Why We Oppose Book Bans

Cover for The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas

It began with a complaint about The Hate U Give.

K-Staters will remember The Hate U Give. It was the Kansas State First Book choice for our common read in 2018. The 2017 young adult novel was on the New York Times bestseller list for 80 weeks and made into a movie by 20th Century Fox.

When the author, Angie Thomas, addressed an overflow crowd at McCain Auditorium in April 2019, she proved to be a generous and inspiring speaker, recalling how her own interest in activism began when, as a child in Mississippi, she learned about the racist murder of Emmett Till, and how her introduction to hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur gave her the courage to funnel her outrage into words. She gave a shout-out to the carload of teens who had driven six hours from Missouri to hear her. KSFB director Tara Coleman said the demand for tickets to the event was “amazing.” It was proof of the kind of energy that can result from building a community around reading.

Last week, after a student in the Goddard school district near Wichita checked out The Hate U Give from the library, the student’s parent lodged a protest with the administration, demanding the book be removed. The complainant then added a list of 28 books deemed inappropriate for the district’s student body. The list included The Bluest Eye by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, The Handmaid’s Tale by Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences by August Wilson. The district immediately took the titles out of circulation. It’s unclear where this list of books originated, but librarians nationally have reported a sharp uptick in demands to pull books off the shelves this past year. Most of these calls for censorship, like the one in Goddard, target authors of color or LGBTQ authors. Many of the titles are young adult novels about teens grappling with questions of identity, or about their place in the world—exactly the kind of material young people are eager to investigate.

The Goddard ban elicited a national outcry, including responses from some of the proscribed authors. Within 24 hours, the administration reversed its decision to remove the books from circulation.

While the brief ban was ominous, it also revealed much to celebrate, like the wise Goddard librarians who had stocked their shelves with such important, thought-provoking literature; the near universal opposition to the ban on social media; and the inquisitive student whose interest in The Hate U Give sparked the crisis. At the same time, we know the Goddard ban is not an isolated event. We expect more challenges to come, more assaults on students’ freedom to read, and we should be prepared to respond.

The Department of English at Kansas State University has long held a firm stance against book bans. We encourage students to read complicated, controversial books. We encourage them to share, discuss, and form opinions about them. We know that students who have access to the titles being challenged in schools across the country are the students who have the best shot at becoming knowledgeable, empathetic, independent-minded, and problem-solving adults.

And if any Kansas high school students are interested in The Hate U Give, you can expect we’ll be discussing it at Kansas State for years to come.

Katy Karlin, Associate Professor

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