Here’s good news: A new study of Texas teens finds no connection between reading “edgy” books and mental health issues or delinquent behavior. By “edgy,” what the researchers meant was books that contain “violent, sexual, or occult” elements (would that include Peter Pan? The Wizard of Oz? Cinderella?)—books that typically are banned in school and public libraries across this great nation, including the great state of Texas.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s what the researchers also said: “Consuming edgy material … may provide teachable moments to discuss ethical issues between parents and children. Banning such material may be counterproductive in removing these teachable opportunities.”
The new research, conducted by Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson, and published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, suggests these “edgy” books may indeed have an impact on impressionable young minds.
A positive impact.
The study showed that South Texas teens who read “banned books” were more likely to be engaged in civic activities such as volunteer work. “[T]he influence of banned books on behavior are not worrisome, and may be positive overall,” Ferguson wrote.
Ferguson surveyed 282 students, aged 12–18, who live in a small, predominantly Hispanic Texas town. He gave them a list of 30 books that the American Library Association have identified as “commonly challenged…over the past decade because of content.” These books ranged from the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The youngsters read the books and responded to questions that were designed to reveal antisocial personality disorders about how they felt toward friends and family. The kids were also asked about whether and how frequently they engaged in three civic-minded activities: volunteer work, charitable giving, and elections/electoral processes. Their primary caregivers filled out a survey describing the student’s behavior and reported his or her most recent grade point average.
The results: “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA,” Ferguson reports, but was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.” Furthermore, “…reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”
Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way, he writes, the books “may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”
Furguson noted that a few kids showed a correlation in both the consumption of banned books and mental health symptoms. “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms,” he wrote. Although this correlation “may serve as a red flag for parents,” the study suggests that for the vast majority of kids, reading banned books isn’t harmful and may even contribute to emotional and moral growth.
I tried to find the list of 30 books that Ferguson used for this study, but could not—well, I’m sure the list is in the original study paper, but I couldn’t get past the abstract page in the database. The ALA publishes a new list of “commonly banned books” every year and bases its choices on a historical time line of challenges. This is the list I found, starting in 1982. It looks like it might be the one Ferguson used, or at least it’s close:
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (nominated, National Book award)
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction)
In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (winner, Caldecott Medal)
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (winner, Newbery Medal)
Forever, by Judy Blume
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
The Satanic Verses, By Salman Rushdie
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962)
Sex, by Madonna
Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012)
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (winner, Pulitzer Prize. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
All But Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Daddy’s Roommate, Michael Willhoite
Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (winner, Coretta Scott King Award)
Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Harry Potter (Series), by JK Rowling
The Giver, by Lois Lowry (winner, Newbery Medal)
King and King, by Linda De Hann
It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (winner, Carnegie Medal)
Gossip Girl (Series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
TTYL, by Lauren Myracle
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (winner, National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature)
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire