September 22-28 marks Banned Books Week this year, a week during which we draw attention to the books that have been censored, challenged and banned in schools and libraries across the country and during which we also celebrate the freedom to read whatever we want.
Throughout history, some of the most culturally important books have been banned, drawing attention to the important issues they present and, ironically, making them more enticing, especially to young readers.
Books are still being banned in today’s society. Just last week, a North Carolina county school board voted 5-2 to ban Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” stating that they found “no literary value” in the work and that it was “too much for teenagers.” “Invisible Man” is one of the most famous pieces of literature about Black life in America in the 1950s and won the National Book Award, so the school board’s assertion that it had no literary merit is, at the very least, questionable. It is also the number one most cited book on the College Board’s Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition exam, a national test for high schoolers to earn college credit from their Advanced Placement courses.
Just a few days before North Carolina’s decision, in Arizona, “Dreaming in Cuban,” Cristina García’s critically acclaimed book about politics and family after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, was banned. The American Library Association says that the book has never been banned before, even though the parent who challenged the book cited sexually explicit material. Considering Arizona’s long history of banning books and stripping courses having to do with Latino/a culture, this decision is questionable as well.
Furthermore, according to the American Library Association, from 2000-2009 there were:
- 1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
- 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
- 989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
- 619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
- 361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”
Every year, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom puts together a list of the top 10 most challenged books of the previous year (and you can find a list of frequently banned classics here, too). This year, you might be surprised to find some of your favorite titles topping the list. Here they are, in reverse order.
10. “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence
Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is the enthralling story of Sethe, a woman born into slavery who escaped to Ohio. 18 years after her escape, however, she is still not truly free. She is haunted by her love for her home and by the ghost of her baby. An instant classic, this book is taught in high schools and colleges as an exemplary novel about slavery and racism.
9. “The Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
“The Glass Castle” is Jeanette Walls’ memoir of growing up and surviving in the face of extreme poverty. Her parents were nomads and nonconformists, making them both excellent at raising their children but not so much at providing for them. Walls paints a picture of poverty in her book that you won’t soon forget.
8. “Scary Stories” (series), by Alvin Schwartz
Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
I remember reading Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories” as a child at sleepovers. There is something delicious about hiding under the covers with a flashlight, unable to continue reading but also unable to look away. These stories are absolutely classic and terrifying; something everyone will enjoy.
7. “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green.
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
John Green has recently risen to internet fame with his YouTube videos and beautifully written young adult novels. “Looking for Alaska” is one of the latter. In it, Miles “Pudge” Walter goes in search of something exciting, only to find exactly what he’s looking for: Alaska Young, a young, beautiful, crazy girl who steals his heart.
6. “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini.
Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
Published only a few years after 9/11, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” is a story America needed to hear — a story of an Afghanistan that wasn’t always war torn and full of violence. Hosseini’s characters weave an epic tale of childhood, growth, home, and abuse. At times heartwarming, at others heartbreaking, this book became an instant classic and is taught in high schools all around the country.
5. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
“And Tango Makes Three” is no stranger to the Banned Books list. This illustrated children’s book depicts the fictionalized true story of two male penguins who bonded and were given an egg to care for. Once the egg hatched, they became a family with two dads. This is a true tale of love.
4. “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E. L. James.
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
It may not surprise you to see E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” at the top of the Banned Books list this year. This popular, erotic fiction series arose out of “Twilight” fan fiction and has graced the New York Times Bestseller list for some time. Its sexually explicit scenes is what has this book challenged in libraries across the nation.
3. “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher.
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
A favorite among my students, “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher is the story of Clay Jensen, who discovers a box filled with cassette tapes on his doorstep one day. The tapes are from his crush, Hannah Baker, who killed herself two weeks before. The tapes tell Clay 13 reasons why Hannah decided to end her life, leading Clay to an epiphany unlike any other.
2. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie.
Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
Native American writer Sherman Alexie is no stranger to the Banned Books list. In “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Alexie takes his readers through the fictional journal of a teenage boy, in all of its messiness and hilarity. This is a must read for anyone who wants a laugh and some important insight, especially if you work with teenagers.
1. “Captain Underpants” (series), by Dav Pilkey.
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
“Captain Underpants” is the story of two fourth-grade boys who create comic books and who plan irresistible pranks that get them into some major trouble. Eventually, they actually become Captain Underpants, their own superhero creation, changing their luck forever.