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Free People Read Freely: 7 Banned Books Worth Reading

read banned booksBanned Books Week is almost here again, my favorite week of the year. Every single year in America people petition to have certain library books removed from shelves for various reasons. We’re lucky–in America, books don’t actually get banned from libraries unless they are illegal or they fall prey to particularly irksome and spineless librarians who forget their professionalism and cater to the whims of local hysterics.

But they do get challenged. This essentially means that someone fills out a form that says “Get that book off the shelf for the good of (insert age group, religion, nationality, etc).” Librarians meet, review the challenges, and usually are happy to refute them and ignore the backlash.

Now, this does not mean that I necessarily love the content of any banned book. But I am a member of a profession that purports to fight censorship whenever possible, and I am happy to separate my personal feelings and beliefs from my professional ones.

I do not believe every book is worth reading based on its content alone, but I do believe that every banned book is worth reading simply because someone thinks that we should not be allowed to. I am very easy to get along with, but since I became an adult, anyone who tells me that I cannot read something becomes an enemy, the opposite of everything I believe in, as a professional librarian and a curious free thinker.

With that, here are seven of my personal favorites from the frequently challenged list:

1. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Why it gets challenged:

This is not a light-hearted tale. It’s about a private school where a secret society, The Vigils, torments and bullies the other students for their own amusement…until one boy decides that he will not sell chocolates in the school’s annual fundraise–one which the Vigils have a stake in. There is some explicit sexuality for a young adult book, an unhappy ending, and a whole lot of miserable kids. Here is my full Chocolate War review.

2. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Why it gets challenged:

Severe, chronic lameness by people who scream that the book promotes bad behavior and/or parental cruelty. After all, Max gets sent to bed without supper for throwing a tantrum. But instead of being sorry, he gets whisked away to an island full of awesome monsters where he gets to play in the trees and be their king. My full review of Where The Wild Things Are.

3. The Giver by Lois Lowry

A story about a society in the future, a utopia that relies on euthanasia to create an ideal world. Shrill critics say that it promotes suicide and state-mandated-death. Critics can suck it. This book is wonderful and I believe that close readings reveal that it promotes the opposite, showing the devastating consequences that would result from the attempts at creating a utopia in this manner.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ah, Margaret Atwood, the only woman who has ever made me say, “Now, if only I were a couple of decades older…” The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling book about a future where women are measured only by the functionality of their ovaries–it is objectification taken to its most extreme. Told by one of the handmaids, it is an unforgettable story. Challenged for anti-Christian and P*******ic themes and scenes.

5. James And The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Seriously. When a talking centipede declares that it would rather be “fried alive and eaten by a Mexican,” I think waving the racism flag is a bit premature. I have read this book so many times, and it gets better with each reading, despite the parts that allegedly encourage bad behavior, the singing of disgusting songs, mystical elements, and violence. My review of more banned books by Roald Dahl.

6. 1984 by George Orwell

Sweet, sweet irony. A book that is the ultimate cautionary tale against totalitarianism, censorship, free thought, and historical revisionism is always getting challenged by people who say that its bleak story, political indictments, and “immoral” themes are not fit for consumption by the public.

My full 1984 review.

7. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Someone who cannot see the value of this book is missing a soul. This is one book I read every single year just to see how my own perceptions have changed. Every single year, it is a different book for me, and every single year, it is an accurate gauge of the person who I want to be. I can’t explain exactly what that means without making you privy to some things about myself that I don’t like, but I mean it. I turn to this book helps the way that many people turn to their scriptures when they need comfort. Read it, and then read it again.

Oh, and it’s usually challenged for reasons of racism and language. My To Kill A Mockingbird Review.

All right, your turn. What books have I missed?

Josh

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  • Lynn Kilpatrick September 15, 2010, 2:51 pm

    I love all those books!
    But the one I read because it was banned was Slaughterhouse Five. I still love it, the weird structure and the emotion. I reread the book when Vonnegut died and I can’t say I loved it as much, but it was pretty important to me in my development as a writer.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:22 am

      I did not love this book when I first read it. I think it was the 2nd book I read by Vonnegut. Now I love it, but I’m not sure if it’s because of how much I loved Kurt, or the book itself. I read it about every other year, and it also changed a lot of my ideas about writing.

  • Kris Wragg September 15, 2010, 3:13 pm

    People want to ban To Kill A Mockingbird?? It is quite literally one of the best books I have ever read!

    Also, I dunno why people have such a gripe with Roald Dahl, he writes some magnificent things!

    If people really want to ban books that cause a lot of trouble I think we should start with all the holy books, such as The Bible, The Qur’an, Hebrew Scriptures etc… religion is the single biggest cause of atrocities the world has ever seen!

    • Josh Hanagarne September 15, 2010, 9:04 pm

      They get as many challenges as anything else. They don’t deserve to be banned more than any other book.

    • Shane Hudson September 16, 2010, 1:19 am

      Agreed.

      To Kill A Mockingbird is an amazing book, one of the very few I did for GCSE and loved.

      JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?!?! Oh come on, I know Roald Dahl wrote some books that many people disagreed with (never read any of them myself) but James and The Giant Peach is not one of them… such an amazing children’s book!

      • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:23 am

        Shane, you’ve got to read some Dahl books. Your soul is not complete, young man:)

    • Michelle McGee September 16, 2010, 4:28 am

      Amen to that!

  • Amanda September 15, 2010, 5:35 pm

    Where the Wild Things Are is BANNED? What a whacky world we live in. Some parents are nutters.

    I always wanted a dress up fox suit like Max.

    I think everyone should read The Handmaid’s Tale. Especially in light of the Tea Party people. Makes me glad I’m Australian. Scary, scary stuff.

  • Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers September 15, 2010, 8:20 pm

    Mockingbird is the first book I that had a profound influence on my life. Roughly a quarter century after I first read it, it remains my favorite book, even though my tastes run heavily to mysteries these days.

    I’m currently re-reading Mockingbird, as well as Catcher in the Rye (I read multiple books simultaneously) as I’m working my way through some classics (details here -> http://www.thesoapboxers.com/literary-crisis/)

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:23 am

      Awesome Kosmo. I love your reading project.

  • Jim Lochner September 15, 2010, 9:59 pm

    Out of the top 10 banned books of 2009, my choice would be The Color Purple. That and Mockingbird still remain, after all these years, as two of my favorite books. Beautifully written with a marvelous grasp of story and language, these are two books that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:24 am

      I am also a huge fan of The Color Purple. I read it first in an African American literature class. For the next year about every other book I read was by Alice Walker or Toni Morrisson. You’ll be happy to know I have two copies of each on my bookshelf.

  • Laura September 16, 2010, 1:46 am

    How about A Clockwork Orange? The word controversial is always thrown around when talking about it. I love it, a hard read due to the language but well worth it.

    LOL @ James and The Giant Peach!

  • Michelle McGee September 16, 2010, 4:27 am

    The Giver is one of my favorite books. I taught it to my 7th grade class and they loved it.

    Also let’s not forget Catcher in the Rye – another book I had the fortune of teaching.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:26 am

      How did the students respond to Catcher in The Rye? That is a book I love, but it didn’t really effect me much. I’m always curious when I talk to people who got a lot more out of it than I did.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave September 16, 2010, 4:58 am

    A number of years ago, sitting in a Friends of the Library meeting in the only public library for children in the Eastern part of this country, I noticed a newcomer. An elderly gentleman. My assumption was that he was one of the neighbors who was there to complain (a frequent occurrence) about the noisy children. Oh, no. We found at the “New Business” end of the meeting that he was there to demand (demand I say!) that Heather has two Mommies be removed from the shelf–immediately. As the discussion ramped up, I made a daring suggestion. So I took it off the shelf (actually it was on the adult/parenting shelf not in the regular collection) and read it out loud. I for one had never read it before. Apparently neither had the gentleman. Nor did he have children or grandchildren who frequented this branch of the library. But he’d “heard” about the book.
    I’m delighted to say “Heather” not only is still on the parenting shelf–but multiple copies are in the general collection. I’m not sure the library received donations from our gentleman friend after that evening–but then he gave that small group of us a great gift. A room full of parents, librarians and teachers–unanimously voting to keep a book on the shelf.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:27 am

      What a great story. Gives me goosebumps.

    • Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers September 16, 2010, 4:02 pm

      That story is interesting enough to make me read the book – to see what changed his mind. I certainly don’t have any objection to the book, just have never had the occasion to read it.

  • Heather September 16, 2010, 7:20 am

    One that was challenged (and later pulled) where I work was “Monster” by Walter Dean Meyers. The person didn’t think kids should be exposed to a trial, or to use of the word “butt-plug”.

    Another one that gets challenged often–“Little Black Sambo”. I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of what they are. I’m betting your current fave (and mine)–“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” will come up SOON. . . all that Sax & Violins & messed-up pseudo-D/s action! Enjoy!

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:28 am

      I loved Monster. I was actually talking about Little Black Sambo with an art historian at work the other day. She collects illustrated children’s books.

      I reread the story and I have to say that it is quite insane. I do like pancakes, though. but tigers do not turn into butter. They just don’t.

  • Heather September 16, 2010, 8:13 am

    The List of Stuff You May Have Forgotten:

    My Sister’s Keeper–Jodi Picault (organ farming, being a “bad” twin, being greedy)

    Animal Farm–George Orwell (Communism/anti-Communism/violence)

    The Harry Potter Series (religious/anti-religious overtones, “promotes Satanism”–that’s the one that always makes me laugh the hardest)

    The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe–C. S. Lewis (too scary?)

    “In the NIght Kitchen”–Maurice Sendak (nudity)
    I’m sure there are even more, I just can’t remember them all.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:29 am

      I have yet to read to read a Jodi Picoult book, although when I see them I always think “wow, she has nice hair.”

      I think LWandWardrobe gets challenged for the same reasons that many of Lewis’ books do–they’re Christian allegory. but who knows, it could have been by someone who thinks wardrobes are immoral, for all I know.

  • Heather September 16, 2010, 8:59 am

    SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!! I just saw, over at the School Library Journal online web page, that SEPTEMBER is ROALD DAHL MONTH! DUDE! THAT SO TOTALLY ROCKS! 🙂 Now that’ll put a grin onya grill!

    • Josh Hanagarne September 16, 2010, 10:30 am

      Squeeee is right. That’s pretty awesome.

    • Rhamantus September 16, 2010, 6:24 pm

      Omigod, it is?! Roald Dahl was my favorite author when I was a child. Maybe I should reread some of his books in honor of the month. 🙂
      In any case, I can kind of understand why some (hypersensitive) people would ban Dahl. His children’s books are pretty dark, for children at least. (I’ve not read any of his books for adults, but I’ve heard they’re… interesting.) I remember one lesser known Dahl book that I read (whose name escapes me), and it’s basically about a boy and his dad who poach pheasants out of the royal forests. I don’t remember much about it, except that there’s one scene where they trap pheasants by drugging raisins. Quite weird.
      Also, he wrote a book called The Twits. Which I love, but I can see a lot of uptight parents getting upset over a mildly “rude” word.

    • Rhamantus September 16, 2010, 6:26 pm

      I’ve just looked the book I’m referring to up; it’s called Danny the Champion of the World. Odd but awesome book.

  • Kyle September 16, 2010, 11:19 am

    Josh,

    1984 is an awesome book, I read it a few years ago. My senior year in highschool we had to check a book out from the school library and read/review it. I went to check out Animal Farm but could not find it. My teacher checked into it and she said “That book is restricted”, I was speechless.

    What are your thoughts/opinions on Ayn Rand’s work

    • Josh Hanagarne September 18, 2010, 10:50 am

      I have a hard time separating Rand’s work from so many of the annoying Rand fans I know personally. Once someone discovers Rand, in my experience, they are insufferable for at least the next two months.

      I could give you a better answer if we were in the middle of a philosophy class and I was being forced to think about it. I used to love her writing, and now I can’t stand her philosophies. Objectivism has less appeal for me every year.

  • Aloysa September 17, 2010, 8:31 am

    How about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? I can see it being banned (not just challenged) because of the explicit s**x scenes and child molestation theme. The book can be disturbing on many levels. People don’t understand it (usually) as a tragic love story. I am curious now, was it ever challenged? Lolita is a great novel by the way. Superb writing. Now, as I am talking about it I think I should write a review. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne September 18, 2010, 10:47 am

      Beautiful writing, devastating content, challenged constantly!

  • George Clack (RasoirJ) September 17, 2010, 8:47 am

    Good list. Here’s my take on the greatest banned book of all – Huck Finn: http://www.317am.net/2010/09/ras-huck-and-his-critics.html

    • Josh Hanagarne September 18, 2010, 10:47 am

      Thanks George. One of my favorites, by my favorite author.

  • Mary Jo Manzanares September 17, 2010, 8:58 am

    I wanted to be Atticus Finch when I grew up! And To Kill a Mockingbird definitely was a heavy influence of deciding to become a lawyer.

    Is Tom Sawyer still getting challenged?

    • Josh Hanagarne September 18, 2010, 10:47 am

      I still want to be Atticus Finch. I’m not sure about Tom Sawyer. I haven’t personally herad of a challenge in a while, but Tom’s pretty tame compared to much of what is frequently challenged these days.

    • Heather September 19, 2010, 6:54 am

      Atticus Finch is DA MAN! And yes, Tom Sawyer still gets challenged, as does Huckleberry Finn and The Screwtape Letters. That was Twain, wasn’t it, who wrote the Screwtape Letters? Awesome stuff!

      • Josh Hanagarne September 19, 2010, 12:33 pm

        CS Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters.

        • cinderkeys September 19, 2010, 1:17 pm

          Correct. Heather is probably thinking of _Letters from the Earth_, which is definitely worth a read.

  • Boris September 17, 2010, 2:55 pm

    Catcher In The Rye – it’s one of those books that I read in high school and though “Meh, not getting it”, but later re-read, and then re-read again in a theology course and grew to absolutely love. Maybe you have to be sufficiently jaded already in order to appreciate it and Holden’s hatred of “phonies”, but I’m not sure.

    Animal Farm, Brave New World, Of Mice & Men, Candide, Fahrenheit 451 are some of my other favorites that come to mind. All of them were amazing and outlook-changing for me.

    I don’t know if A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovic was ever banned (probably in Russia…), but that was a great one too.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 18, 2010, 10:46 am

      I have actually never heard of that Russian book. I’ll take a look, thanks!

    • Peter September 22, 2010, 7:53 am

      The guy who wrote Ivan Denisovich had an interesting history–If I recall correctly, ID was allowed to be published because Kruzchev was trying to distance himself from the harsh ways of Stalin, but later, when Brezhnev came to power, Solzhenitzen had other works–notably the “Gulag Archipelago”–that were first published outside of Russia.

  • cinderkeys September 17, 2010, 11:39 pm

    Wow. I’ve read all of those. Good choices. And I had no idea that any of them had been the target of banning.

    And all of them for reasons that completely miss the point of the book.

  • ami September 18, 2010, 1:06 pm

    ‘Books that have been banned’ – is an awesome category of books that are thought provoking and, often, worthwhile reads. Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are a couple of books that I can’t get out of my mind, as is JATGP (for different reasons). it’s surprising how many children’s books make the list (what ever happened to parenting as a method to screen the books that your children read?)

    How about Huckleberry Finn? Or the Satanic Verses?

  • Daisy September 18, 2010, 1:06 pm

    I loved The Handmaid’s Tale! I read it when my baby was young and there was a major surrogate mother case in the news. I can remember picking her up to nurse while the news was on and just sobbing my eyes out, but still feeling unable to put down this incredibly powerful story.

  • Daisy September 18, 2010, 1:07 pm

    Okay, on the topic of 1984; have you read Jennifer Government? Imagine a society totally opposite of the government-run 1984, a society where commerce and sponsorship control everything. At the same time, imagine humor and drama weaving through the pages.

  • Ollin Morales September 18, 2010, 10:06 pm

    This list is equally disturbing and funny. REALLY!? TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD! If they only read the book they would know that you don’t get rid of something that never did anyone harm. All mockingbird’s do is sing beautifully, and so does that book (the first book I fell in love with and the first book that was given to me as a gift post-childhood.) To be rid of it, is a sin. Thanks for the great post!:)

    • Josh Hanagarne September 19, 2010, 12:32 pm

      The complete list each year is even more funny and disturbing. Someone’s always upset about something. I heard a librarian say something I loved once: “everyone who walks in here should find something that offends them. Otherwise we’re not doing our jobs.”

  • Peter September 22, 2010, 7:49 am

    I read all but one and four. I was surprised to see that “The Giver” was on there. 13 years ago I was in sixth grade, and we actually read it and I loved it ever since.

  • Dennis Hill September 22, 2010, 10:29 am

    I find this list to be both amazing and eye-opening. I am amazed at the content some people find objectionable.

  • letran September 22, 2010, 2:15 pm

    All Quiet on the Western Front. Being the daughter of someone who has been tortured everyday of his life by the memories of a war he participated, saw his friends killed, and killed others; this book allow me to understand my dad better and think of peace in a very different way.

  • George Clack (RasoirJ) September 29, 2010, 8:51 am

    Post on books currently being challneged – Harry Potter, 20 Boy Summer, Slaughter-House 5, and Speak
    http://www.317am.net/2010/09/ras-banned-books-roundup.html

  • Rose July 25, 2011, 5:28 pm

    The Giver is one of my favorite books. I had read it maybe 3 times by 6th grade, and then my 8th grade literature teacher taught it. I told her I’d already read it several times and she told me to read Gathering Blue and The Messenger instead.

    I didn’t really like Catcher in the Rye, when I read it in my English class this year. I cannot deny that it is a wonderful book, and very well written. It just isn’t my kind of book.

    Two books I think would have been great for this list are The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Both are great books that have been banned/challenged