This week is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week - a time to celebrate all the amazing books that have been challenged or banned by parents and teachers, but beloved by young readers.
If you check out some of the lists of banned books, it seems like almost every piece of literature a young person might enjoy has been challenged at some point. The pearl-clutching concern that a good book will turn schoolchildren into roving gangs of feckless youths has targeted everything from Homer's Odyssey to Captain Underpants.
Many, many classics are on the list. So are some newer books that might surprise you. We wanted to share some of our favorite banned books with you: What they mean to us, why we remember them, and why we love them. Here are our recommendations for books you should add to your Goodreads to-read list, along with the reasons given for banning them.
Jessica Roy, assistant editor, "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins
REASONS IT'S BANNED: According to complaints filed with the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, it is anti-ethnic, anti-family, insensitive, contains offensive language, has occult/satanic themes, violence, religious viewpoints, and is unsuited to age group
REASONS IT'S GREAT: I started reading the first "Hunger Games" book about a month before the first movie came out. I dabble in YA and figured this was another entry in the teen-love-triangle genre - set against a dystopian background instead of a vampiric one.
I ended up devouring the entire trilogy in 5 days. And when it was over, I was a wreck. I sat on my couch and actually sobbed. Yes, lots of characters die, but what affected me the most was the realization that we, as Americans, aren't any better. We recruit young poor people to fight our wars while the rich profit from it. We openly revel in the glory of capitalism while our fellow citizens struggle to provide food and housing for their families. Revolutions start, and revolutions fail. The people you love die anyways. And sometimes, a revolution succeeds, but the people who gain power just start the vicious cycle all over again.
The best books transport you to a new place and teach you something you didn't know. "The Hunger Games" trilogy made me a different person. There's a reason a Google search for "hunger games tattoos" yields more than 4 million results: The books are that impactful.
Tim Rogers, editor, "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Obscenity
REASONS IT'S GREAT: My pet, Dolores! my cheerful Lo, cunning child, wiggling waif with downy hair and milky, poolside limbs! c’est tout.
I flipped through the winged pages of your novel like a horrid hunchback, a Philistine intruder sweating in the dark. (eager, hopeful, horrible, man). But judge me not, Gentlemen of the Jury! For I am like you, patient and ravenous reader. A wandering woodsman hopelessly following the prurient prose —that suggestive, twirling nymphet — who leads me ever deeper into the timeless and enchanted boscage of libidinal literariness. Il neige, le décor s’écroule, Lolita!
Hector Batista, video producer and editor, "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
REASONS IT'S BANNED: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
REASONS IT'S GREAT: Without this book I surely would not have survived NYC in the 1980s. As a teenager I tippy-toed around NYC and scurried indoors hiding from the crack and crime epidemics of the '80s. "The Catcher in the Rye" was the book I retreated to night after night for solace.
How dare these organizations ban a book that provides a glimpse into the human experience.
Alissa Figueroa, producer, "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Anti-religion, anti-government, violence, sexually explicit
REASONS IT'S GREAT: I can picture myself in a 7th grade classroom in suburban northern Virginia. I was standing in front of the class telling them about Owen Meany, a small boy with a tiny voice who screamed out of the page at you in all caps. I’d drawn the main scenes in the book on a long strip of white paper that I was carefully scrolling through, explaining the story.
I remember my depiction of the scene where Owen Meany accidentally killed the narrator’s beautiful, beloved mother with a baseball at a little league game. I’d drawn her blond hair splayed across the grass; her eyes closed, a big bump on her temple.
It was hard to describe to my fellow students how much those 617 pages really affected 13-year-old me. I’d never read a book like that before. It was so full of tragedy and humor. So full of sex. There was absurdity and strangeness. Weird stuff that didn’t make sense, until the very end, when suddenly, it all came together in the most amazing way. Owen Meany was convinced he was an INSTRUMENT OF GOD. And, as we learned in the crazy final scenes, he was. Ultimately, the book was about faith and fate and God: why we’re all on this earth and what’s moving us through it. Questions you don’t consider much in 7th grade.
Over the next few years I devoured every John Irving novel I could get my hands on. The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp, Setting Free the Bears. I loved them. I wanted nothing more than to be a wrestler in a small town in New Hampshire, or at least to know one. But no character in any of those books moved me as much as Owen Meany.
Abby Rogers, social media editor, "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Explicit language, anti-religious viewpoint
REASONS IT'S GREAT: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” — Voltaire
For a journalist, or a kid with as-yet-undefined journalistic ambitions, a book about censorship was significant.
I’ve never believed in censorship. I read books with content far beyond my age level growing up, sneakily (or so I thought. My mom probably knew). I also watched “grown up shows” I shouldn’t have and listened to music intended for a more mature audience. So dystopian novels about censorship, the fight between knowledge and ignorance — think Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 — always appealed to me.
However, the idea of banning books that discussed the banning of books, did not.
Only 23 percent of 18-29-year-olds are expected to vote in November’s midterm elections. That’s a shockingly low number. But how can we expect greater civic participation, or a more involved, informed electorate if we actively strive to keep kids in the dark?
Books like Fahrenheit 451 force young readers to confront their world in an entirely new way. What if books were banned? Would they miss them? How would they get information and would they be willing to challenge the established order to create a more informed world? If we don’t encourage students to confront the messy realities these literary works present , they won’t be ready to confront the even messier problems of the real world.
Banning books like Fahrenheit 451 — especially for such superficial reasons as objections to mildly offensive language — is tantamount to ensuring that generation after generation of ill-informed and ill-equipped voters will be heading — or, more accurately, not heading — to the polls.
Kerisha Harris, social media editor, "Animal Farm" by George Orwell
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Communist material
REASONS IT'S GREAT: I was VERY young when I read it, not for school — I read it just because it was in my house at the time, maybe it was my older sister's copy. I literally read thinking it was going to be about animals. It's an important tool in teaching kids what can happen when one group decides they are 'better' than another. How power can corrupt even the best of intentions. Kind of sad/depressing, but a message that stuck with me at 8 or 9! (Now I want to re-read it!)
Danielle Wiener-Bronner, social media editor, the "Gossip Girl" series by Cecily von Ziegasar
REASONS IT'S BANNED: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit
REASONS IT'S GREAT: Obviously, the "Gossip Girl" series isn't in the same category of literary achievement as say, "1984" or "The Great Gatsby" (the two banned books I find to be most personally influential), but I would argue that it's the work most in need of defense.
I read most, if not all, of the "Gossip Girl" series when I was in high school. It was my first foray into guilty pleasure reading, and probably the most satisfying. According to the ALA, Gossip Girl was the ninth most challenged book in 2011 for mention of drugs, use of offensive language and sexually explicit content. I do recall some sexually explicit content — Blair spent a lot of time agonizing over where and how to lose her virginity and I'm pretty sure Serena hooked up with her stepbrother — but mostly, I remember the clothing.
Gossip Girl is basically a novelization of Vogue. Cecily von Ziegasar spends most of her words meticulously describing what each character wore. The series seems like the first wave of unabashed product placement — the first successful form of native advertising, if you will.* Which is, perhaps, why Gossip Girl translates so well to the screen, as a television show on the CW. Plus, the books provide a pretty stellar snapshot of what was trendy in the early aughts.
Eventually, however, I had to stop reading the series because Serena was accepted into every Ivy League and I was waiting on admissions decisions, and that sucked all the pleasure out of that guilty pastime.
*If von Ziegasar didn't get money from the brands she mentioned, she was doing it wrong.
Elisa Rodriguez-Vila, digital producer, "The Giver" by Lois Lowry
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Adult themes like euthanasia, sex dreams, and drugs
REASONS IT'S GREAT: So many good ones! Seems like a majority of my favorite books have been banned, but growing up, "The Giver" was so important to me. I read it when I was very young and it was the first book that made me feel like an adult. It felt real and made me feel like my opinion was important. I think all young people should read that book because it teaches you to question everything, things aren't what they seem and the people that are older than you and in power aren't always right. I read it so long ago but remember the experience so vividly.
Abby Rogers, social media editor, the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling
REASONS IT'S BANNED: occult/Satanism, violence
REASONS IT'S GREAT: To ban Harry Potter books, or for religious institutions to demonizethe series, is to teach kids it’s wrong to have imaginations; it’s wrong to believe in fantasy; it’s wrong to think for themselves, solve their own problems or be the heroes.
In short, vilifying Harry Potter is essentially giving the green light to a generation to grow into every trite, ugly stereotype our elders propagate about millennials.
Since Harry Potter was originally published in its first iteration, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” critics have panned the series.
“Regardless of how magic is portrayed in the series, we need to remember that witchcraft in real life can and does lead to death — the forever and ever kind,” Christianity Today wrote in October 2000.
I actually ran into similar attitudes as a middle school student just trying to make it through my rather strict Lutheran church’s confirmation process. It was a regular Wednesday evening class and somehow we got on the topic of Harry Potter and the damage it was causing to our souls. To me, Harry Potter was the book my dad and I bonded over. We would stay up late and go to the midnight release parties at Barnes & Noble whenever there was a new book. We would go to the movies. We never really worried about my soul.
Because it was a book.
Thus began one of the most disheartening arguments of my life. I realized that no matter what, some people are just determined to see only their opinions and force them on everyone else. By the end of class I had argued my love for Harry Potter so strongly I ended up arguing myself right out of confirmation class.
Books, especially great ones, should always be debated. But they shouldn’t be used as a way to attack others or demean their beliefs. Even as a 25-year-old woman, I stand by my pre-teenage self’s love of Harry Potter. I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione. I got to experience the pride and trials of being rash, headstrong, emotional and self-reliant right along with the anointed trio.
Beyond the experience of feeling as if I intimately grew up with the three main characters though, I subliminally learned a much more important lesson. Hermione taught me not to be scared of being a strong woman. “Much more than just making it okay to be smart and nerdy, however, Hermione reaffirmed that it was okay to ruffle feathers, take a stand, and back it up with some hardcore knowledge,” Laura Hibbard wrote for The Huffington Post back in 2011.
And, most importantly, I got to experience all of this while bonding with my dad in some of my favorite memories from my childhood.
If I’m going to hell for that, then so be it.
Ted Hesson, immigration editor, "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Obscenity
REASONS IT'S GREAT: By the time Nabokov and his family arrived in the United States in 1940, he had already fled his native Russia and Eastern Europe to escape political and ethnic persecution, respectively. He found security in America: a chance to teach college students and live peacefully with his wife and son.
Yet in a way, he had lost his purpose. Earlier in his life, an emigre living in Europe, he had established himself as a great writer, but with an oeuvre that was largely in Russian. Two novels in English had little success, critical or commercial.
"Lolita" threatened to upend the tranquil yet academically vigorous life Nabokov had achieved (intense study of butterflies and chess included); he was so nervous about backlash over the content that he considered publishing under a pseudonym. The novel is an undisputed masterwork, but to me, there's a greatness in the bravery of its composition: a man who had much to lose, taking an amazing risk for his art. That in itself should be a lesson for young artists and thinkers.
Jordan Fabian, politics editor, "Captain Underpants" by Dav Pilkey
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence, anti-family content, sexually explicit
REASONS IT'S GREAT: Captain Underpants?! Banned?! Are you kidding me?! As a 10-year-old when the first book came out, George and Harold spoke to me. My brother and I always had multiple volumes conveniently stacked in our bathroom and bedrooms.
Those who say these books are "unsuitable for this age group" couldn't be more wrong. These subversive volumes teach children that being a kid and having fun is OK. In a country that's stressing out its kids at an earlier age with more standardized tests and after-school activities, this book's message is more important than ever! Seriously, what's offensive about it? Everyone wears underwear (except Britney Spears).
Who bans Captain Underpants?!?!
Andrew Dubbin, editorial cartoonist, "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel
REASONS IT'S BANNED: Homosexual themes
REASONS IT'S GREAT: Alison Bechdel's tragicomic Fun Home recalls the author's coming out to her mother and closeted gay father in provincial Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. It's a daunting visual masterpiece that captures the drama of repressed identity and the chilly optics of small-minded America…and so naturally, some folks tried to ban it.
The book's innate sexual content first chafed against the Marshall, Missouri public library, and later met the vitriol of the South Carolina state legislature, where lawmakers attempted to withhold $52,000 in funding from the College of Charleston for teaching it. The funding was eventually restored, with the rich caveat that it be spent teaching the Constitution. All of this, of course, is a great metaphor for how any amount of repressed speech creates a cycle of broader social whiplash. Regarding the episode, Bechdel wrote:
"It's sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book—a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people's lives."
Last week, Bechdel received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship…further evidence that if someone tries to ban your book, you're doing something right.