By: Rebecca Slocum
Recently, a book challenge was levered against Wando High School’s suggested summer reading list; students are to choose one book from the four titles provided. Two of those books are addressed in this challenge, The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Both books were featured on the New York Times best seller list. Both books have garnered several awards and nominations. And, both books feature incidents of police violence against unarmed black characters. According to the Charleston County high school’s principal, Dr. Sherry Eppelsheimer, the district policy, which dictates a committee be formed to read and review the books, as well as hear from the books’ challengers, is being followed.
This story is likely familiar for any librarian who has received a book challenge. It’s not even the first time that THUG has been challenged. What is surprising in this situation is the challenger. It’s not just a parent or local conservative group. The challenger here is the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Charleston County, South Carolina. John Blackmon, the president of the FOP Tri-County Lodge #3, said they’ve received a number of complaints from parents and community members regarding the inclusion of these books on the summer reading list. He also states, “It’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that. There are other socio-economic topics that are available and they want to focus half of their effort on negativity towards the police? That seems odd to me.”
The line that most concerns me in Blackmon’s statement is “…and we’ve got to put a stop to that.” You can’t “put a stop” to children distrusting police officers by removing books that depict them in a negative light. In fact, as any parent, teacher, and librarian knows, you cannot put a stop to, well, almost anything, by taking it away. Attempting to remove any book, but especially popular, award-winning novels such as these, will likely only further encourage students to read them. In addition, censoring books that bring major issues such as this to the forefront will not change the image of law enforcement and will likely foster an even deeper sense of distrust.
Now, I’ve not spoken personally to Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Brendan Kiely, but I feel confident in saying that “indoctrination of distrust of police” was not their goal in writing these books. The fact is, police brutality against black people IS a critical issue in this country. Charleston, itself, was featured prominently in the news in 2015 for the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott. The officer involved pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Both of these books were inspired by real life events of police brutality. While I can’t speak for all of the goals these authors might have had in writing these books, I believe they were written in part to open effective dialogue regarding racial profiling and police violence.
As is the case with many book challenges, it’s also possible that the challengers have not read the books in their entirety. In many cases, the challengers have simply read the back cover of the book or opened to a random chapter, and from there, have incorrectly deduced the summation of the books to be offensive. If they have read these books, they would have seen that, for example, THUG gives a highly nuanced portrayal of police officers and their role in the community, contrasting the officer involved in the shooting with the main character’s uncle, a positive role model and father figure, also a police officer.
As with any book that highlights important and controversial topics, the best way to acknowledge and understand THUG and All American Boys is to have adults and children read them together. In this case, adults should consist of not just the primary and secondary educators of parents and teachers/librarians, but also community members, including the challenging police officers. Addressing the issue as a community allows for open and effective communication and gives students the opportunity to understand and ask questions about what is likely a confusing topic for them. Many of these students have probably already either experienced firsthand or have heard about an incident of police violence, and like it or not, they are already actively paying attention to and attempting to understand the important issues our nation is facing and their role in such situations. It is important for educators— ALL educators – to guide them through that process. In fact, South Carolina Association of School Librarians president Heather Thore “encourages everyone who is worried about these books to actually read them, and even talk to teens about their impressions of the books.”
Tamara Cox, another South Carolina librarian, deftly highlights why books are so important to teenagers: “Reading is just a powerful way to engage in the world that the kids are surrounded by already. You’re really not protecting them by limiting what they can read because they’re already in the middle of it.” I agree. Rather than ban THUG and All American Boys, we should encourage intellectual freedom, including and especially for young people. Let’s read these books and thoughtfully consider the message that is being portrayed. Let’s read these books and discuss with children the reality of racial profiling and police violence against the black community. Let’s read these books and encourage active change for future generations.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.