Breaking Free from Bans: Eleven Controversial Books

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When I was a kid, my nose was usually buried deep in a book, but I didn’t feel profoundly affected by literature until I read The Catcher in the Rye. This novel and its infamously sharp and sullen narrator spoke to my pre-pubescent heart in ways my previous favorite, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, couldn’t.

Sadly, some people never had this experience because it’s one of the most banned and challenged books in literature, which means people have requested its removal from libraries and schools numerous times. Salinger’s opus and other brilliant novels—ones that defined generations and broadened the genre’s scope—caused such outrage because they broke from convention and explored new (and therefore controversial) themes. Fortunately, their influence couldn’t be contained by bans, but it’s scary to consider what the literature world would be like without the genius of these books.

1. The Catcher in the Rye
A decade after its 1951 release, it became the most challenged book in schools and libraries and held that position until 1982. It’s currently number nineteen on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of books with the most challenges or calls for bans. Reasons for banning included its use of profanity, references to sexuality and debauchery, and the fact that Holden Caulfield is a poor literary role model for young kids.


2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Controversy surrounding this novel began in 1885 when a public library in Massachusetts removed it from the shelves for “coarse language.” Over 120 years later, it’s still a hugely controversial book, mainly because of its exploration of race and society. Mark Twain’s extensive use of the “n-word” and the terrible treatment of a slave named Jim have the public fiercely divided on whether the book is racist or not.


3. Harry Potter (Series)
J.K. Rowling’s series about a young wizard’s coming of age set the literature world afire with each new installment. Readers young and old devoured the tales and proponents gave the author credit for renewing America’s love of reading. Critics vilified the focus on wizardry and claimed that the books encouraged witchcraft in children. The ALA lists it as the number one challenged book from 2000–2007.


4. A Light in the Attic
The tongue-in-cheek humor of Shel Silverstein’s poems hasn’t always been appreciated or understood by everyone. As of 2000, the ALA named it the fifty-first most challenged book, with objections ranging from its promotion of suicide (in “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony,” Abigail kills herself because her parents won’t buy her a pony) to encouraging rebellion in children because of a poem entitled “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes.”


5. The Color Purple
Published in 1982, this book immediately won critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. However, its graphic nature (violence and sexual content) and frank exploration of racism and slavery prompted calls for censorship across the nation. Despite its critical success—both the novel and film version—The Color Purple is still one of the most challenged books to date.


6. The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison’s first novel about a young girl and her violently dysfunctional family was released in 1970, but continues to stir up controversy because of its detailed descriptions of rape, incest, and racism. In fact, many of Morrison’s other works (Beloved, Song of Solomon) are frequent targets of petitions to be banned from school curriculum.


7. Of Mice and Men
Though it holds a consistent spot in many high school reading lists, John Steinbeck’s book was still one of the top five challenged books in the U.S. from 2000–2007 because of its use of racist language and obscenities. People have also claimed that it encourages assisted suicide because (spoiler alert) one of its main characters kills someone else before a mob murders him.


8. Catch-22
In my opinion, this is one of the best novels of all time—few works can match its successful mingling of satire and the heartbreaking realities of war. Unfortunately, some people still can’t look past its colorful language and sexual references, particularly in regards to prostitutes. This book is no longer in the ALA’s top banned books, but the fact that there were even attempts to censor the contents (mostly occurring in the 1970s) of one of my favorite books saddens me to no end.


9. It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health
This was the most challenged book of 2005. It discusses physical attraction, sex and sexuality, and offers detailed information for adolescents entering puberty. The guide is factual and not opinion-based, but people still accuse its author of promoting sex among youth and decry the drawings of naked bodies and body parts used for educational purposes.


10. 1984
This classic Orwell novel is one of the most culturally significant books of all time. Despite this, it sometimes generates controversy because of its explicit content and language. It was even deemed “pro-communist” by petitioners in Jackson County, Florida in 1981 who were uncomfortable with (or more likely confused by) its political messages. It was completely banned in the USSR.


11. Fahrenheit 451
Ironic that a book exploring the dangerous consequences of censorship is so often challenged within schools and libraries—ALA lists it at number seventy-two. In Ray Bradbury’s world, firemen burn books (the title refers to the degree at which books burn) because they could potentially offend another person. Most recently, it was challenged at a school district in Texas in 2006 for blasphemy and inappropriate behavior, like smoking and drinking.


If a novel might motivate young people to think differently or challenge social norms, it probably made the ban list at some point. The volume of petitions against these books is disheartening, but what’s even sadder is that I could only include a very small amount of challenged books in this article because the list is overwhelmingly long—and the texts left out are just as essential and timeless.

Judgmental people will always label what’s unique as controversial and wrong. They can attempt to keep these novels out of schools, but it’s impossible to censor the ideas behind them or the passion they inspire. Thankfully, naysayers couldn’t keep these books from shaping society and paving the way for new books that dare to be different.



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