8 books you won’t believe were banned

This week, September 27 through October 3, is Banned Books Week. Maybe you’ve seen the hashtag #BannedBooksWeek on social media, but you’re unsure what all the fuss is about. Well here’s the scoop, book lovers!

Banned Books Week has been celebrated since 1982 and was started by the literary community as a response to a spike in the number of books being challenged in schools, libraries and bookstores. Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Wait, this is America. We don’t ban books here.” I hate to break it to you, but yes, we do.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), more than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982. Last year, 311 books were reported as challenged to the Office of Intellectual Freedom (the division of the ALA that receives reports of attempts to ban books), which means that a book is either banned or attempted to be banned nearly every single day in the United States.

And those books represent only a fraction of the problem. Challenged books go unreported all the time. A good friend of mine is an elementary school librarian, and every year she receives complaints about the Captain Underpants books. What does it mean exactly when a book is “challenged?” Good question. A book is challenged when someone has attempted to have it removed from a school, library or bookstore. A book is considered “banned” when that challenge has been successful and the removal has actually occurred. Most of the time, the person issuing the challenge has good intentions. (At least we like to think so.) According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom, the top three reasons given for challenging books are: the material was considered to be sexually explicit; it contained offensive language; and the book was thought to be “unsuitable” for any age group.

The majority of challenges are issued by parents, although library patrons, teachers, clergy, politicians and yes, even the government itself (what!?) gets in on the action, too. (You can take a look at those statistics here.) The formal position of the ALA, as stated in the Library Bill of Rights, is “Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.”

.A prime example is Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most beloved books of all time. In 2006, librarians in Great Britain even named it the #1 book “every adult should read before they die.” (The Bible was #2 on the list, to put things in perspective.) Well, guess what? To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned repeatedly since 1977, when it was first removed from shelves in Eden Valley, Minnesota, for containing the words “damn” and “lady whore.” Most recently, it was banned in 2009 (!) due to language concerns. Not just challenged, mind you. Banned. (You can see the banning history of To Kill a Mockingbird and other classics that are frequently challenged here.)

Many, many other commonly banned books would totally surprise you. And that’s exactly what Banned Books Week is all about—celebrating the freedom to read and drawing attention to amazing books that have been unfairly targeted for censorship. Books like these

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is one of the most revered literary figures in our nation’s history. When she passed away last year, Presidents Obama and Clinton attended her memorial service. Her portrait is on an official government postage stamp. Yet, her powerfully written memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is consistently challenged. Why? Because it depicts her sexual assault as an eight-year-old girl.

Sexual assault is real, people. And a memoir is just that—a collection of memories, both good and bad. Sometimes it’s the most tragic memories that have the most impact and make people who they are. If this scene was left out of Angelou’s memoir, the book would have a huge gaping hole right in its heart.

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

We find it hard to believe (and more than a little sad) that in 2015, the same year same-sex marriage became legal nationwide (because #LoveWins!), one of the most challenged books in the country is a children’s picture book about two male penguins who form a couple and raise a tiny baby penguin together. And Tango Makes Three is based on a true story about real penguins from New York’s Central Park Zoo. It’s heartwarming and sweet. It’s also been one of the top ten most challenged books in America seven of the nine years since its publication.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s hard to believe, but The Great Gatsby comes in at the very top of the ALA’s list of banned and challenged classics. The book is required reading in a lot of English classes (probably because it’s widely considered to be the Great American Novel), but some high schools and even some colleges have challenged it, mainly due to profanity. Mind you, the “profanity” we’re talking about is literally nothing that any student doesn’t hear regularly on primetime network television.

Another common complaint is about the book’s one sexual reference. “Took her.” That’s it, guys. That’s the extent of the controversial sex scene. Two words.

The entire Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling


Yes. Seriously. Get ready to have your mind blown because according to the ALA, the Harry Potter series (collectively) ranks as the #1 most banned book for the entire 21st century. We’re going to give you a minute to wrap your head around that, because WHAT IN THE WORLD?

Harry Potter’s big crime is being a wizard, apparently. The books are most frequently challenged for “promoting witchcraft,” but sometimes people get really creative and call them “masterpieces of satanic deception.” (You can read all about it here.)

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

You would think a memoir from the Holocaust would be challenged for reasons involving cruelty or violence, but no. It’s Anne Frank’s passages about her changing adolescent body that upset people. (Those kinds of observations are completely normal and nothing at all to be ashamed of, by the way.)

13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

I had the pleasure of meeting Jay Asher at a writer’s conference in 2014 (where I pretty much fan-girled all over him and almost fainted when he bought one of my books). He is charming and humble, with a great sense of humor. He’s an anti-bullying activist. He’s a former assistant librarian, a dad, and he cares about kids. A lot. So imagine my surprise when I found out he was the third most frequently challenged author of 2012.

13 Reasons Why is a huge bestseller. It’s a beautifully poignant book that encourages teens to take a stand against bullying. It also happens to deal with teen suicide, which is the reason it’s so often challenged. Here’s a heads-up that really should go without saying: ignoring teen suicide doesn’t make it any less real. And books that deal with it in a sensitive manner most definitely shouldn’t be banned.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Catcher in the Rye has been controversial since it was first published, due to profanity (fun fact: Salinger coined the term “screwed up”), sexual content and violence. But the big problem seems to be its theme of teen angst and rebellion. Which is really confusing, because angsty, rebellious teens have been around since the beginning of time. I mean, aren’t all teenagers rebellious to some extent?

Yet poor Holden Caulfield has long been a favorite of censors. In 1960, an English teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma was even fired for teaching it as part of the 11th grade curriculum. He was re-hired after an appeal, but still. Wow.

Pretty much every single book penned by Judy Blume

Judy Blume is probably the most outspoken author in America when it comes to fighting censorship. When the huge wave of book challenging began in the early 1980’s, Blume’s books were at the epicenter of the fight. Her young adult novels deal with things like periods, masturbation and changing adolescent bodies. In other words, real things that preteens and teens deal with every single day. As she says on her website, “It never occurred to me, at the time, that what I was writing was controversial. Much of it grew out of my own feelings and concerns when I was young.”

Blume wasn’t going down without a fight. She spoke out against the censors, and an entire portion of her website is devoted to the realities of book banning, with everything from a Resource/Toolkit about book censorship in schools to a guide for authors on “what to do if it happens to you.”

Why is she so devoted to the cause? “It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”

Not if Judy can help it.

But what can you do? What can we all do? Read.

[Images via Goodreads]

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