The Frequently Banned Books Everyone Should ReadPhoto Credit: Knopf Doubleday Books Lists Book Recs
Book bans aren’t exactly new, but the scope and frequency of them certainly seem to have exploded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as school systems, teachers, parents, and political activists battle over the specifics of education in America, from the opening of schools and quarantine protocols around the country to the in-class discussion of potentially controversial topics like systemic racism and prejudice. Yet, these are all precisely the sort of complex societal issues that literature essentially exists to wrestle with.
Many of the books that are listed as the most frequently banned or challenged titles—the American Library Association keeps a rather extensive database as part of their Office for Intellectual Freedom—have several significant things in common. They regularly employ difficult or upsetting imagery to tell complicated stories. They’re often focused on the experiences of marginalized groups and the discrimination they often face because of their specific identities. Several contain complex portrayals of sexuality, realistic depictions of mental illness, self-harm, and even death. For the most part, they’re not easy reads. But that’s okay. Not everything should be.
And as Oscar Wilde once said in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The books the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” If one of these titles—or any book that shows up frequently on banned, challenged, or other lists warning people away from them for whatever reason—makes us, as readers, feel uncomfortable or complicit or guilty? Maybe we should ask ourselves why.
Here are just a few of the most frequently banned books we think everyone should read.
Maus by Art Spiegelman At this point, you’ve probably already heard about the Tennesee school district that banned the award-winning graphic novel Maus by a unanimous vote. But here’s hoping that if there is even the tiniest of silver linings to what is an objectively terrible situation, it’s that it likely means that more people than ever before are now aware of and will probably seek out Art Spiegleman’s story, a black-and-white cartoon which depicts Holocaust victims as mice and their Nazi oppressors as cats. (It also shows all manner of other atrocities depicted by the Nazis, from gas chambers and forced labor to the murder of babies, and is generally unflinching in the ways it depicts both the horrors and long-lasting impact of war.)
Maus is a difficult, often uncomfortable read, but one that feels more necessary than ever right now, given the creeping rise of both authoritarianism and anti-Semitism around the globe. It won the Pulitzer Price in 1992.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years thanks to a confluence of multiple real-world events: The launch of a prestige television adaptation on Hulu. Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence, and the slow erosion of reproductive freedoms in various states around the country.
Suddenly, Atwood’s story, originally published in 1985, feels almost unbearably prescient in many ways as it imagines a United States that is taken over by a totalitarian Christian theocracy and turned into Gilead, a country where the handful of women who are still capable of bearing children are stripped of their names and agency and forced to serve as broodmares for the elite. Its disturbing premise, sexual violence, and heavy distrust of religion have made it a frequent target for critics, but as Atwood herself once claimed, nothing happens in The Handmaid’s Tale that hadn’t already happened to women throughout history, a horrible truth that underlines the necessity of this book’s very existence.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a white lawyer who defends a Black man accused of rape in a small Alabama town has been adapted into both an Oscar-winning film and a Tony-winning stage play since its publication in 1960. Yet, To Kill a Mockingbird still ranks among the top ten most frequently banned or challenged books by public schools and libraries, according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, some sixty-odd years after its release.
Lee’s book often draws ire from many corners due to its use of racial slurs and its unflinching depiction of overt racism. It has been criticized for everything from depicting Atticus Finch as a type of white savior to simply making those reading it uncomfortable. But, again, that is a purpose of literature, to confront us with the things that make us uncomfortable and to hold a mirror up to our worst selves right alongside our best ones. And Lee’s story has few equals in that.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas’s debut young adult novel The Hate U Give may have only been published in 2017, but it was an instant bestseller, earning rave reviews for its forthright depiction of the emotional devastation caused by police brutality. (Which is, of course, the reason so many people instantly took a dislike to it.) The story follows Starr, a Black teenager, who witnesses a white police officer kill her friend Khalil during a traffic stop. As his death becomes a national topic of debate, Starr deals with her grief and anger by becoming an increasingly public advocate for racial justice even as she tries to navigate life at her majority-white school.
A complex depiction of the many facets of a deeply fraught and uncomfortable topic, and one that may well help many readers (young and old alike) not just understand the causes and potential damage of entrenched prejudice—but we can do in our own lives to combat it.
Beloved by Tony Morrison Toni Morrison’s books are frequent targets of book banning campaigns thanks to their unflinching portrayal of some of the worst aspects of humanity. Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is perhaps the most frequent member of banned book lists thanks to its painful scenes of sexual abuse and incest. But Morrison’s later novel, Beloved recently came under fire as part of the heated debate over how we discuss race and history during the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race.
The novel explores the atrocities of slavery from the perspective of Sethe, a woman who was once a slave and is now free, and yet cannot escape the memories of the horrors she experienced. Morrison’s prose is unflinching in its depiction of everything from sexual assault to child murder, and the terror and trauma Sethe cannot shake are insidious, visceral things that impact and follow the rest of her life. Given the book’s often horrific subject matter, it should disturb and discomfit those who read it—-but we should read it all the same.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Teen suicide is the sort of difficult subject matter that’s likely to draw criticism from many fronts, but Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why—a book that spent a combined 228 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list—achieved the sort of mainstream popularity among young adult readers that guaranteed people would complain about it. Particularly after the novel was adapted into a popular Netflix series in 2017, one which made several key changes to the source material, including the decision to not only show Hannah’s suicide onscreen but to make it much more graphic than it is in the book.
Thirteen Reasons Why follows the story of Clay, a high school boy who receives a box of thirteen pre-recorded cassette tapes from his classmate Hannah Baker after she takes her own life. Each tape is about a person who, according to Hannah, played some role in her decision. It’s an uncomfortably realistic depiction of depression, drug use, bullying, sexual assault, and consent, and feels true to life to many of the struggles teens must face in their everyday lives.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s award-winning bestseller The Kite Runner is an important, emotional gut-punch of a story told from a perspective we don’t often see in popular mainstream fiction, which is why the fact that it’s been repeatedly challenged by those to wish to have
It removed from school curricula and libraries is so disheartening. Despite the fact that The Kite Runner was first published in 2003, it’s continually on the ALA’s top ten list for most frequently challenged books, cracking the top five as recently as 2017. (The most cited reasons for this include the fact that the novel includes sexual violence and was believed to “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam”. Feel free to roll your eyes here.)
The story centers on the unlikely friendship between wealthy young Afghan boy Amir and the son of his father’s servant, Hassan. But when Amir essentially abandons Hassan to the political and ethnic unrest of 1980s Afghanistan, he spends the next thirty years trying to atone for the wrongs he committed against his friend, including returning to Afghanistan to try and save Hassan’s son Sohrab from the Taliban. A beautifully heartbreaking tale about the horrors of betrayal and the hope of redemption, The Kite Runner is fascinating, familiar, and strangely hopeful all at once.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Though John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars made seemingly everyone ugly cry together, his first book, Looking for Alaska, published in 2005, is a title that is still frequently challenged today. (It was actually the most frequently complained about title in 2015 if you can believe that. I’d assumed it was because of the recent Hulu adaptation, but nope, that didn’t premiere until 2019!)
The story of a group of teens at a co-ed Alabama boarding school, Looking for Alaska features a fair amount of smoking, drinking, swearing, and fumbling sex. A fairly traditional coming-of-age saga, the book wrestles with issues like grief, hope, the meaning of life, and how we must all learn to keep living in the face of tragedy. The novel won the 2006 Michael L. Prinz Award from the American Library Association.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle is a harrowing and emotional read, a memoir that includes stories from her dysfunctional childhood that feature everything from domestic abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness, to the many day-to-day hardships that a life of grinding poverty can cause. Set in Appalachia, the story is an unflinching look at a struggling section of the country too much of America is willing to ignore, and though the book has come under fire for its strong language and stark depictions of various forms of abuse.
Yet, The Glass Castle is ultimately a story of hope and perseverance, and it’s one that should be celebrated as such.
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson
George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue is a YA memoir/manifesto that examines Black masculinity and queer sexuality. Its collection of essays largely follows Johnson’s journey of growing up as a queer Black man in New Jersey and Virginia, wrestling with many heavy and difficult topics from consent and sexual agency to institutional violence. Yet there is also plenty of joy and a special focus on the power of being seen and supported for one’s true self to change lives and communities.
All Boys Aren’t Blue has been removed from school libraries in at least ten states and is most frequently criticized for its supposedly explicit sexual content, a complaint which the author himself has pushed back against.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.