By Courtney Suciu
It was one of the most banned books of 2017, and continues to be pulled from library shelves, reading lists and classrooms in school districts across the country due its depictions of violence, drug use and sexuality, as well as its use of profane language.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is inspired by real life events. This young adult novel tells the story of a teenage girl who witnesses the police shooting of her childhood friend; in the aftermath, she struggles with biased media coverage and mounting racial tensions, culminating in riots when the grand jury fails to indict the officer who killed the unarmed student.
While The Hate U Give indisputably tackles difficult social issues, is it inappropriate for young adult readers? As a highly anticipated film adaptation of the novel is scheduled for release next month, the debate will likely continue. We take a deeper look at this ongoing dispute, as well as a recent study on how reading controversial material impacts the behavior of students.
Published in February 2016, The Hate U Give immediately struck a chord with readers. It debuted at number one on The New York Times bestseller list and remained there for 50 weeks. Reviewers raved about it. Alex Wheatle of The Guardian1 hailed the book as an “outstanding debut novel [that] says more about the contemporary black experience in America than any book I have read for years, whether fiction or non-fiction.”
In School Librarian, Sally Perry2 noted “Angie Thomas does not avoid the contradictions of the issues she portrays; she shows that people, relationships and situations are complex” and that the book “addresses the issue in an accessible and impactful way, while also delivering a gripping plot and multi-sided characters and relationships that will linger with the reader long after the story has finished.”
Adriana E. Ramirez wrote in the Los Angeles Times3, “By giving us Starr's [the protagonist’s] story, Thomas uses fiction to make a black girl's story important,” and compared the novel’s perspective to the one in the popular dystopian series The Hunger Games:
Our access to Starr's thoughts and feelings have much larger stakes for our world than whatever doubts run through Katniss' mind. Starr Carter's story matters to our world. Starr's frustrations and fears echo those of my students, friends and colleagues across races.3
Meanwhile, as The Hate U Give also racked up honors from the likes of The Boston Globe and Library Journal, and made the long-list for the National Book Award, debates broke out in school districts around the U.S., including in Texas and Missouri, over whether the novel should be taught, recommended or even accessible in schools.
And it wasn’t only concerned parents and educators who raised objections to the novel. In July 2018, when police in a South Carolina community near Charleston protested the inclusion of The Hate U Give on a summer reading list, the controversy made international headlines.
Vibe magazine4 reported John Blackmon, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3, said his union “received an influx of tremendous outrage at the selections by this reading list,” and wondered why the school chose to “focus half of their effort on negativity towards the police” when “there are other socio-economic topics that are available.”
“This is … almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that,” he continued.
According to the article, principal Dr. Sherry Eppelsheimer responded in a statement that the school board would review the books in question (the police union also protested another young adult novel dealing with police brutality), but added that “For young readers in Charleston, The Hate U Give and All American Boys offer insight into the racial injustices many people of color experience, and inspiration for young activists who desire change.”
While most of us likely have strong opinions on this question, Christopher J. Ferguson of Stetson University5 pointed out that while there have been many studies on the impact of media such as video games and TV on behavior, “research on the effect of books is almost entirely lacking”:
Many books marketed toward adolescents contain “edgy” content including violence, sex, profanity and other potentially objectionable content. As a result, a number of such books are commonly “challenged,” that is to say, parents, politicians or activist groups seek to have them removed from public or school libraries…Despite this, few studies have actually examined the potential influence of books on behavioral outcomes.
Ferguson notes that books are mostly to be challenged at times when “society is experiencing a pressing social problem (real or imagined),” and this has been the case for everything ranging from translations of the Bible to Harry Potter, “which have either been censored or challenged based on their perceived harms to society.”
Published in 2014, Ferguson’s study was designed to test the hypothesis that exposure to banned books would correlate “with decreased civic behavior, increased criminal activity, increased mental health problems and decreased academic activity.” He focused on a sample of youths aged 12-18 from a small city in Texas and a list of 30 books identified by the American Library Association as the most commonly challenged over the last decade. (The study was conducted before the publication of The Hate U Give, so it was not on the list.)
What Ferguson found is “the relationship between banned books and behavioral and mental health outcomes is complex.”
For starters, the research showed that young readers with the most exposure to challenged books actually demonstrated a higher level of civic awareness and engagement. Ferguson made it clear that this correlation does not necessarily mean that students are more likely to take part in civic activity such as volunteering because they read what he calls “edgy” material – it could be that students with such inclinations are more drawn to books that tackle complex social issues, as in many of the titles on the banned book list.
Ferguson also cited other research that suggested “reading literature can promote ethical development and this may extend to reading edgy literature as well as milder literature,” adding that “the opportunity to expose oneself to and consider ethical dilemmas may foster higher-level thinking about those issues and promote more civic-mindedness.”
On the other hand, Ferguson’s study also found among a small percentage of the sample a correlation between high exposure to controversial literature and an increase in mental health symptoms.
Again, this relationship does not prove that exposure to such reading material causes mental health concerns, but rather that young adults who struggle with issues such as depression might be drawn to books that “speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection or release from their symptoms.” Ferguson noted that parents and educators might want to be alert to young readers who opt to read a lot of “edgy” content, as their choices might indicate a struggle with mental health symptoms.
Ferguson reiterated that mental health concerns only related to a small subset of students in the study. “On balance,” he wrote, “results from this study do not indicate that, for the majority of readers, banned books present a significant behavioral problem. Indeed, given the results for civic behavior, it could be argued that efforts to restrict banned books from the majority of youth are misguided.”
Additionally, Ferguson’s research did not find a relationship between reading controversial literature and an increased likelihood of engaging in criminal activity. There was also no relationship indicated between reading banned books and GPA – students who read “edgy” material did not get better or worse grades than their peers, although students who read for pleasure were likely to have higher GPAs.
“This result suggests that particular emphasis should be placed on encouraging children to read stories that they enjoy,” he noted.
While Ferguson’s research has its limitations, it makes an interesting point that reading “banned” books doesn’t significantly influence behavior in negative ways; however, it is possible that exposure to “edgy” literature can have a possible influence on behavior.
This study illuminates the benefits of reading novels like The Hate U Give that might challenge perspectives and helps us to better understand complex social issues, particularly when it leads to discussion in a classroom, with parents or among peers.
Which applies not only students, but to all of us. As readers as well as educators, libraries, publishers and content providers, it’s our job to provide access to content that helps us learn more about ourselves and each other.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu