One Graduate’s Quiet Protest: Bringing a Banned Book to Commencement

Julian Jenkins
Annabelle Jenkins shows the audience an illustrated adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” before placing it at Superintendent Derek Bub’s feet in Meridian, Idaho, on May 23.

Annabelle Jenkins made sure to keep her plan secret, hiding the item in the sleeve of her gown as she walked across the graduation stage.

The 18-year-old was frustrated by months of what she viewed as school district officials ignoring her pleas not to remove a handful of books from the school library. On the day she graduated from the Idaho Fine Arts Academy late last month, she smuggled something into the May 23 ceremony that she hoped would force them to listen.

She got her diploma and shook the hands of school officials – until she came to West Ada School District Superintendent Derek Bub. That’s when she pulled out a graphic novel adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and showed it to the crowd before trying to hand it to the superintendent. When he refused to take the book, she dropped it at his feet.

“It is an attack on our libraries as spaces that we are restricting what kind of information our communities and our students can access,” Jenkins told The Washington Post.

Renée Nault’s illustrated adaptation of the Margaret Atwood classic is one of several books the West Ada School District had removed from school libraries in recent months, something Jenkins and other students had unsuccessfully fought against. The novel and adaptation, both of which have been targets of censorship efforts, imagines a dystopia in which women have been stripped of nearly all rights.

Some of the book removals at the school in Meridian, a city of 134,000 just west of Boise, came amid a push by Idaho state lawmakers to force libraries to block access of “obscene materials” to anyone under the age of 18. In April, Gov. Brad Little (R) signed House Bill 710, the “Children’s School and Library Protection Act,” into law, which district officials said required the removal of books like Nault’s adaptation.

In March, the American Library Association reported a record number of book titles targeted for censorship last year, continuing a years-long trend. For two decades, the number of book challenges ranged from 378 in 2000 to 223 in 2020. Over the next three years, however, they spiked exponentially, hitting 4,240 last year.

“Each demand to ban a book is a demand to deny each person’s constitutionally protected right to choose and read books that raise important issues and lift up the voices of those who are often silenced,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a statement.

Putting the book at the superintendent’s feet was a quick and almost silent protest, so much so that Jenkins believes that in the moment much of the audience didn’t realize what had happened. But the next day, she posted to TikTok a 12-second video of her trying to hand Bub the adaptation, a clip that has since racked up nearly 25 million views.

Administrators decided to remove the graphic novel because the imagery was not suitable for students, district spokeswoman Niki Scheppers wrote in an email to The Post. This decision eventually jibed with HB 710’s definition of obscene material, she added. Although Nault’s adaptation has been removed, Atwood’s original novel remains on high school shelves.

“The original text of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ remains a valuable resource for our high school students, allowing them to explore and critically analyze its content in a manner appropriate for their developmental stage,” Scheppers said in her statement.

Trying to hand the superintendent a copy of the graphic novel, she added, “overshadowed the celebratory occasion for the Class of 2024, its graduates, and all their accomplishments as students, as a school, and as a district.”

“While we respect the right to voice concerns, it is important to maintain the focus on the achievements and hard work of our students during such significant milestones,” Scheppers wrote.

Jenkins has been deeply involved in Meridian’s libraries for years. In 2019, StoryCorps, a nonprofit that publishes recordings of people telling stories about their lives, produced a segment about Jenkins’s relationship with her local librarian and her earliest memories at the library. She volunteered during the school year and helped run the library’s summer reading programs.

“It made me realize just how valuable libraries are as community resources,” she said, and not just as centers of knowledge and education but as places that provide job training skills and refuges for people who may not feel like they’re safe or can fully be themselves at home.

Jenkins said she got involved with books being removed at her high school in November when she witnessed a “very aggressive verbal altercation” between a teacher and the school librarian about “The Handmaid’s Tale” graphic novel, which had been checked out by a sixth-grader. Jenkins acknowledged that age is probably too young to appreciate the book’s adult themes, but was still troubled by the incident.

The situation escalated on Dec. 13 when Idaho Fine Arts Academy Principal Chris Housel removed Nault’s adaptation from the school’s shelf because, unlike other schools enrolling high-schoolers in the district, the academy serves students in grades six through 12, Scheppers told The Post. After it was removed, district administrators reviewed the graphic novel and, upon concluding its imagery wasn’t suitable for any students, decided to remove it from the libraries in the district, which is composed of more than 40 schools, she added.

Jenkins said she and about 20 other students spent several months proposing options for limiting students’ access to the book by grade or age instead of completely removing it from the library. On Dec. 15, they started a petition to pressure district officials into letting parents and students be more involved in choosing what books were available in their schools’ libraries. As of Tuesday, 127 people had signed it. They also wrote multiple letters to district officials.

Scheppers said that the superintendent meets with high school student councils monthly and spoke with Jenkins in December about removing books from school libraries. Housel, the principal, met with her throughout the year to talk about the issue, “demonstrating our commitment to engaging with and listening to our students’ perspective.”

Despite some engagement with students, officials largely ignored them – and their parents, Jenkins said.

“The students were pretty regularly shut out and ignored,” she added.

Jenkins’s passion for libraries will extend beyond high school. This fall, she plans to attend Portland State University, where she wants to get a degree in English literature before getting a master’s in library science and pursuing a career as a librarian. It’s a dream she’s had since she roved around the shelves as a home-schooled sixth grader.

“I just realized how magical and important libraries are as spaces,” she said, “and I realized that I wanted to spend my life working on bettering them and protecting them.”