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‘Handmaid’s Tale’ popping up on local bookshelves

Library, booksellers talk about why they’ve stocked graphic novel after Medford schools pulled it

A week after the Medford School District removed the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” from library shelves, valley booksellers and Jackson County Library Services have noted increased interest in the book.

Comments from the library, in addition to the owners of Rebel Heart Books in Jacksonville and Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, came this week in the run up to Independent Bookstore Day, which is celebrated Saturday, April 30.

Bloomsbury Books owner Sheila Burns, who opened her store in 1980, said it was necessary to make a distinction between independent bookstores and public entities that provide books.

“This is a private business; you can’t tell me — or no one can tell me — what I can carry anymore than you can go into a dress store and tell them what dresses they need to carry,” Burns said. “It’s not a public library, either. A bookstore reflects my tastes and (the tastes of) the people who work here. … The idea of banning books just doesn’t apply to an independent bookstore.”

The district announced last week that it had removed from the North Medford High School library two English copies and one Spanish version of the graphic novel, an adaptation of the original 1985 release by Margaret Atwood.

A specially formed Medford School District committee made a decision to ban it after a parent complained that the 2019 edition contains “images of nudity, sexual assault and suicide.”

Natalie Hurd, the district’s spokesperson, noted that while the graphic novel has been removed from circulation in the district, the original version of the book remains in the district’s public collections.

The district is currently “working with a team of stakeholders to review our graphic novel selection and shelving procedures,” she said.

The Mail Tribune learned of the parental complaint and the district’s decision from the Oregon Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. The committee, which regularly consults school library decisions regarding collections, wrote a letter to Superintendent Bret Champion requesting further explanation of the 2019 graphic novel ban. On April 27, the district responded to the IFC.

Jackson County Library Services

Kelda Vath, assistant director of support services for the library, said that of the two copies of the graphic novel currently in circulation, one is checked out to a patron and the other is on the hold-shelf waiting for a patron to retrieve it.

The two copies were purchased by JCLS in September 2019, a few months after it was published. Vath said the library bought them because of the popularity of the show on Hulu, and Atwood’s sequel, “The Testaments,” being published the same year.

Since the Medford School District made its decision to pull the novel from the North Medford High School library, JCLS has ordered five additional copies for itself, Vath said.

While there are no holds at JCLS on the 1985 version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there are nine holds on the graphic novel, according to Vath.

Vath speculated that the current demand for the graphic novel could stem from the district’s ban.

“I think that’s kind of, in general, how things work. If there’s some media attention to anything — whether it’s a new copy or an author’s on television — that tends to get people’s interest going and they get curious,” she said.

Vath said the library does not have an overall opinion on the Medford School District’s decision because it is more focused on its mission of connecting the people of Jackson County to “information, ideas and each other.” She added that the district is separate from the library, with its own policies and procedures.

Vath did weigh in, however, on the decision of the parent to issue a complaint with the school district.

“We certainly believe that any parent or family has the absolute right, or responsibility, even, to monitor (or) help guide the reading places — certainly for themselves, but also their own children,” Vath said. “But our job is to make sure that things are available and that people have the ability to make those choices.”

Bloomsbury Books

Owner Sheila Burns said her bookstore has one copy of the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Since its 2019 release, Bloomsbury Books has sold four copies, she said.

By comparison, when “Maus,” a graphic novel by cartoonist Art Spiegelman, gained nationwide attention recently for school board bans outside the valley, “phones were ringing off the hook” at Bloomsbury Books, prompting the bookseller to order 20 more copies.

And yet, Burns added, the Medford School District’s decision could certainly inform her bookstore’s decision about whether to keep a couple of copies” of the graphic novel “well displayed.”

Burns gave the school board credit for not banning the original version, which has sold over 300 copies at Bloomsbury Books.

“If they had banned the novel, I can promise you, I would be crazy-selling that book,” she said. “This is (a) graphic novel; it’s just something a little different.”

Burns said there were no graphic novels when she opened her bookstore in 1980. It's a segment of literature growing in popularity, she said, which is why Bloomsbury Books has a section dedicated to graphic novels.

“It’s expanding. There’s a whole group of kids that are growing up really liking graphic novels,” Burns said. “It’s a younger taste, and we’re trying to appeal to that now.”

Rebel Heart Books

Eileen Bobek, owner of the bookstore in Jacksonville, seemed to recall ordering the 2019 graphic novel long before the Medford School District removed its copies. But the district’s decision has since prompted Bobek to order a new copy.

“This is what’s good about being an independent bookseller — you make the decisions about what’s on your shelves,” Bobek said. “When I saw that (the graphic novel) was pulled from North Medford High School, I’m like, ‘Well, I actually think this should be available if somebody’s interested in reading it.’ So I made a point of getting it.”

She noted that whenever a book controversy surfaces, it “drives sales” for independent bookstores.

The graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is actually “very consistent” with the kinds of inventory she would stock — ones that are “off the beaten track” and not best-sellers.

“We used to have a graphic novel book club, so I have great respect for graphic novels for what they can do — and for what they can do for young adults in a way that typical novels don’t,” Bobek said. “It’s a gateway for them to read or want to read.”

She said she believes graphic novels are “real books,” which is why they can help some children who are not interested in “certain story lines” or have trouble reading in general.

“It’s really a different experience and allows kids to actually understand concepts that, honestly, they might not get in reading a book in a more traditional fashion,” Bobek said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.