James Baldwin once wrote, "It is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos." But not everyone is comfortable in that space of self-awareness, evolution, and critique—the illusion of peace and quiet is perceived as easier, however deceiving it may be. In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury affirms that "a book is a loaded gun," there to disturb the peace, and Oscar Wilde echoes this sentiment, saying, "The books the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame," in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Unsurprisingly, schools, parents, and library patrons have fought to get certain books pulled from public shelves consistently, and, despite the first amendment, oftentimes successfully. Also unsurprisingly, these contested works are often the ones worth wrestling with, fighting for, and simply curling up with.
Since they all deserve a place in both public and private libraries, we rounded up some of the top banned books throughout history. Whether we read to better understand ourselves, to learn and see beyond our own experiences, or to escape, literature, at its best, is both soothing and confrontational. Read through our list to see which of these 12 banned books you want to discover first. Some are surprising, others are more glaringly controversial, but all of them are must-reads.
This is the first children's book about a family unit with openly lesbian mothers ever published, and when it first hit the shelves in 1989, the homophobes came out to ban and burn it. Children's books that represent all sorts of families are important for so many reasons, yet this was the ninth most challenged book in the 1990s. Despite the crusade of opposition, this sweet read never went out of print and is now considered a collectible.
A Line Worth Reading: "The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other."
Next Banned Book to Read: Daddy's Roommate
Perhaps the most haughtily debated and controversial book on this list is Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's been challenged throughout the years for its casual and repeated use of the N-word as well as racist, classist, and gendered stereotyping on every page. As one of the leading scholars on Mark Twain, Harvard graduate professor Jocelyn Chadwick says, "Aside from the book’s importance in American history and in the study of Twain, it is also critical because of the debate it engenders." She also argues that that's exactly what he was hoping to instigate with the book—conversation, debate, deep analysis, and social consciousness.
A Line Worth Reading: "That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it."
Next Banned Book to Read: To Kill a Mockingbird
Banned in Illinois and Missouri and challenged in New Jersey and North Carolina for sexual content, violence, being "anti-family" and more, The Diary of a Part-Time Indian has also received myriad awards and praise. This coming-of-tale written by Sherman Alexie takes place on a Spokane reservation. The protagonist, Junior, transfers from the local school to, as the Amazon description writes, "an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot." Poignant, educational, funny, and relatable, this book is a must-read regardless of your age.
A Stand Out Line: "If you care about something enough, it’s going to make you cry. But you have to use it. Use your tears. Use your pain. Use your fear. Get mad."
Next Banned Book to Read: The Hate U Give
This is another one of those understandably controversial books—at first glance, anyway—as the protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a pedophile. He's easy to hate yet impossible to not to listen to (the second you read the first paragraph, you're brought under Humbert's spell). He also warns the reader directly that "you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." In fact, it was written for the very purpose of exposing vulgarity and tragedy (apparently Nabokov himself was so disgusted and disturbed that he almost burned the manuscript before publishing it). When read critically, it's a powerful novel. It's also interesting to think about why Lolita has gained such cultural relevance to the extent that it's now a synonym for hypersexualized underage girls and a specific aesthetic, among other things.
A Line Worth Reading: "My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns."
Next Banned Book to Read: Tropic of Cancer
This dystopic classic was written in the 1930s, though it still feels extremely topical today. It takes place in a future iteration of the world, where humans are genetically bred and medicated to be docile and prop up a totalitarian regime. Though it sounds far-fetched, it's very much rooted in familiar places and narratives around the absence of free will, originality, and personhood. It's been consistently challenged for it's perceived offensive language, sexual content, drug references, and being "anti-family."
A Line Worth Reading: "One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them."
Next Banned Book to Read: Cat's Cradle
In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we get to know Charlie, the wallflower referred to in the title, as he navigates adolescence. He struggles to find a sense of belonging, coping with loss and family tragedy while bonding with new friends and falling in love… all things worth learning. But the book has been challenged for all the sexual content, profanity, drugs and alcohol, and representations of homosexuality. The main character definitely has some faults, but the book isn't necessarily encouraging kids to act like him—it's more about extending compassion, learning how to build a community, and staying true to who you are.
A Line Worth Reading: "We accept the love we think we deserve."
Next Banned Book to Read: Flowers for Algernon
Both one of Toni Morrisons most read and most banned books, Beloved is an unforgettable ghost story that is so much more than just a ghost story. It reveals the ways in which enslavement maintains a strong, haunting presence throughout Reconstruction and into the present. It also emphasizes the transformative but undefinable power of romantic, maternal, and self-love, so in many ways, it reads like a love story.
Not everyone agrees though. As The Guardian reports, "After a parent in Virginia complained in 2012 that her son had been required to read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Morrison, which Republican senator Richard H. Black described as 'smut,' state legislators passed the 'Beloved Bill' to give parents the right to opt their children out of “sexually explicit” reading in schools."
A Line Worth Reading: "Love it. Love it hard… This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved… More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize."
Next Banned Book to Read: The Grapes of Wrath
This funny, clever, touching, creative, inspiring, and loveable book of children's poems has been banned in many schools for promoting "disrespect." Maybe that means it's anti-parent? Or encouraging kids to stand up for themselves? Or making light of boring household chores? We're not quite sure which. A Light In the Attic was also the first children's book to make it to The New York Times on the best sellers list, which speaks to its genius. It's conversational, fun to read, and witty, making it one of those books both kids and adults can connect with and enjoy together.
A Line Worth Reading: "I'll take the dream I had last night/ And put it in my freezer,/ So someday long and far away/ When I'm an old grey geezer,/ I'll take it out and thaw it out,/ This lovely dream I've frozen,/ And boil it up and sit me down/ And dip my old cold toes in."
Next Banned Book to Read: Where the Sidewalk Ends
It's pretty hard to believe that Harry Potter has been challenged and banned so much. Apparently, some people weren't too happy with the representations of violence. They also didn't think that Harry Potter's home life was too positive, nor did they love the example that Voldemort set. I think most of us can agree that this series is a magical one well worth reading, no matter your age, as long as we promise not to do as Voldemort does.
A Line Worth Reading: "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends."
Next Banned Book to Read: Forever…
If you haven't gotten to know Holden Caulfield yet, you're in for a treat. Centering around one of America's most beloved literary characters, this book is thoroughly entertaining. It opens as Caulfield drops out of prep school, and we end up joining him on his venture into New York City's rich underground. So if you're sick of the "phoniness" of our grown-up world, Caulfield will be the perfect person to commiserate with; he'll also help you rediscover the joy and beauty in everything. It's been challenged for its blasphemy and explicit language.
A Line Worth Reading: "Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
Next Banned Book to Read: Lord of the Flies
Can you imagine a life without pain? Without any inconveniences, surprises, or history (or at least awareness of it)? It might sound like a clean slate of an existence, but in The Giver, we see just how colorless and lifeless it would really be, and that these supposed negative elements of life can actually be beautiful. Given that this a dystopic YA novel, it definitely deals with dark themes, but it also teaches essential lessons about perfection, free will, courage, nonconformity, and the nuances in everything. Also, the way it portrays pain as a part of life is not only realistic, it's also uplifting in that it makes readers feel less alone or different for feeling it. Yet, it's been banned and challenged over the years in six states.
A Line Worth Reading: "The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It's the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared."
Next Banned Book to Read: Animal Farm
Maya Angelou is one of the most banned authors in the U.S., and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been challenged or banned 39 times since 1983. However, it's still considered an American classic. Maya Angelou takes us through her early years in small Southern towns and later, her adulthood in the Bay Area. It's a remarkably moving and raw narrative about resilience and dignity among trying circumstances. And of course, as to be expected by Angelou, the language and tone are beautiful and gripping.
A Line Worth Reading: "At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice."
Next Banned Book to Read: The Awakening
Once Controversial, 'Heather Has Two Mommies' is Now Collectible. Los Angeles Times. May 11, 2017.
'Write No More': 10 Books That Were Banned. The Guardian. September 29, 2017.
The Giver By Lois Lowry. Banned Library. August 24, 2014.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings By Maya Angelou. Banned Library. April 2, 2016.