Banned Books Week is the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read. Hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events.
Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982. According to the American Library Association, there were 464 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2012, and many more go unreported.
Hundreds of books have been either removed or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States every year. According to the American Library Association (ALA), there were at least 326 in 2011. ALA estimates that 70 to 80 percent are never reported.
The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Below is a partial list of books from that exhibit that have been banned/challenged.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884
The first ban of Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885 called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally.
Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987
Again and again, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel by perhaps the most influential African-American writer of all time is assigned to high school English students. And again and again, parental complaints are lodged against the book because of its violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, 1970
Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” this book tells the history of United States growth and expansion into the West from the point of view of Native Americans. This book was banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it,” the official stated.
The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903
Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised here, the book was banned in Italy, Yugoslavia and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961
A school board in Strongsville, OH refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951
Young Holden, favorite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always thought “people never notice anything.”
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953
Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA utilized an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors religious beliefs.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940
Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, which purpose was in part to monitor and censor distribution of media and texts, declared the book nonmailable. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939
Kern County, California has the great honor both of being the setting of Steinbeck’s novel and being the first place where it was banned (1939). Objections to profanity—especially goddamn and the like—and sexual references continued from then into the 1990s. It is a work with international banning appeal: the book was barred in Ireland in the 50s.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Perhaps the first great American novel that comes to the mind of the average person, this book chronicles the booze-infused and decadent lives of East Hampton socialites. It was challenged at the Baptist College in South Carolina because of the book’s language and mere references to sex.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952
Ellison’s book won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, 1906
For decades, American students have studied muckraking and yellow journalism in social studies lessons about the industrial revolution, with The Jungle headlining the unit. And yet, the dangerous and purportedly socialist views expressed in the book and Sinclair’s Oil led to its being banned in Yugoslavia, East Germany, South Korea and Boston.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855
If they don’t understand you, sometimes they ban you. This was the case when the great American poem Leaves of Grass was first published and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.
Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Herman Melville,1851
In a real head-scratcher of a case, a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. Community values are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.
Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940
Richard Wright’s landmark work of literary naturalism follows the life of young Bigger Thomas, a poor Black man living on the South Side of Chicago. The book has been challenged or removed in at least eight different states because of objections to “violent and sexually graphic” content.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895
Restricting access and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
According to many critics, Hawthorne should have been less friendly toward his main character, Hester Prynne (in fairness, so should have minister Arthur Dimmesdale). One isn’t surprised by the moralist outrage the book caused in 1852. But when, one hundred and forty years later, the book is still being banned because it is sinful and conflicts with community values, you have to raise your eyebrows. Parents in one school district called the book “pornographic and obscene” in 1977.
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