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South Carolina Parents, Cops Upset by Reading List Books on Police Violence

George Tillman Jr., director of the upcoming film "The Hate U Give," and cast member Amandla Steinberg discuss the film during the 20th Century Fox presentation at CinemaCon 2018 on April 26, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

John Blackmon, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3, received hundreds of texts and voice message from Charleston County, S.C., parents and police officers complaining about something neither he nor his FOP lodge members had anything to do with: the summer reading list for Wando High School’s English 1 class.

“Whether it be through social media, whether it be through text message, whether it be phone calls, we’ve received an influx of tremendous outrage at the selections by this reading list,” Blackmon told WCBD-TV.

Blackmon said parents aren’t upset by the entire reading list, just two of the four books that students in the class are required to read — “The Hate U Give” and “All American Boys” — both of which deal with police violence against black teenagers.

Angie Thomas’ young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” was a breakout bestseller in February 2017. The New York Times called it “an instant critical and commercial hit,” with more than 100,000 copies in print. The film adaptation is set to be released in October.

Erin Keane wrote in Salon that “The Hate U Give” should not only be on the Wando High School English 1 class summer reading list, it “should be required reading for all clueless white people.”

“White people who have only seen poverty from a vague distance need to read this book and talk about it at home. White people who pull away from their black friends when they want to talk about racism should read this book and write a full report, with proper MLA citations,” Keane also wrote.

“White people who have no black friends should at least make their book clubs read this book. The entire police force of Catlettsburg, Kentucky, should not only have to read this book, they need to each buy five copies and give them to their white friends,” Keane added.

“All American Boys” came out in 2015. The novel tells the story of an African-American teenager who is beaten by a police officer who thinks the boy is a shoplifter.

“This isn’t a literary trend,” said Jason Reynolds, who co-authored “All American Boys” with Brendan Kiely. “This is an issue of our time.”

“The Hate U Give,” with its title inspired by a phrase made famous by the rapper Tupac Shakur, and “All American Boys” are two of some young-adult novels with a similar theme that were published the past few years.

Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, sold his first book, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers last year. It’s the story of a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer. Coles said he began writing the novel as a reaction to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.

“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” Coles told the New York Times.

Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore, said fiction is an excellent way to present topics like racism and police violence to teenagers.

“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Taylor. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”

Blackmon said that is the problem: teenagers are too impressionable to deal with novels that say police officers are not to be trusted.

“Freshmen, they’re at the age where their interactions with law enforcement have been very minimal. They’re not driving yet, they haven’t been stopped for speeding, they don’t have these type of interactions,” said Blackmon. “This is putting in their minds, it’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that.”

Dr. Sherry Eppelsheimer, the principal of Wando High School, said a school district committee would review the placement of the controversial books on the summer reading list. She also pointed out that students are only required to read one of the four books.

“I understand two of the selections/choices for this summer’s reading list for English 1 College Prep classes are considered controversial by some members of our community,” she said. “I appreciate their concern and input regarding this matter.”

But still, a committee of Wando High School teachers put this list together, and Blackmon said he is upset with the selection of two of the four books on the summer reading list that show police in a bad light.

“They want to focus half of their effort on negativity towards the police?” Blackmon said. “That seems odd to me.”