The Malden Reads Book of the Year, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

Every year, Malden Reads decides on a new Book of the Year in mid-January. This year, on January 16th, 2024’s book of the year was announced: Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by co-authors Judith Heumann and Kristen Joiner. 

The book depicts Heumann’s life as a disabled woman in America and as an activist for women and disabled Americans. “From fighting to attend grade school after being described as a ‘fire hazard’ to later winning a lawsuit against the New York City school system for denying her a teacher’s license because of her paralysis, Judy’s actions set a precedent that fundamentally improved rights for disabled people,” Heumann’s official website describes

Part of the reason this book was selected was the timing. Jodie Zalk — co-facilitator and coordinator of Malden Reads, as well as co-founder — was on the committee that chose Being Heumann this year, and one aspect that made her lean more towards this book was the fact that Heumann passed away last March. “It felt like a tribute to her,” Zalk professed.

“We have been hearing about the work of the Malden Disability Commission, so we started looking into the theme of focusing on disability awareness,” she continued. Her initial reaction to the book was, “Wow, this is so powerful,” and the committee all “felt really strongly about this book” leading to its ultimate title of Book of the Year. 

It is not a quick process to choose the book, however. The committee started looking through books at the end of spring, gathering opinions from the community. “It takes a good couple of months to get our top five book selection.” Due to the large piles of books Malden Reads is suggested, it required an extensive amount of time to read and discuss everything suggested.

This amassed size is due partially to the lax criteria for suggested books. “When we put out our initial call for book suggestions, we say it should be widely available, not a part of a series… but then beyond that, we take almost any book.” All suggestions come from the community; someone in Malden initially suggested the book chosen every year.

“When we started, Harry Potter was super popular, but we didn’t want to suggest books that needed another book to be read first,” she further explained. The goal was to get people to read more books, so putting further expectations and restrictions was not helpful towards their goal.

A display of Judith Heumann and others at a disability rights protest. DANIEL O’TOOLE

Although numerous books were suggested to the committee, the finalists included Being Heumann, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, and The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty. 

Lessons in Chemistry is a realistic fiction novel, following chemist Elizabeth Zott battling sexism and the patriarchy all while trying to make enough money for herself and her daughter. Garmus’s book was chosen as Barnes & Noble’s book of the year in 2022 and was adapted as a TV show on Apple TV+.

The Cooking Gene was Zalk’s favorite book from the selection. Akin to Being Heumann, Twitty’s book tells the life of a historic change-maker. Twitty is a chef who traveled to the southern states of the US to “learn about his family history. Because he’s a chef, he wanted to do some cooking like people who were enslaved on plantations.” As a Black, gay, and Jewish chef, Twitty was able to pull several types of history into his dishes.

Zalk enjoyed this book because it gave her a side of history she was not used to seeing. “You hear a lot about how people happened to come to this country, and how things were cooked in different types of history. It was a type of history I hadn’t had before.”

This same logic came to selecting Being Heumann as Book of the Year. The book tells the story of how America came to be as accessible as it is. While it is certainly not fully accessible yet, when Heumann was growing up as a wheelchair user, “there were no ramps or curb cuts yet,” Zalk detailed. “She had a friend just across the street, but it was impossible for her family to actually get her wheelchair there.” 

In 2023, the Book of the Year was They Called Us Enemy by George Takei. The graphic novel follows Takei in Japanese internment camps during World War Two, and his conflict between his faith in American democracy and the creation of the internment camps he was forced into.

Reading Being Heumann, Zalk immediately thought, “How can we not know about her already?” Looking back at the books that made it as finalists, they all followed the theme of “focusing on awareness.” Whether it’s Zott’s fight with the patriarchy, Twitty’s family history in slavery, Takei’s struggle with American justice, or Heumann’s battle for disability rights, the Malden Reads committee’s goal was to tell a story from a new perspective.

On Wednesday, February 28th, Malden Reads is hosting a movie screening at the Malden Public Library, entitled Crip Camp. “Crip Camp talks about camp experience for people with disabilities,” Zalk advocated. The documentary shows the behind-the-scenes of a summer camp for teens with disabilities during the 1970’s, and how its alumni sparked the revolution for disability activism. For anyone unable to attend the viewing, the movie is available on Netflix.

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