It's always been hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of banned books. Maybe that's because censorship was abhorred and critical thinking was revered in the house I grew up in. No book, at any age, was out of bounds — ever. Each year I would usually plow through the semester's English assignments in the first weeks of school, and I'd then start extra-credit work.
Teachers would sometimes check to see if it was OK that I read certain books (a couple of those books are in the list below). My grandma, who raised me, would get angry that they even asked for her OK, and by fifth grade requested that my permission slip to read anything be kept in the main office and that she never again be asked such an "offensive question about my granddaughter's mind, which is not under my control, but her own discretion." (I found her carbon copy of the typewritten note years later after she passed away, and I cheered — and then cried — upon reading it.)
Obviously, I can't be subjective about this issue. I'm in agreement with President Dwight Eisenhower who wrote: "Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book..." Eisenhower challenged the essential rhetoric behind burning or banning books.
By showing us things we don't want to see, we can no longer pretend they don't exist; we have to deal with them. Do book banners really believe that by not reading books with teen sex, profanity, homosexuality, racism or violence, those things will disappear when every single one of them has been with us from the beginning of human history? Yes, there are terrible, sometimes offensive people and events in books, whether it's casual racism in "Huckleberry Finn" or "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the realities of drugs and addiction in "Go Ask Alice," or the profanity that some characters use in "Of Mice and Men" or "The Kite Runner."
The authors of those works didn't include racism, drugs and profanity purely to upset people, but to bring attention to those very offensive things, to show a reality, and possibly to provoke a feeling in the reader. Or, more succinctly, Salman Rushdie wrote: "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."
Below, find some of the most famously banned books, the reasons they have been kept from students, and why they should be read as widely as possible.
'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck has been challenged hundreds of times for "vulgar language," because the author had an "anti-business attitude," and for having "morbid and depressing themes." Set during the Great Depression (not exactly the cheeriest time in American history), this book depicts the difficult lives of migrant farm workers, one of whom is mentally disabled. The book is an incredibly enlightening look at a specific time in American history and a peek into the lives of the kind of people whose stories aren't often told — and that's valuable precisely because we don't hear it often.
'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize, but that hasn't stopped it from being banned — almost every year by some school district or another — for "profanity and sexually explicit themes," which sounds possibly concerning for kids to read, until you understand what that actually means in context. Told via diary entries beginning in the 1930s and plotted over a 30-year-period, it's the story of Celie Johnson, an African-American woman who experienced abuse and neglect. One of the "sex scenes" is about how the main character is raped at 14. Celie struggles, and then rises to find herself, her dignity and her self-respect over her life. The novel is the very opposite of the kind of story that should be kept from people learning about compassion, life's challenges and difficult decisions (i.e. teenagers). It's inspiring, heartbreaking and beautiful. Why you'd keep that kind of story away from anyone is confounding.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey is most certainly disturbing; the story of a man in a mental hospital — and the abuse he suffers there — is definitely upsetting. But the book shined a light on a system that badly needed reform, and Kesey did it with humor and packed his novel with memorable characters to boot. He even worked in a significant storyline about how shameful the U.S. government was in its treatment of Native Americans, one of whom, Chief Bromden, was the novel's narrator. Though it has been banned a number of times (and even got a teacher fired who assigned it) for scenes including criminal activity and "human elimination," it is also much beloved, and was made into a movie that won five academy awards in 1975.
'In the Night Kitchen' by Maurice Sendak might be a surprise to find on this list. I had no idea it had been challenged for anything, but it has been several times over, because the main character Mickey is (drawn) naked in a scene wherein he falls into the night kitchen through his dreams. Some adults thought that it "desensitized children to nudity" which is strange. For anyone who has spent time around young children, it seems like they are naked half the time anyway (aren't kids born desensitized to nudity?), so depicting one in a book seems just...truthful to me. If you're an adult and you haven't read this book, check it out. It's a wonderful, dreamy story and the illustrations are magic.
'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote is considered by many to be the first narrative nonfiction novel, because it is beautifully written and plotted, like a novel would be, but it tells the very real story of murder in a small town. Despite the fact that Capote's book helped create a new genre of writing, it was banned as recently as 2000 for the violence, sex and profanity that is part of the (true) story. Again, this is a real story, about real people and real events, yet it has been subject to bans for its depiction of reality.
'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' by Sherman Alexie was published recently, in 2007, but it has been banned so many times that in 2013 it made it to No. 3 on 2013's American Library Association banned books list, and in 2014 it was No. 1. The YA book is based on the author's own life, and it details how a Native American student leaves his not-so-great school on the reservation to get a better education at another high school where he is the only Indian among otherwise white students (except for the school's Indian mascot). Those who want to see it banned say it's "anti-family" and "culturally insensitive" and that it contains scenes that include sex, gambling and bullying, which are, according to their estimation, subjects teens shouldn't read about.
Alexie addressed his critics when he wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, "When some cultural critics fret about the 'ever-more-appalling' YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists. No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be."
The 'Harry Potter' series by J.K. Rowling has been banned (and those bans overturned) and even subject to burnings because it includes "magic and witchcraft" themes as well as examples of "challenges to authority." As anyone who has read the books knows, they are about good vs. evil magic and — spoiler alert — good wins, but not without a fight. The titular character, Harry, is one of the most upstanding, ethical characters you could hope to find in literature, and his two best friends are too. The books are told in simple language, but they are anything but basic, with interesting, detailed descriptions of places and plotting that keeps adults and kids engaged. That's no small feat.
The fact that so many powerful books by authors of color and women have been banned doesn't seem like a coincidence to me. When the true stories of minority populations are told, they often point out things we'd rather not see, or have to talk about. But it is important that we do, even if it sometimes hurts, because understanding a life experience that is not the same as your own is at the root of emotional intelligence and compassion, which is one way to change culture and prevent those things from happening in the future. (And even if you're only thinking selfishly, it can also result in higher-achieving students and better workers.)
You can read about more banned books via the American Library Association's excellent Banned Books site; this timeline is a great visual rundown of it all.
Photo credits: Wikipedia