Regular ol' children's books turn into banned children’s books for any number of reasons. Sometimes, you have to use your imagination to think about what might inspire parental vitriol: perhaps a topless beachgoer in Where's Waldo, or same-sex penguin partners... I don't know, it doesn't get me going, either. Sigh.
Each year, the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week, advocating for the freedom to read, and drawing national attention to the books that are still being challenged and banned across the country. Get ready to start dusting off all those picture books you had to hide under the floorboards as a toddler, because 2015’s Banned Books Week starts September 27.
Drawn (mostly) from the top of the ALA's banned and challenged books list, here are 25 of the most controversial children’s books of the past 25 years.
Image: Timberland Regional Library/Flickr
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling’s bestselling fantasy tale ranks as THE NUMBER ONE series of novels to be banned from American libraries and grade schools in the past decade. The series was also listed at number 48 most-banned from 1990-1999. It seems that everyone’s favorite wizards have been stirring up a whole lot of controversy along with those spells they’ve got cooking in their cauldrons. The Harry Potter series, in addition to be challenged and banned for “endorsing witchcraft” and “depicting the occult” has also, in one instance, been burned in protest. Haters gonna hate.
'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' by Alvin Schwartz
Not to be confused with Alvin Schwartz of the Superman comic strip fame, this Alvin Schwartz certainly wrote a tale or two of his own. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the first of a series of three books of short stories, listed as the most banned between 1990 and 1999. The reason? These stories, inspired by folk tales and urban legends, are basically terrifying. But then again, so was Everyone Poops, and nobody’s ever banned that.
'Heather Has Two Mommies' by Lesléa Newman and Laura Cornell
Contrary to what you might expect (or, maybe not) Heather Has Two Mommies was not the 9th most banned book of the ’90s because the original cover art made it appear as though Heather were about to be devoured by her pet dog. Rather, this picture book, credited with being the first lesbian-themed children’s book ever published, tells the story of Heather, a child being raised by her biological mother, Jane, and Jane’s same-sex partner, Kate. Heather, whose book just celebrated 25 years in print, recently got a sassy makeover, and now looks all kinds of Sarah Jessica Parker-inspired, minus the dog.
'Daddy’s Roommate' by Michael Willhoite
Published just three years after the groundbreaking Heather Has Two Mommies, this picture book ranks even higher on the ALA’s list of banned books, falling at number 2 between 1990 and 1999. In Daddy’s Roommate, the young narrator’s father has recently gotten divorced, and now lives with his partner, Frank. This book made headlines in 2008, when then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tried to have the book removed from her town’s library. Thankfully, times are a-changin’ and both Heather and Daddy’s Roommate have been removed from the ALA’s top 100 list in very recent years.
'Where's Waldo?' by Martin Hanford
You’ve been waiting for this once since I first brought it up, haven’t you? While Where’s Waldo only ranks at number 87 on the ALA banned books list, this particular ban really can’t go unmentioned. In 1993, a school district in Long Island removed Where’s Waldo from classrooms due to one mother’s complaint about a topless sunbather pictured on the beach page. A swimsuit was then added in a later edition.
'TTYL' by Lauren Myracle
This YA novel, the first of four books that make up Lauren Myracle’s Internet Girls series, falls in at number 9 on the ALA’s banned books of 2000-2009 list, and has even spent some years in the number one slot. Myracle, who is not, she says, one of “those who get skittish around topics like penises and pussies and condoms and coming of age,” remains unfazed.
'The Witches' by Roald Dahl
This children’s novel is about a boy who discovers that witches actually exist in real life, and is subsequently turned into a mouse (which he honestly doesn’t actually seem to mind all that much). The Witches lands at number 22 on the ALA’s banned books of the ’90s, because even 320-plus years after Salem, apparently lots of people are still super-offended by the idea of witchcraft.
'Forever' by Judy Blume
This YA novel, published in 1975, deals with the emotional and physical health issues of losing your virginity, as told through the eyes of two high school students: Katherine and Michael. Forever listed as seventh on the ALA’s list of banned books from 1990-1999, and then fell to number 16 the following decade. This novel is hardly the first experience YA author Judy Blume has had with censorship.
'And Tango Makes Three' by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
This seriously adorable picture book tells the story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins who fall in love, hatch an adopted egg together, and co-parent their newborn chick, Tango. And Tango Makes Three, published in 2005, ranks 4th on the ALA’s most banned books list of that decade… which seems kinda high for a book that’s pretty much all about everyone’s favorite tuxedo-wearing feathered friends, loving parents, and cuteness.
'In the Night Kitchen' by Maurice Sendak
This children’s picture book In the Night Kitchen tells the story of a little boy named Mickey who falls asleep one night and imagines he’s tumbled into a large kitchen mixer filled with cake batter. The good news is Mickey manages to escape before the cake is put into the oven. The bad news: this book has appeared on the ALA’s banned books list for the past 25 years because Mickey spends his entire dream naked.
'Bridge to Terabithia' by Katherine Paterson
Another beloved YA novel cited for discussing hot-button topics like the occult and Satanism, Bridge to Terabithia has found itself challenged and banned frequently in the last 25 years, even falling into the top 10 most banned books of 2002 and 2003. The Newbery Medal-winning novel is about the imaginary woodland world of two children, Jessie and Leslie, and ends rather tragically.
'The Giver' by Lois Lowry
This dystopian YA novel tells the story of Jonas who lives in a rather censored world of his own until he is assigned the position of Receiver of Memories, and learns about the painful side of his seemingly idyllic community. The Giver has been subject to challenges and bans in schools and libraries around the United States since its publication in 1993.
'My Brother Sam is Dead' by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
This YA novel of historical fiction tells the story of the Meekers, a family living during the Revolutionary War. Told through the voice of Sam’s younger brother Tim, My Brother Sam is Dead follows the Meekers as the family’s eldest son drops out of college and joins the Patriot Army. The book has been challenged or banned for violence, profanity, and alcohol use.
'The Chocolate War' by Robert Cormier
This YA novel about a Catholic school boy refusing to participate in his school’s chocolate sale has earned the slot of fourth and third most banned on the ALA lists, from the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. When the protagonist of The Chocolate War, Jerry Renault, separates himself from the lemming-like mentality of his school, the student body and administration single him out as their target for bullying and violence.
'His Dark Materials' by Philip Pullman
In this trilogy of children’s fantasy novels, His Dark Materials, the orphaned Lyra Belacqua sets off on a series of wild adventures and rescue missions, filled with magic, mystery, and danger. The stories were the 8th most banned book of 2000-2009, and even ranked at number two in 2008 (the year the film, based on the first book of the trilogy, The Golden Compass, was released.)
'King & King' by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland
This children’s picture book introduces young readers to Prince Bertie, whose mother is desperate for him to marry so she can turn the royal throne over to him and retire. After introducing Bertie to one princess after another, the prince falls in love with another young man instead. King & King, which was originally written in Dutch, has been translated into at least eight languages, and banned in both the United States and around the world for LGBT content.
'Captain Underpants' by Dav Pilkey
Oh, Captain Underpants, what are we going to do about you? This children’s novel series, about two boys and their tighty-whitey-wearing companion, is filled with all the elements of a top-notch comic book: superheroes and villains, an arch nemesis, bionic hamsters. In 2014 the title beat Fifty Shades of Grey for most banned book of the year, because cartoon underpants make some adults uncomfortable.
'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain
This great American novel, first published in 1884, is STILL being challenged and banned 130 years later. Set along the Mississippi River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenges ideas of racism that are just as prevalent in the United States today as they were in the days of a fading Southern Antebellum.
'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' by Stephen Chbosky
This coming-of-age YA novel about drug use, domestic abuse, and mental illness, has appeared near the top of the most banned books list seven times in the last 10 years, for things like “inappropriate language” and “sexual content.” The Perks of Being a Wallflower chronicles the high school experiences of an introverted teenager named Charlie and, despite the controversy, made the New York Times Best Seller list in 2012.
'Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?' by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle
While this children’s picture book does not rank anywhere near the top of the ALA’s banned books list, the most public incident of the banning of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is just so ridiculous it must be mentioned. In 2010 the Texas Education Board banned the picture book due to their confusing the author, Bill Martin Jr., writer of beloved children’s books, with Bill Martin, feather-ruffling author of Ethical Marxism.
'Fallen Angels' by Walter Dean Myers
Alternative views of war (that is: unfavorable) have always been subject to censorship in the United States, and Fallen Angels, a YA novel set during the Vietnam War, is no different. The novel has ranked near the top of the ALA’s banned books list since its publication in 1988, falling in at number 11 over the past decade. Author Walter Dean Myers has written similarly about the Iraq war in his newer novel Sunrise Over Fallujah.
'Halloween ABC' by Eve Merriam and Lane Smith
If you’re itching to learn your ABCs, you might want to pick a day of the year other than October 31, because Halloween ABC was number 31 on the ALA’s banned books list from 1990-1999. The children’s picture book offers a Halloween-themed poem that corresponds to each letter of the alphabet — feeling threatened yet? — and has been criticized for being frightening and anti-Christian (as has Halloween, come to think of it.)
'It’s So Amazing' by Robie Harris
Author of the sex education book for children, It’s Perfectly Normal (also banned,) Robie Harris has been subject to bans for It’s So Amazing, her children’s book about pregnancy and childbirth, as well. Just goes to show if you’re teaching young ones about the birds and the bees, somebody’s bound to get a little miffed.
'The Agony of Alice' by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the lady who isn’t afraid to write about menstruation and masturbation, is cited as being banned more than any other author this decade. The Alice series, which has been banned almost every year since 1990, for language and sexual content, tells the coming-of-age story of motherless Alice McKinley as she learns about womanhood in her all-male family.
'The Great Gilly Hopkins' by Katherine Paterson
Much-celebrated author Katherine Paterson makes the banned books list again, this time for her children’s novel The Great Gilly Hopkins. The novel tells the story of 11-year-old Gilly, a foster child with a wild imagination and a lot of spunk (who occasionally uses profanity, which is how she got banned in the first place.)