Banned Books Week is one of my favourite events in the bookish calendar each year. It’s the annual celebration of the Freedom To Read, endorsed and supported by just about every major literary and library organisation in the U.S., and its influence is spreading around the world. Banned Books Week began in 1983, in response to a surge of books being challenged and censored, especially in school libraries and reading lists. The leaders of the charge seek to advocate for free and open access to information, and the freedom to seek and express ideas, even if they’re unorthodox or unpopular. Last year, I put together a list of ridiculous (real!) reasons that beloved books have been banned. This time around, I thought I’d give you a list of the best banned books, with a heaping serve of encouragement that you check out any that pique your interest.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
When this incredible Young Adult fiction offering was released in 2017, it made a huge splash. The Hate U Give won every award you can imagine, and it was the most searched-for book on Goodreads that year. Readers, young and adult alike, were captivated by the story of a 16-year-old black girls’ journey into activism, inspired by police violence perpetrated against her childhood friend. The themes are heavy and controversial, so of course it must be challenged and censored (blegh); it’s been accused of being “pervasively vulgar” for its depiction of drug use and profanity.
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The story of Atticus Finch, told through the eyes of his daughter Scout, defending a black man wrongly accused of a terrible crime is a beloved classic of American literature. Harper Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for her efforts, and her book continues to grow in popularity, circulating more and more widely each year. And yet, with To Kill A Mockingbird‘s widening reach comes ongoing and increasing challenges to its inclusions in school curricula, mostly on the basis of its violence and use of the N-word.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
This 2003 novel was the first from Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner tells the story of a young Kabul boy, Amir, and it’s a multi-generational tale told over the fall of the Afghani monarchy, the Soviet military intervention, the rise of the Taliban, and the mass exodus of refugees from the country. It’s gripping stuff, right? Unfortunately, it has since been challenged and banned on the grounds that it depicts sexual violence, contains “offensive language”, could “lead to terrorism”, and “promotes Islam”. Proving, once again, that some people just hate what they can’t understand…
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime – Mark Haddon
The publisher’s website proudly proclaims that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime is one of the most talked-about books of the last decade; normally, we’d need to give the marketing people a pass for their liberal use of creative license, but in this case they’re probably not far off the truth. Mark Haddon’s best-selling book follows the story of 15-year-old Christopher as he investigates, with his photographic memory and scientific mind, the mysterious death of his neighbour’s dog. It’s warm, it’s charming, it’s funny – and it’s been challenged for “offensive language”, “profanity”, and “atheism” (of all things), which the concerned parties considered unsuitable for some age groups.
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
The Catcher In The Rye is the definitive disaffected-youth story, and the grown-ups love nothing better than issuing angry adolescents a challenge! Holden Caulfield’s runaway weekend in New York apparently contains too much offensive language and explicit sexuality, making it unsuited to its teenage audience. Can you imagine missing the point of this novel so spectacularly that you actually put those complaints in writing? Smh…
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison has produced some of the best examples in living memory of literature that challenges the systemic and entrenched racism of American society, The Bluest Eye among them. The novel is set in Ohio, where young Pecola struggles under the weight of her inferiority complex, believing that her beauty as a black woman pales in comparison to that of her white-skinned blue-eyed classmates. It has been challenged for being “sexually explicit”, featuring “violence”, and (bafflingly) containing “controversial issues”. One of Morrison’s other novels, Beloved, is often challenged on the same grounds.
The Earth, My Butt, And Other Big Round Things – Carolyn Mackler
I remember loving The Earth, My Butt, And Other Big Round Things in high-school. I read it so many times, the spine on my copy started to fall apart; I tried desperately to find it when I was pulling this post together but, alas, it appears to be lost to the annals of my adolescence. I couldn’t quite believe Mackler’s iconic work was among the most banned books in America, but here we are. Apparently, it contains offensive language and it is “sexually explicit”. I don’t know about any of that, but I read it plenty, and I turned out fine! I would highly recommend gifting a copy to any unsettled teenage girls you know, regardless of what the haters and censors say.
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games has been accused of just about everything you can imagine by those who would see it banned from our schools and libraries. When I read it, I could’ve sworn it was a story about a young woman rebelling against a malevolent dictator, and I thought that put it streets ahead of other YA novels in terms of feminism and encouraging young readers to think critically about the power structures in their own lives. Others, however, have called it “anti-ethnic”, “anti-family”, “insensitive”, and “offensive”. They take issue with its allegedly “promoting a religious viewpoint”, and (simultaneously) “depicting Satanism and the occult”. Heck, one of them even called it “sexually explicit”. They must’ve read an entirely different book, because I can’t recall anything along any of these lines…
My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult
To be honest, when I first saw My Sister’s Keeper in a list of banned books, I half-expected the reason for the challenges to be complaints about the notoriously-unpopular changes they made to the controversial ending for the movie version. But nope! Apparently, this story (about a young girl who sues her parents for control over the decision to donate a kidney to her sister) contains too much “homosexuality”, too much “offensive language”, a “religious viewpoint”, “violence”, and it is “too sexually explicit”. *eyeroll*
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
Another incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning novel banned for having “offensive language” and being too (say it with me) “sexually explicit”. Do these people really think their kids are never going to hear the word “fuck” or learn about sex? Have they even heard of the internet? But I digress. The Color Purple is a beautiful heart-wrenching exploration of the lives of black women in the American South. Sure, there’s sexualised violence (because that very violence is a lived reality for many women of colour in the real world), but I can’t quite believe that we would deny students the opportunity to learn from Walker’s work on those grounds alone.
What will you be reading for Banned Books Week this year? Have any of your favourite reads been banned or challenged in the past? Tell me all about them below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).