When you think about all the things that aren't banned (Twitter trolls, singing in public while wearing headphones), it's truly shocking that, every year, books are. Okay, so they may not go all Fahrenheit 451, but each year, dozens of books are challenged. We're talking everything from The Holy Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey. And, maybe not surprisingly, by far, the biggest problem, in the eyes of book challengers, seems to be sexually explicit material. Ugh! Book banners (largely parents, teachers, and librarians, according to the American Library Banned & Challenged Books webpage): trying to kill our collective vibe.
As a writer, I'm pretty down on artistic censorship. I mean, sure, it's kind of funny that someone challenging Fifty Shades mentioned the shoddy writing (true story), but even this sartorial snob would never dream of keeping some stilted syntax from the shelves. Maybe book challengers know what us readers know: that even the worst book is crammed with potential. Even the worst book can spark your imagination, transport you to another world, teach you about new people and places and ... well, I'll keep it PG.
The point is, I'm glad we celebrate National Banned Books Week every year. (Get ready: September 26 - October 1.) It's the perfect time to celebrate all the titles those grumpy-pants challengers inadvertently spotlighted; here are 7 to get you started.
1. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This 1969 classic--challenged for "offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence"--is the poetic autobiography of one of the most important writers and figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Angelou is infinitely wise (and infinitely quotable) when she writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
2. Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
Did ever '90s kid have this volume on their bookshelf? With Halloween approaching, this collection has been on my mind as a total throwback, but book challengers as recently as 2012 have problematized this series as "unsuited for age group, violence."
3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Lee's coming-of-age masterpiece has been challenged for "offensive language and racism." Banning this book would mean silencing words like these: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
4. Two Boys Kissing by David Leviathan
“We don’t want our legacy to be gravitas.” So says the chorus of gay men lost to AIDS that narrates this story of two seventeen-year-old boys who strive to beat the Guinness World Record for kissing. Beautiful, moving, of-the-moment--and challenged for "Homosexuality and ... [condoned] public displays of affection."
5. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
As recently as 2009, Salinger's classic bildungsroman made the ALA's list of top ten most challenged books. "Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group" was the cited problem.
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison's novels are frequently challenged — even as they're standard fare on AP/Honors English reading lists. Beloved — challenged for "sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence"--is ghost story, historical fiction, and lullaby, all rendered in Morrison's inimitable prose.
7. The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Winner of the National Book Award and challenged for "offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group," Alexie's story of Junior--a talented young cartoonist who grows up on a Spokane Indian Reservation — is filled with humor, basketball, books, high school, and, in the most surprising places, hope.