11 Banned Books You Definitely Should Read
I experienced my first, and really only, direct brush with book banning as I prepared to start my junior year of high school.
I was completing my honors English summer reading project (#NerdLife) which was to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
Not long into the summer, my mom got a phone call from the mother of another student in the class. This mother fervently objected to the book selection. She was trying to rally other parents to gather their pitchforks and march on the school board offices.
And I’m talking about metaphorical pitchforks, of course…I grew up in Columbus and, despite what you may think about how metropolitan Columbus isn’t, there really wasn’t much call for pitchfork ownership.
At this point in time, I wasn’t too far into the novel myself (#Procrastination4Eva) so I really had no idea as to what objectionable material could possibly be sandwiched between the front and back covers of this seemingly bland book.
As I listened to my mother on the phone, I wondered, would my she join hands with this classmate’s parent in trying to get this filth out of the hands of her impressionable (and embarrassingly sheltered) daughter?
So I read East of Eden … every last word (and probably paid more attention than I would have had I not been alerted to the potential questionability of it as a choice, TBH)…and I loved it.
What impact did the reading of this smut have on me during my formative years?
It taught me to love reading and to loathe censorship.
As we celebrate this banned book week, spend some time luxuriating in a banned book.
Check out these 11 banned books that you definitely should read.
1. A Handmaid’s Tale
This cautionary tale by Margaret Atwood is set in a dystopian America. Following a breakdown of society, an entirely new “morality-based” caste system has arisen.
Published in 1985, this book has long taken up a spot on the American Library Association’s (ALA) 100 most challenged list. The book appeared on this 1990-1999 list, coming in at spot number 37 and remained on this 2000-2009 list, dropping to spot 88.
You don’t have to get far into the book to start seeing why people might challenge it.
It’s an emotionally difficult read.
It makes you uncomfortable.
But that’s kind of the point.
While challengers have listed a host of reasons why this book should be removed from libraries, they most commonly point to profanity, violence, and graphic sexual content.
Yes, this book is graphic – necessarily so.
With her words, Atwood is showing us instead of telling us what could happen if we aren’t careful – if we don’t act as active participants in ensuring that we retain freedom and liberty.
Honestly, now more than ever, people need to read this book.
2. The Goosebumps Series
R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, enjoyed by book-loving kids hiding under their covers with flashlights since 1992.
Despite the fact that the 196 (as of 2017) books that make up this series may seem mild to many, they have had their host of challengers.
Collectively, enough to land them in the 94 spot on the ALA’s list of most challenged books of 2000-2009.
Because… they can be scary?
1. I encounter kindergarteners who weekly discuss the events on The Walking Dead. And, my eight-year-old informs me that children at his own school are playing IT on the playground, circling around a manhole cover and chanting, “Pennywise, come out, come out.”
I think Cuddles the 10-foot tall hamster is tame by comparison.
2. Fear – in small doses – serves a purpose.
Books inducing mild fear in children give, “them a small dose of scary and lets them produce needed antibodies towards fear, book after book, so that they slowly become less affected,” says Alissa Nutting for PEN America.
3. And Tango Makes Three
“Gay Penguins have no place in our libraries, say parents.”
- The Telegraph, 13 April 2015
Based on true events, this picture book tells the story of Roy and Silo* two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo.
When a zookeeper sees Roy and Silo working together to encourage an egg-shaped rock to hatch, he has an idea. He gives Roy and Silo an egg to nurture, which eventually hatches, giving them a baby penguin – Tango – to raise as their own.
So, yeah, they are gay.
And it’s the homosexuality of the flightless and feather-covered dual protagonists alone that has lead to the challenging of this book.
Published in April of 2005, this book rocketed up the ALA’s list of most challenged books, landing at the 4 spot in the 2000-2009 rankings.
Beautifully illustrated and smartly written, this book introduces the concept of homosexuality in a sensitive way perfect for young readers. Despite the challenges, this is one book that I will happily read to my children as they perch on my knee.
*Oh, and in case you’re wondering, as The New York Times reported, it didn’t end up being happily ever after for Roy and Silo. In 2005, Silo left Roy for a female penguin named Scrappy. Following his abandonment, Roy was, “seen alone, in a corner, staring at a wall.”
Um, fuck you, Silo!
Oh, God. I just felt actual animosity towards a penguin. #GetAGripErin
4. Captain Underpants
In 2012, The Captain Underpants books were challenged more times than Fifty Shades of Grey.
Let that sink in for a minute.
A book about an underwear-clad superhero born out of the imaginations of two precocious boys was more egregious than a book that, rather prominently, features sexual sadism.
This series first landed on the ALA’s most-challenged books by year list in 2002, and held the not-so-coveted number 1 spot on both 2012 and 2013 before falling off entirely. A spin-off of this series, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, sits at number 47 on the ALA’s list of most challenged books for 2000-2009.
So, what’s so offensive about these books?
Well, the fact that the titular character runs around in underwear for one.
But, also, the fact that it contains “offensive language”. What offensive language you might ask? Censors point at a portion of the book in which the two main characters call their principal “that old guy”.
When The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby was challenged in Riverside Unified School District in 2004, people complained about its "inappropriate" scatological storyline.
Do you know what scatological means?
I didn’t either. Here you go:
1. relating to or characterized by an interest in excrement and excretion.
It talks about poop? Wonder why young boys like it.
As of 2012, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby has been banned from the Channelview (TX) Independent School District because characters use the term, “poo poo head.”
Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful, modern-classic Speak teaches readers critical lessons about consent and emotional healing.
The protagonist of this book, Melinda Sordino, doesn’t begin her freshman year of high school as upbeat and excited as her peers. Instead, she begins high school suffering from selective mutism as a result of a trauma.
Written entirely in first-person, present-tense, this book gives readers the rare opportunity to ride the turbulent waves of emotion Melinda feels as she comes to terms with what happened to her.
This book has been challenged numerous times, most notably by a professor at Missouri State University who said that the book, which depicts rape, “should be classified as soft pornography.”
And it would, unfortunately, appear that others agree that this book isn’t appropriate for teens as it holds the number 60 spot on the ALA’s list of most challenged books of 2000-2009
While Speak might be the only Laurie Halse Anderson book to have appeared on the ALA’s most banned lists, it isn’t her only book that explores sensitive topics. Halse Anderson willingly courts controversy as she is committed to depicting the struggles that plague too many teens.
Among her other books are Wintergirls, which deals with anorexia, The Impossible Knife of Memory, which explores alcoholism and post-traumatic stress, and Twisted, which delves into the decidedly difficult topics of depression and suicidal thoughts.
6. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
*Disclaimer* I. Loved. This. Book.
The protagonist of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher is – no surprise here – fat. But, what is surprising is that, as the book progresses and he slims down, he regrets the loss of his protective pudge.
As a fat teen, Eric “Moby” Calhoune is an “outsider”, just like his friend Sarah Byrnes who was badly burned in a childhood trauma. Were he not fat, he could fit in. But if he fits in, where does this leave Sarah?
Yeah… The name Sarah Byrnes is a bit on the nose, but… okay. And Moby for the fat kid?...
Anway, while things start looking up for Moby, things take a turn for the worse for his friend, Sarah, who is hospitalized as she becomes catatonic. Instead of giving up on Sarah and enjoying his newfound – and hopefully not temporary – acceptance, he continues to strive to determine why Sarah is struggling and find a way to help her.
Sound like a beautiful story of friendship? It is.
So why the challenges?
The most notable challenge of this book, which sits at number 85 on the ALA’s list of the most challenged books of 2000-2009, came out of Belleville School District in Wisconsin. A concerned mother in this district stated that the book was “pornographic and full of vulgar profanity.” She was not satisfied with the districts’ offer to allow her child to read a different book but, instead, wanted this one removed.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed and – after pushback from many, including the “Author & Loudmouth” himself, Chris Crutcher, the district voted to retain the book.
7. A Day No Pigs Would Die
I distinctly remember reading this book in 7th grade.
The part that stuck with me was when the main character is at the county fair and has to go to the bathroom. His aunt cautions him to watch out for perverts. He spends his entire time in the bathroom worrying about whether there are perverts around and, if so, how he will identify them because he doesn’t know what a pervert looks like.
Given that I specifically remember reading this book – and honestly don’t remember anything too objectionable – I was certainly surprised to learn that this 1972 book has been on the ALA’s most frequently challenged list since 1990 – the year in which they started tracking and ranking challenged books.
On both the 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 lists, in positions 16 and 80 respectively, this book has apparently been offending people for quite some time. In fact, according to the Encyclopedia of Censorship, this book has been challenged as far back as 1973, the year after it was published.
This book provides an honest portrayal of agrarian life, including scenes containing the depiction of animal mating and the killing of animals, both of which are reasons censors have listed to support their demands that this book be banned.
Ultimately, though, this coming of age story doesn’t censor itself – despite the fact that others wish it would.
This Judy Blume classic centers around the bullying of overweight Linda, who her classmates callously call “blubber.”
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, 24% of boys and 30% of girls experience weight-related teasing in real life.
Given the fact that bullying is a part of the real life of 1/3 of all kids, wouldn’t a book that explores this topic be useful?
Nah, say challengers, who suggest that this book should be banned because it features kids being mean.
Like Halse Anderson, Blume's books often deal with difficult topics.
Unlike Halse Anderson, Blume has written more than one book that has graced, or currently graces, the ALA's top 100 challenged books by decade lists.
In fact, 5 books authored by Blume appeared on the 1990-1999 list and 4 appeared on the 2000-2009 list.
Her other frequently challenged books include Forever, Deenie, Tiger Eyes, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
9. The Face on the Milk Carton
If you grew up in the 90s, then you probably read The Face on the Milk Carton – particularly if you were a girl.
The premise is simple – the protagonist of this book – Janie Johnson – sees her face on a milk carton.
What does it mean?
Has she been kidnapped?
Would seem like a straight-forward thriller, right?
Well, according to challengers the book is too sexually explicit and contains too much drama for a younger audience.
This book held the number 80 spot on the ALA’s most challenged books of 1990-1999 list and, despite the fact that it’s been out since 1990, managed to climb, ending up at spot 29 on the 2000-2009 list of challenged titles.
Interestingly enough, on her website, Author Caroline B. Cooney lists “#29 on the Top 100 Banned & Challenged Books 2000-2009 (ALA) in the “Awards and Recognition” category.
Despite these challenges, the book spawned a series and is still widely read today.
Honestly, the fact that it’s been challenged is still quite shocking. I know like 100 children of the 90s who would be left saying, “WTF?!?” if given this information.
Like, really… they would say WTF. That’s how we talk, now. #GetWithIt
10. Looking for Alaska
This 2005 Prinz award-winning book has had a long and illustrious relationship with the ALA’s challenged books list. Though it doesn’t hold a spot on the list of most challenged books of 2000-2009, it did appear on the list of most challenged books by year in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 holding position 7, 7, 1 and 6 respectively.
Given new prominance as a result of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, and the movie of the same name, this book has come to the attention of a much larger audience, likely explaining its 7-year reprieve from facing challengers
So, what’s the problem with Looking for Alaska?
Well, obviously, nothing. It’s a sensitive and exceptionally well-written coming of age story that speaks to teens on their level.
What do challengers think is wrong with it?
It contains offensive language and sexual content, including a scene that, “May encourage kids to engage in sexual experimentation.”
Like Cooney, John Green has responded to the attempts at the banning of his book in his own way – via YouTube video.
Fortunately, contemporary YA authors, like Green and Cooney, continue to stand up to challengers and refuse to stop producing the provocative works young readers need in their lives.
11. Eleanor and Park
When I discovered that this book was the 10th most challenged book of 2016 I was stunned.
Like, I actually had to pick my jaw up off the desk.
2016 was the inaugural year on the ALA’s most commonly challenged list for Eleanor & Park. Is confetti appropriate for the commemoration of this event? Yeah, probably not.
Like Looking for Alaska, Eleanor & Park, which was published in February of 2013, was out for a while before it caught the attention of enough censors to make the list – probably an indication that those who wish to censor books likely don’t read…many…books…
Seriously, though, what could possibly be wrong with a book detailing the development of tender relationship between new-girl Eleanor and comic-book-fan Park?
Surely not their exchange of mix-tapes.
Nor the realistic awkwardness of their developing relationship and resulting uncertainty and trepidation as they move forward.
So, what was the problem?
Sure. Let’s not allow adolescents to read a breathtakingly beautiful book about friendship and love and the miraculousness of finding a person with your same brand of eccentricities simply because said book contains some F-bombs.