Banned Books in America

12 Classic and Award-Winning Titles Banned by Public Schools

A large number of literary classics and/or award-winning books are challenged in or banned from public schools; here are 13 of them. Getty Images

Literature often mimics life, so naturally, some novels explore controversial subjects. When parents or educators take offense to a topic, they may challenge the appropriateness of making a particular book available at a public school. On occasion, the challenge may result in a ban that wholly restricts its distribution.

The American Library Association (ALA), however, contends that "...only parents have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children — and only their children — to library resources."

The 12 books on this list have faced many challenges, and all have been banned on more than one occasion, many in public libraries themselves. This sampling illustrates the variety of books that may come under scrutiny each year. The most common objections include sexually explicit content, offensive language and "unsuitable material," a catch-all phrase used when someone doesn't agree with the morality expressed in a book or the portrayal of characters, settings, or events. Parents initiate the majority of challenges. The ALA denounces such censorship and maintains an ongoing list of ban attempts to keep the public informed.

ALA also promotes Banned Books Week, an annual event in September that celebrates the freedom to read. Highlighting the value of free and open access to information,

"Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek, to publish, to read, and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."
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"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"

This novel has moved up to the top ten of the most frequently challenged books (2015) according to the ALA. Sherman Alexie writes from his own personal experience in retelling the story of a teenager, Junior, who grows up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, but then leaves to attend an all-white high school in a farm town. The novel's graphics reveal Junior's character and further the plot. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" won the 2007 National Book Award and the 2008 American Indian Youth Literature Award.

The challenges include objections to strong language and racial slurs, as well as topics of alcohol, poverty, bullying, violence, and sexuality.

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"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

Ernest Hemingway declared that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.'" T. S. Eliot called it a "masterpiece." According to the Teacher's Guide offered through PBS:

"'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is required reading in over 70 percent of American high schools and is among the most taught works of American literature."

Since its initial publication in 1885, Mark Twain's classic has riled parents and social leaders, primarily because of perceived racial insensitivity and the use of racial slurs. Critics of the novel feel it promotes stereotypes and offensive characterization, especially in Twain's portrayal of the runaway slave, Jim. 

In contrast, scholars argue that Twain's satirical view brilliantly exposes the irony and injustice of a society that abolished slavery but continued to promote prejudice. They cite the complex relationship of Huck with Jim as they both flee onto the Mississippi, Huck from his father, Finn, and Jim from slave catchers.

The novel remains both one of the most taught and one of the most challenged books in the American public school system.

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"The Catcher in the Rye"

This bleak coming-of-age story by J. D. Salinger is told from the perspective of the alienated teen Holden Caufield. Dismissed from his boarding school, Caufield spends a day wandering around the city of NY, depressed and in emotional turmoil.

The most frequent challenges to the novel stem from concerns about the vulgar words used and the sexual references in the book.

"Catcher in the Rye" has been removed from schools across the country for many reasons since its publication in 1951. The list of challenges is the longest and includes the following posted on the ALA website including:

  • In Morris, Manitoba, (1982) because the book violated the committee's guidelines covering "excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence, and anything dealing with the occult."
  • In De Funiak Springs, FL, (1985) because the book is  "unacceptable" and "obscene."
  • In Summerville, SC, (2001) because the book "is a filthy, filthy book."
  • In the Marysville, CA, Joint Unified School District (2009) where the school superintendent removed the book to get it "out of the way so that we didn't have that polarization over a book."
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"The Great Gatsby"

Another classic at the top of the list of frequently banned books, according to the ALA, is F. Scott Fitzgerald's magnum opus, "The Great Gatsby." This literary classic is a contender for the title Great American Novel. The novel is regularly assigned in high schools as a cautionary tale regarding the American Dream.

The novel centers on the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his obsession for Daisy Buchanan. "The Great Gatsby" explores themes of social upheaval, and excess, but has been challenged numerous times because of "language and sexual references in the book."

Before his death in 1940, Fitzgerald believed he was a failure and this work would be forgotten. In 1998, however, the Modern Library editorial board voted "The Great Gatsby" to be the 20th century's best American novel.

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"To Kill a Mockingbird"

Banned as recently as 2016, this 1960 novel by Harper Lee has faced multiple challenges in the years since its publication, primarily for its use of profanity and racial slurs. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, set in 1930s Alabama, tackles issues of segregation and injustice.

According to Lee, the plot and characters are loosely based on  an event that occurred near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The story is told from the point of view of young Scout. The conflict centers on her father, the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch, as he represents a black man against sexual assault charges.

Ultimately, the ALA notes that "To Kill a Mockingbird" has not been banned as frequently as it has been challenged. These challenges state the novel uses racial slurs that support “racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and promot(ion) of white supremacy."

An estimated 30-50 million copies of the novel have been sold.

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"The Lord of the Flies"

This 1954 novel by William Golding has been repeatedly challenged but never officially banned.

The novel is a fictional telling of what could happen when "civilized" British schoolboys are left stranded on their own, and must develop ways to survive.

Critics have opposed the extensive profanity, racism, misogyny, portrayals of sexuality, use of racial slurs, and excessive violence throughout the story.  

The ALA lists several challenges including one that states the book is:

"demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal."

Golding won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983.

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"Of Mice and Men"

There is a long list of challenges to this 1937 short novel by John Steinbeck, which is also called a "play-novelette". The challenges have centered on Steinbeck's use of vulgar and blasphemous language and scenes in the book with sexual overtones.

Steinbeck challenges the notion of an American dream against the backdrop of the Great Depression in his portrayal of George and Lennie, two displaced migrant ranch workers. They move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities until they land work in Soledad. Ultimately, the conflicts between the ranch hands and the two laborers leads to tragedy.

According to the ALA, there was an unsuccessful 2007 challenge that stated that "Of Mice and Men" was

"a 'worthless, profanity-riddled book' which is 'derogatory towards African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled.'
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"The Color Purple"

This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, published in 1982, has been challenged and banned over the years because of its explicit sexuality, profanity, violence and portrayal of drug use.

"The Color Purple" spans over 40 years and tells the story of Celie, an African-American woman living in the South, as she survives inhumane treatment at the hands of her husband. Racial bigotry from all levels of society is also a major theme.

One of the latest challenges listed on the ALA's website states that the book contains:

"troubling ideas about race relations, man's relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality."
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Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel, inspired by his personal experiences in World War II, has been called depraved, immoral, and anti-Christian.

According to the ALA, there have been multiple challenges to this anti-war story with interesting results: 

1. A challenge at Howell, MI, High School (2007) because of the book's strong sexual content. In response to a request from the president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, the county's top law enforcement official reviewed the books to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been broken. He wrote:

"Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of criminal laws."

2. In 2011, the Republic, Missouri, school board voted unanimously to remove it from the high school curriculum and library. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered with an offer to ship a free copy to any Republic, Missouri, high school student who requested one.

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"The Bluest Eye"

This novel by Toni Morrison was one of the most challenged in 2006 for its profanity, sexual references, and materials deemed unsuitable for students.

Morrison tells the story of Pecola Breedlove and her wishes for blue eyes. The betrayal by her father is graphic and heartbreaking. Published in 1970, this was the first of Morrison's novels, and it did not initially sell well.

Morrison went on to earn many major literary awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and an American Book Award. Her books "Beloved" and "Song of Solomon" have also received multiple challenges.

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"The Kite Runner"

This novel by Khaled Hossani is set against a backdrop of tumultuous events, from the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet military intervention, and the rise of the Taliban regime. The timing of publication, just as the US entered the conflicts in Afghanistan, made this a best seller, especially with book clubs. The novel followed the progress of characters as refugees to Pakistan and the United States. It was awarded the Boeke Prize in 2004.

A challenge was made in 2015 in Buncombe County, NC, where the complainant, a self-described “conservative government watchdog,” cited state law requiring local boards of education to include “character education” in the curriculum.

According to the ALA, the complainant said schools must teach sex education from an abstinence-only perspective. The decision was to allow use of "The Kite Runner" in tenth-grade honors English classes; "parents can request an alternative reading assignment for the child."

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Harry Potter Series

This beloved series of middle grade/young adult crossover books first introduced to the world in 1997 by J.K. Rowling has become a frequent target of censors. In each book of the series, Harry Potter, a young wizard, faces increasing dangers as he and his fellow wizards confront the powers of the dark Lord Voldemort.

A statement made by the ALA noted that, "Any exposure to witches or wizards shown in a positive light is anathema to traditional Christians who believe the Bible is a literal document." The response to a challenge in 2001 also stated, 

"Many of these people feel that the [Harry Potter] books are door-openers to topics that desensitize children to very real evils in the world."

Other challenges object to the increasing violence as the books progress.