It’s no surprise to us that some of the most groundbreaking literature of both the past and present has landed on a banned books list somewhere in the world. Stories meant to act as windows, as mirrors, or as inspiration, are deemed threatening, too controversial, and unfit for the public. This year, as even more books are targeted for removal, we honor these stories by highlighting a few of our favorite ones, which will always have a spot on our shelves.
Child abuse, religion, incest—these are just a few of the controversial topics in V.C. Andrews’s 40-year-old novel FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. But these are the very same issues that make it such an insatiable read. The first of the Dollanganger series, this novel centers on Cathy, Chris, Cory, and Carrie—siblings who are locked in their grandmother’s attic by their superstitious mother. What happens in the attic reverberates over decades and generations, and is told over the course of many books.
They were a perfect family, golden and carefree—until a heartbreaking tragedy shattered their happiness. Now, for the sake of an inheritance that will ensure their future, the children must be hidden away out of sight, as if they never existed. Kept on the top floor of their grandmother’s vast mansion, their loving mother assures them it will be just for a little while. But as brutal days swell into agonizing months and years, Cathy, Chris, and twins Cory and Carrie realize their survival is at the mercy of their cruel and superstitious grandmother…and this cramped and helpless world may be the only one they ever know.
For a book that first hit shelves in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 remains alarmingly relevant. In our present-day era of “fake news” (deemed as such by politicians who don’t like unflattering news coverage) and actual fake news distributed by bots, censorship is a very real concern. Suddenly, Ray Bradbury’s cautionary tale about a dystopian world where reading is forbidden and books are banned doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Luckily, we have this enduring American classic to remind us why learning and independent thought must always be protected.
First published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 is a classic novel set in the future when books forbidden by a totalitarian regime are burned. The hero, a book burner, suddenly discovers that books are flesh and blood ideas that cry out silently when put to the torch.
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When a black teen girl witnesses a police officer fatally shoot her unarmed friend Khalil, she must find the courage to speak out despite the inevitable backlash. With a plot that mirrors current national news headlines, it’s unsurprising that this book would spark as much controversy as the real-life shootings of unarmed black teens like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice. Yet it was a parent’s complaint of “inappropriate language” that led a school district in Katy, Texas, to remove it from circulation; a superintendent went on to claim that it was the book’s “pervasive vulgarity and racially insensitive language . . . not its substantive content or the viewpoint expressed” that led to the ban. Author Angie Thomas was quick to respond on Twitter: “I’m saddened to hear that a school district in Texas banned #TheHateUGive, but I’m also empowered—you’re basically telling the kids of the Garden Heights of the world that their stories shouldn’t be told. Well, I’m going to tell them even louder. Thanks for igniting the fire.”
Generations of readers have been captivated by the cautionary tale in this “anonymous” diary of a teen girl’s downward spiral of addiction. The harrowing journal entries provide an intimate look into the struggles of the narrator, who is served a soft drink laced with LSD at a party and within months, is hooked on drugs and in danger of losing everything.
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was a literary sensation for a hot second there. Originally published online as Twilight Saga fan fiction, the explicit love story between billionaire Christian Grey and ingénue Anastasia Steele fueled conversation everywhere, from book clubs to family reunions. Did it titillate? Sure. But it also encouraged frank discussions about female desire and introduced scores of readers to their new favorite genre: romance.
"My best friend gave me this book and told me I HAD to read it. Plus it was pretty much the hottest book around at the time. So I tried. Maybe I’m a big prude, but I read a few chapters and just couldn’t handle it…I felt so awkward I had to stop." — Sarah Jane
In 2016, Texas prisons banned Dan Slater’s nonfiction work WOLF BOYS, and Slate magazine called the move a “national disgrace.” In the book, two American teenagers are hired by a Mexican cartel as killers and drug dealers. The ban, which was implemented because of the “criminal schemes” portrayed in the book, sparked debate about prisoners’ rights and freedom of speech.
This classic coming-of-age novel is no stranger to being banned. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER follows shy high school freshman Charlie as he befriends a group of seniors who usher him into a world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While one might understand some parents’ concerns about the book’s depiction of teens tripping on acid, others have cited its inclusion of masturbation and homosexuality as reasons to boot it off the required reading list. Those who focus solely on the controversial content, however, miss out on the book’s tender portrait of friendship and healing from trauma.
Read a Book That Has Been Banned or Frequently Challenged in Your Country
Observant “wallflower” Charlie charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. He deals with first dates, family drama, and new friends. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.
THE BLUEST EYE very explicitly depicts sex and child molestation, so it’s incredibly shocking and upsetting. However, as you could expect with Toni Morrison, the novel is also profoundly, beautifully written. It shows how racism can be internalized, and the impact it has on children as they grow up. It also touches on shame and society. Exceptionally powerful, emotional, and powerful, it’s a classic Morrison book everyone should have on their bookshelves.
Pecola Breedlove is a young black girl who prays every day for the blonde hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to fit in with her peers. This novel is a powerful examination of beauty, conformity, race, class, and gender from the legendary Toni Morrison.
In 2019, a Catholic school in Tennessee banned students from accessing the Harry Potter book series, citing fears it would drive students to the darkness of witchcraft and that spells included in the (and I cannot stress this enough) fictional children’s series could be real spells. This isn’t the first time the series has been banned, even at one point reaching the peak spot of “most banned book” in America. There were numerous reasons cited for why schools weren’t encouraging students to join Dumbledore’s Army. From claims it was too scary for children to the religious angle that wizards inherently can’t be the good guys, Harry Potter has stirred debate during Banned Books Week since its inception. Still the most lucrative book series in the world, Harry Potter is the best example of not letting the haters get you down.
Let yourself be enchanted by this international phenomenon of a series about an orphaned boy wizard who holds the fate of the magical world in his hands. Whether you’re revisiting the world of witchcraft and wizardry or diving in for the first time, Harry’s story lives up to the hype.
In 2020—at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement—ALL AMERICAN BOYS became the third most banned book of the year, most notably due its inclusion of anti-police messages and being “too much of a sensitive matter right now.” The book follows the divisive aftermath of an extreme act of police brutality between a fist-happy cop and an innocent African American teen. Through the interwoven narratives of both a black victim and a white witness, the nuances and complications of racial injustice are explored in a way where everyone has something to learn and understand. Exceptionally honest and powerful, this story is one that not even a ban can silence.
A 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and recipient of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.
In this New York Times bestselling novel, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.
A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?
There were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.
Written in tandem by two award-winning authors, this four-starred reviewed tour de force shares the alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn as the complications from that single violent moment, the type taken directly from today’s headlines, unfold and reverberate to highlight an unwelcome truth.
It’s hard to imagine why a book as heartwarming as ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE could be taken off the shelves. But it’s one that’s frequently banned and was even included on one U.S. representative’s lists of works that “might make students feel . . . psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Aristotle and Dante are two young Hispanic boys who have little in common. Aristotle is angry, antisocial, and doesn’t understand why his family won’t talk about difficult topics. Dante, on the other hand, loves poetry and deep thoughts, but struggles with his cultural identity and the feeling that he’s not Mexican enough. One summer in El Paso, the two meet at the pool and begin to bond over their differences, changing each other for the better, and ultimately falling in love. Their story highlights so many important lessons for kids of any background: how to show up for a friend, how to feel like you’re enough, and how to work through painful, unfair events. While it explores the teen perspective through the specific lens of two Hispanic queer teens, it covers universal themes that everyone experiences, including the slow, thrilling process of discovering and listening to your true self. It’s an important book that can serve as a lifeline, whether it helps prepare you for what’s to come, or lets you know you’re not alone.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison and Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common, but as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime.