Pennsylvania School District Retains Handmaid’s Tale on Summer Reading List

atwoodSchool district officials in Wyomissing, PA decided last week to keep The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as an option on a summer reading list for 11th grade Honors English, despite complaints from parents who called the book “obscene” and claimed that it “gives teenage boys sexual ideas about females.”

According to a list posted on the Wyomissing Public Library’s website, all students in 11th grade Honors English were required to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter over the summer, and choose from either The Handmaid’s Tale or John Gardner’s Grendel for their second book.

At a curriculum and technology committee meeting last Thursday, acting superintendent Lynette Waller said the district would add a third optional book, as yet unspecified. The book descriptions on the lists sent home with students will also be rewritten “to better describe any graphic or possibly offensive material,” according to the Reading Eagle newspaper.

Even though it was already optional, six parents had demanded at a school board meeting last Monday that Atwood’s dystopian novel be removed from the reading list altogether. One said that her daughter was “uncomfortable, disturbed and confused” after reading the book, and another said that it should only be assigned if students are offered concurrent mental health counseling.

The school board deferred the issue to the Thursday morning curriculum committee meeting, which about two dozen community members attended to voice their opinions and show support for one side or the other. During 45 minutes of public comments, eight people spoke in favor of keeping The Handmaid’s Tale on the reading list and five favored removing it. One parent, Kayleen Soffer, described it as “an obscene, pornographic novel” and said that by having it on an approved reading list “we are telling our children this obscene material is good literature.” She also claimed that the book “provokes fear in young girls, which leads to distrust, anger and hatred toward men.”

Several people also spoke up to defend the book and the concept of intellectual freedom in general. Megan Filoon, a Wyomissing alum who estimates she’s read the novel at least 10 times including when she was a student there, pointed out that issues around sexual violence and women’s rights are not new to advanced students in their mid-late teens and noted obliquely that “I’ve heard a national leader say some of these things.”

In recent years The Handmaid’s Tale has also been challenged as an AP English assignment in Albany, Oregon and as a summer reading book for seniors in another Pennsylvania school district, Ringgold. In the latter case a member of the school board memorably responded to a teacher’s suggestion that the board should read the entire book before taking action with “I don’t read Penthouse and I won’t read this.” The board hastily voted to remove The Handmaid’s Tale as a summer reading assignment at that time, but immediately had second thoughts and reinstated it at the following meeting.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.