I’m not asking that this book be banned. But I don’t think it should be assigned in a classroom,” she said. “What I think is wrong here is that the parents are not being informed and that kids are being assigned this stuff.”
Her statement contradicts information from Hay, though, who indicated that students and parents were provided with a list of books that would be covered this year, a list that required parental signature.
The review committee is expected to make a decision this week, the results of which will be made public next week. We’ll update as more information becomes available.