Hey readers, it’s Banned Books Week! This yearly celebration brings together librarians, teachers, booksellers, and readers who face the impact of recent book bans and challenges across the country.
I’ve been constantly surprised of late by which books are being challenged, and for what reasons. Books I know and love, books we have on our shelves at home, books I’ve put in my children’s hands with confidence because I think they’ll enjoy and benefit from the reading experience. Books that are now being challenged because their perspectives and viewpoints are unwelcome to some. (Often, these books are by people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and those from other marginalized communities. That’s no accident.)
My work is predicated on the belief that books open hearts and minds—and on the understanding that open access to books is essential for this to happen: books from all kinds of writers, all kinds of perspectives. After all, this is why we read!
Of course parents can consider whether their own children have the emotional maturity to read something. This is just one way in which curation is essential; I’ve often said timing is everything in the reading life, and our work exists to match the right books with the right readers. But making a unilateral decision to disallow a book for all readers in an entire school or library system—or demanding that this happen—is too far.
On today’s list, you’ll find books from my own adolescence, books my kids have adored and seen themselves in, books our guests have loved and recommended on What Should I Read Next, and Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club selections. All of these well-loved books have been banned or challenged.
Book banning affects us all. It may feel like it’s happening “out there,” but it matters to every reader. It impacts your reading life, along with the reading lives of countless readers.
If you’re asking yourself, “what do we do about it?” look to the library. The American Library Association shares many free resources and support for reporting and fighting book challenges in your community.
20 banned or challenged books for your To Be Read list
L'Engle begins her groundbreaking work with the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and plunges young readers headlong into the world of the Murray family, who must travel through time to save the universe. When I read this as a kid, I wanted to be Meg, of course. Wrinkle is the first—and most famous—of the Time Quintet, but I read them all, over and over, and then read them aloud with my kids. This Newbery winner bridges science fiction and fantasy, darkness and light; L'Engle herself hated when readers tried to shoehorn it into a specific genre. Because it mixes science, religion, and fantasy, its frequent challenges often stem from religious concerns. More info →
In an early What Should I Read Next episode, Meg Tietz recommends Gatsby as a book that glitters, sparkles, and pops; I always think of it as the perfect autumnal read, with a great blend of plot and prose. This classic American novel captures the Jazz Age in all its decadence and excess, while weaving a wistful story of love and loss as fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby attempts to woo his lost love Daisy Buchanan through elaborate parties and social climbing. It’s hard to believe Fitzgerald's classic has ever been banned—it’s such a staple of high school reading lists—yet, it’s been challenged for language, violence, and sexual references. More info →
This modern classic appears on nine (!!!) Modern Mrs Darcy book lists, and with good reason. In the first of six autobiographies, Angelou tells the haunting story of her childhood in the American South in the 1930s. Her poetic prose is incredible, and the story is by turns heartwarming ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") and utterly heartbreaking. This beloved book has been repeatedly banned since its 1969 publication, primarily for sexual content. If this is a classic you've been meaning to read, give the audio version a try: Angelou's lilting voice brings her powerful, touching story to life. More info →
This book has been repeatedly banned over the years, which is ironic, given that the book itself is about book-banning. Bradbury's slim sci-fi/fantasy novel revolves around a fireman who hates his job set in the saddest of dystopian settings: a future with no books. Firemen start the fires in Bradbury's future, to burn any and all books as they are found. One of these books is the Bible, which is often triggers the censorship. When the book was published, Bradbury was outspoken about the fact that instead of literature he had the growing influence of television over Americans in mind when he wrote it. More info →
Gorgeous writing, forbidden love, and political drama: this Latin-American classic has it all. Readers of sweeping historical fiction will be wrapped up in the Trueba family’s drama, from secretive and passionate patriarch Esteban, to the revolutionary granddaughter Alba. Powerful female characters shine in this absorbing multigenerational saga. Real historical events—and a dose of magic—impact each family member as they navigate tragedy and hope. Allende's bestselling historical fiction novel has been banned for sexual content. More info →
Titled after Tupac’s famous tattoo, Thomas’ debut novel won multiple awards, went from page to screen, and remains popular among both teen and adult readers. 16-year-old Starr Carter is in the passenger seat when her friend Khalil is fatally shot by a police officer. As the sole witness, Starr bears the heavy weight of testifying to both her experience and her friend’s character as the media and law enforcement craft their own stories. The Carter family rallies around her as she grapples with trauma, grief, and finding her voice. Despite being showered with critical and readerly praise, this 2017 Summer Reading Guide selection was banned in some schools and libraries because it was considered "vulgar" and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language. More info →
I'm often struck by how many of the books I read in my public high school English classes appear on "frequently challenged" lists, including this title, which pulled me in from the first line, even then. "I am an invisible man," Ellison's protagonist tells us—not because he's not made out of flesh and blood, but because no one has much interest in seeing him, an African-American man in 1950s Harlem, for who he actually is. The "invisible" narrator begins his story in the late 1920s, when he lived in the South as a young man, and chronicles the jaw-dropping events leading up to his fleeing underground. Published in 1952, this book has been challenged due to concerns about language, violence, and sex. More info →
Our community members frequently cite Morrison's debut novel as a must-read classic. Her dark-skinned protagonist Pecola wishes every day for white skin and blue eyes, the standard of beauty to which she’s constantly compared. Morrison was clear on her intentions for the book: she wanted to explore how racism directly harms one’s self-worth and does so with stunning narrative skill; her skillful use of flashbacks serves the story well, her prose is remarkable on the sentence level, even the thoughtful chapter titles advance the story and further ground the reader in it. Highly discussable and devastatingly impactful—this modern classic has been banned because it depicts racism, child abuse, and incest. More info →
Many readers expressed disinterest in reading a novel set during the Bubonic Plague, even before experiencing a pandemic firsthand, but this richly detailed account of one woman's mission to save lives and hold her village together has changed many a mind. Anna Frith works as a housemaid, but when an infected piece of cloth arrives in her remote English village and quickly infects her neighbors, what ultimately follows are heroic acts of healing, survival, and love. Inspired by a true story, this novel holds plenty for readers to discuss, right down to the shocking ending. This novel made the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Banned Books, for reasons of "witchcraft, madness, and sexuality." More info →
In her bestselling memoir, Tara Westover chronicles how she overcame an oppressive childhood: her survivalist family lived in the mountains of rural Idaho and practiced extreme fundamentalist Mormonism, while her father's manic depression was undiagnosed and untreated. From her family's perspective, there was no question that Tara would marry and settle near her family to raise a family of her own; this is the story of how she found a way out. This grim family story and coming of age journey has been banned for depictions of child abuse. More info →
I first encountered this graphic memoir thanks to What Should I Read Next, when Laura Summerhill named it a favorite in WSIRN Episode 148: Rebuilding your life (and your library). (It's been cited as a favorite several times since.) In black and white illustrations, Satrapi shares her bittersweet coming of age story against the backdrop of Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Because Satrapi's family had political ties to the old regime, her home life clashes with her public life: how she privately behaves and speaks is completely different from how she must behave at school or on the street. For her protection, her parents send her to school in Vienna, where she encounters new challenges as well as a longing for home. This memoir remains on many high school reading lists but has faced bans for its political content as well as "offensive" language and depictions of gambling. More info →
This short book packs a punch. I discovered it thanks to my husband Will; we read it as adults, but I think we would have appreciated it had we encountered it in high school (when it would have been new, because we're old). I named it one of my favorite books of the year and have frequently recommended it on What Should I Read Next. In this quiet and timely page-turner, a man recounts the tumultuous events of his 12th year, back in his small hometown of Bentrock, Montana. The story begins with the death of his beloved Sioux housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier; even as a 12-year-old he can see her death is suspicious, and he fears the blame lies at his family's door. The sensitive nature of his family secrets led to the book’s removal from classrooms and libraries. More info →
This incredible YA novel-in-verse was one of our all-time favorite Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club selections; I've seen this book get young readers excited about reading time and again. Budding artist Xiomara pours her soul into her notebook: every frustration, every harassment, every triumph and every secret is turned into a poem. When a perceptive teacher invites her to share her work in slam poetry club, Xiomara isn't sure if she can keep her burgeoning passion secret from her strict family—but she is soon to learn that speaking up and living her truth is the only way to be fully herself. This book has been challenged for profanity, sexual references, and criticism of the Catholic church. More info →
I adored Johnson’s triumphant debut (you can hear me recommend it on WSIRN 246: Does your reading life need a mid-year check-up?); I actually just handed this to my own teenage daughter earlier this month. (She loved it!) Orchestra geek Liz Lighty stays out of the spotlight in small town Campbell, Indiana, and she's totally okay with her wallflower status. She’s busy working towards acceptance to her elite dream school, Pennington College. When her financial aid package falls short, Liz is devastated until she remembers that her school offers a large scholarship for the prom king and queen each year. Reluctant to subject herself to extra attention but eager to win the money, Liz enters the competition for prom queen. The smart and funny new girl in school makes events leading up to prom more bearable, but this friend is also vying for the prom queen title. As Liz develops feelings for her, the competition gets complicated. This poignant and joyful book was labeled “obscene” as part of a widespread book challenge in Oklahoma. More info →
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, poet laureate of Illinois, and the first Black woman to serve as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. She's known for her insightful and illuminating portraits of Black Americans, brought to vivid life with her spare style and energetic warmth. We chose this as one of our collections for Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club poetry month last April; it's a compelling selection of standout poems from her first three collections, plus some new poems. Did you know even individual poems face bans? In the 1970s, “We Real Cool” was banned for sexual connotations in a particular line, but Brooks declared this interpretation to be misaligned with her intentions. More info →
Originally published as a webcomic, this delightful graphic novel (another title I just recommended to my own teen) follows Eric Bittle, a freshman on a college hockey team. It’s a coming of age and coming out of the closet story where everything goes right. Eric’s a baker, vlogger, and figure skating champion who played hockey at his Georgia high school. Now Eric is playing on the college level, and finding the hockey team at Samwell University hockey team to be on a whole different level. In these pages Eric struggles to carve out a place for himself on the team, adjust to the demands of college, and figure out what to make of his feelings for the enigmatic team captain. The answer involves baking a whole lot of pie. The illustrations add a lot to the story, with hockey hijinks and pranks adding a comedic factor. It’s been banned in school libraries and curriculums for drug use, profanity, and offensive language. More info →
My girls adored this colorful graphic novel when they were middle grade readers! Our protagonist is middle school theater geek who’s determined to put on a Broadway-worthy stage production. If only she could sing—but, alas, she turns to set design instead and seeks to put her talents to use making the magic happen behindthe curtain. But wrangling the stage crew proves difficult—and when the actors enter the picture, off-stage drama threatens to upstage the whole show. The cast and crew ultimately overcome major crushes, slow ticket sales, and a tight budget to create a production they can be proud of. This Stonewall Honor recipient has faced multiple bans for featuring LGBTQ+ characters. More info →
I recommended this effervescent middle grade novel to Gina House in WSIRN Episode 261: Huggable comfort reads for a cozy reading season. Ten-year-old Mia Tang spends most of her after school hours managing the front desk of a motel, where her family lives and works. The Tang family isn’t just cleaning the rooms…they’re also sneaking in other immigrant families and allowing them to stay in empty rooms for free. If Mr. Yao, the owner, finds out about this secret, it spells trouble for everyone. While the characters deal with hardships, Yang grounds her story in love, friendship, and hope. In the past few years, parents challenged Front Desk, objecting to its depictions of race. This resulted in multiple school curriculum and read-aloud bans. More info →
Based on his own experiences as a young Black teen, Craft wrote and illustrated this Newbery winning graphic novel about Jordan Banks, an artistic seventh grader who struggles to fit in at his brand new, prestigious prep school. My kids loved reading about Jordan’s journey to find a place for himself among his nearly all white peer group. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, smart, and insightful. Craft was befuddled upon hearing his book was banned for espousing critical race theory, saying: “I just wanted to have [Black] kids where the biggest dilemma in their life is if they wanted to play PlayStation or Xbox, or what movie they wanted to go see, you know, as opposed to always having the weight of the world.” More info →
Vonnegut’s famously weird war novel made multiple appearances on What Should I Read Next, as early as Episode 4: Reading as escape, hating lots of books, and finding new fiction and as recently as Episode 327: Brilliant books that ask big questions. It’s one of the most frequently banned books in American classrooms due to sexual content, violence, and obscene language. Vonnegut responded to several of the bannings, writing: “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.” Vonnegut’s novel follows WWII veteran Billy Pilgrim who gets “unstuck in time,” taking the reader along on a journey of flashbacks, time travel, and life on another planet. The events of the novel, while strange and darkly humorous, are based on Vonnegut’s own war service and present a deeply unsettling picture of combat PTSD. More info →
Have you been surprised to see a book you enjoyed on a banned books list? What titles here have you enjoyed or do you find yourself often recommending? We’d love to hear about it in comments!
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