15 Must (Not) Read Titles to Celebrate Banned Books Week!

15 Must (Not) Read Titles to Celebrate Banned Books Week!

Banned Books Week

Freedom of speech is a proud American tradition, but there will always be groups who would rather use censorship to force their own agenda than start a conversation. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of attempts to forbid certain titles in American schools, libraries and bookstores. This year’s celebration runs from September 25–October 1, 2016, and includes events in 29 states and Washington, DC.

One of this year’s most inventive ideas is by the DC public library: a scavenger hunt in which residents seek out copies of banned titles in local shops, cafes and bookstores. Sheathed in distinctive black-and-white covers, the books proclaim themselves to be “PROFANE AND SEXUALLY EXPLICIT” (Richard Wright’s Native Son) or a “FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL” (A Separate Peace by John Knowles). Readers are encouraged to promote their finds on social media using the hashtag #UncensoredDC.

To celebrate the freedom to read, below are fifteen books that have been censored at some point in their history despite powerful literary, political, and social merits. For more information on Banned Books Week, check out https://www.bannedbooksweek.org/.


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


Why was it banned?
Winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Harper Lee’s classic tale of moral courage in the Jim Crow South has been the subject of numerous campaigns for removal from public schools since it was first introduced to them in 1963. It was attacked first by whites outraged at its suggestion that a white woman would seduce a black man, and later by those who felt it didn’t condemn white racism harshly enough. Some characters’ profanity and racial epithets have also offended certain readers throughout its publication.


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger


Why was it banned?
Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. It’s a novel narrated by 17-year-old Holden Caulfield that covers three days of his life in 1949, after he’s kicked out of a private boarding school. Critics have always objected to its use of vulgar language and sexual references, along with its undermining of “traditional family values”, but millions have also found a voice for their own feelings of alienation and loss in Holden’s story. If he knew about the controversy generated by the novel, Holden would probably say “That killed me.”


The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien


Why was it banned?
Massive popularity often breeds argument, so with over 150 million copies in circulation, it’s no surprise that Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy has rubbed a few people the wrong way. In 2001, the Christ Community Church in Alamagordo, New Mexico burned copies of it (along with other Tolkien works) because they considered it satanic. LOTR was first published in 1954-55 and has since been turned into a series of critically acclaimed blockbuster films. It follows a small band of unlikely heroes on a quest to defeat the malevolent forces threatening their world.


The Color Purple by Alice Walker


Why was it banned?
Winner of the 1983 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Color Purple has been consistently challenged in American public school districts for its subject matter, which includes homosexuality, incest, and rape. It’s also considered by many to be one of the most powerful African American feminist commentaries ever written, and has been turned into a hit movie and a current smash on Broadway.


Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank


Why was it banned?
Anne Frank’s diary was first published in 1950, five years after its teenage author’s murder by the Nazis in 1945. Her father Otto edited the manuscript and originally removed a passage in which Anne describes her confusion regarding sex, as well as her exploration of her own genitalia. In 2010, an unabridged version (with the passage restored) set off outrage when it was assigned to public school students in Culpeper County, Virginia. The book has been hailed for its literary merit as well as its importance as a Holocaust document.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley


Why was it banned?
Called a “brilliant, painful, important book” by the New York Times upon its publication in 1965, The Autobiography of Malcolm X details the political and spiritual awakening of its author, one of the Civil Rights era’s seminal figures. Objectors have called it a “how-to manual for crime” and faulted it for its “anti-white sentiments,” but there’s no denying its massive relevance to America’s continuing struggle with race.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky


Why was it banned?
A coming-of-age novel composed of a series of letters written by a high school boy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was removed from the curriculum at Sheehan High School in Wallingford, Connecticut after a parent complained in 2015. The main offending passage is one in which the narrator witnesses a date rape, but the novel has also drawn ire from parents for openly addressing issues such as depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts. In spite of concern, it has been called “arguably the most beloved coming-of-age novel published in the last two decades” (The Stranger).


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Why was it banned?
The Great Gatsby is considered a masterpiece of American literature, but that didn’t stop the Baptist College in Charleston, SC from condemning it for “language and sexual references” in 1987. Apparently harsh language and sex are too scary to even read about, much less experience in real life.


The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini


Why was it banned?
In 1999, Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini learned through a news report that the Taliban had banned kite flying in Afghanistan, and was inspired to write The Kite Runner as a result. The critically acclaimed novel became a bestseller in the United States, but also made the American Library Association’s top 10 list of challenged books in 2008, 2012 and 2014 thanks to multiple attempts to remove it from public libraries. Among its detractors were parents troubled by its sexual content and Afghan-Americans who thought it depicted Pashtuns as oppressors and Hazaras as the oppressed.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou


Why was it banned?
Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography is one of the ten books most frequently banned from high school and middle school libraries and classrooms. It was approved to be taught in public schools in the early 1980s, yet parents immediately campaigned to censor it because of its sexual explicitness, raw language, and the author’s description of her own rape at age eight. However, the backlash didn’t stop Time Magazine in 2011 from placing the book on its list of “100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923”.


Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James


Why was it banned?
E.L. James’ erotic romance novel was originally self-published as an ebook in 2011 before Vintage Books bought the rights and turned it into an explosive bestseller. In March 2012, the Brevard County, Florida public library removed copies of it from their shelves, stating that it did not meet “selection criteria” due its sexual content and depictions of BDSM. It apparently did meet selection criteria for more than 125 million readers worldwide despite lukewarm critical reviews.


1984 by George Orwell


Why was it banned?
Ironically, censorship is a major theme of Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel, which imagines a world in which an all-seeing government suppresses any shred of individuality in its citizens. Jackson County, Florida challenged the book in 1981 for being, in their estimation, “pro-communist.” They might have missed the point though, as 1984 is widely considered to be an indictment of communism as the dominant form of totalitarianism.


A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway


Why was it banned?
One of Hemingway’s best, this novel was banned in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy, as well as the U.S. for its sexual content and political criticism. It also remained unpublished in Italy for nearly twenty years after its initial release because Mussolini resented Hemingway’s criticism of his fascist regime. A Farewell To Arms is essential Hemingway and contains one of the most devastating last lines in American literature.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


Why was it banned?
A classic of the true crime genre, Capote’s 1966 “non-fiction novel” details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the sleepy farming town of Holcomb, Kansas. In 1999, a parent in Savannah, Georgia complained about the book’s sex, violence and profanity when it was assigned to her daughter’s Advanced Placement English class. She was temporarily successful in banning it, but it was later reinstated.


Beloved by Toni Morrison


Why was it banned?
Challenged for its language, depictions of violence, and sexual material by school board members and parents across the country, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a powerful and disturbing contemplation of the psychological impact of slavery and its legacy in America. In 2006, a school district in Arlington Heights, Illinois kept Beloved on its reading list despite protest from a board member who had not actually read the book.


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Thomas Whittington

Thomas Whittington is an instructor with Iris Reading. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005 despite being a painfully slow reader. In 2008, he took an Iris course and, with practice, dramatically improved his reading speed. Hey, better late than never! Thomas' other interests include acting, comedy, and the Chicago Cubs.

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  • A. Anderson

    In the early 80’s my daughter’s school distributed a petition to remove A Time to Kill from the reading list. I told my daughter I needed to read it before I signed the petition. When I finished reading it, I had my daughter read it so that we could discuss it. Needless to say I did not sign the petition.