What Makes People Ban Books?

Daniel Hautzinger
Banned Books Week

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At the 1982 American Booksellers Association trade show in Anaheim, California, locked metal cages greeted visitors to the convention center. Inside were that most innocuous-looking but powerful thing: books. All of them had either been banned outright from libraries, schools, or other institutions, or challenged by someone with objections to it.

Since that exhibit, the American Library Association and other groups have hosted a Banned Books Week every year to draw attention to instances of attempted or successful censorship. The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has also kept track of the most frequently banned or challenged books since 1990, publishing lists of them. Books are challenged for reasons ranging from offensive language to discussions of sexuality to violence and racism.

In 2017, the most common reason for challenges was sexuality: six out of the top ten challenged books received complaints for issues of sexuality (four contained LGBT characters, one was a sex education book for children, and one had sexually explicit material). The Kite Runner was said to “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam,” Thirteen Reasons Why generated controversy over its depiction of suicide, and The Hate U Give was considered “pervasively vulgar.” The last book on 2017’s top ten challenged books list? The classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ever since the ALA has tracked challenged books, To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of the most frequent offenders. It was in the top ten in 2009, 2011, and 2017, and has been in the top fifty since 1990. Why? Mainly because of its use of the N-word, and also instances of violence. Despite the challenges, it’s still one of the most beloved books in America, as is proved by its place on The Great American Read’s list of America’s 100 favorite novels.

And it’s not the only book on the list to be frequently challenged. 17 others have also found themselves in the ALA’s top 100 lists since 1990, including the obvious (Fifty Shades of Grey) as well as the surprising (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Pillars of the Earth). Besides discussions of sexuality, other reasons that seem to crop up often are “offensive language” and “religious viewpoint” (these include Harry Potter, the number one most challenged book from 2000-2009; Beloved; Twilight; Bless, Me Ultima): atheist characters or those with magical or supernatural powers seem to offend. And books that explicitly deal with difference, from LGBT characters to issues of race, are also frequently challenged, while young adult books seem particularly susceptible.

But don’t let the challenging of books stop you from reading! One of the most important things a book can do is expose you to different viewpoints and challenge your own preconceived notions. So get reading, and vote for your favorite book for The Great American Read!

Curious what books from the The Great American Read have been frequently challenged? Here's a list:

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger 
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
TheTwilight series by Stephenie Meyer


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