Celebrate Your Right to Read a Banned Book

Celebrate Your Right to Read "Lewd or Obscene" Literature

Banned Book Week September 26-October 1, 2016. Sherwin McGehee/GETTY Images

Take at any American high school English syllabus and you are looking at a list of books that have been challenged or banned. Because that list usually contains books that deal with complicated, important, and often times controversial topics, the assigned reading list will always contain books that are offensive to some people. Some people who are offended by these works of literature may view them as dangerous and seek to keep those titles out of the hands of students.

Take, for example, these familiar titles that appear in the top 20 of the list of Banned or Challenged Books 

  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  • Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Educators at all grade levels along with school and community librarians are committed to having students read great works of literature, and these groups often work cooperatively to make sure that these titles remain accessible. 

Book Challenge vs. Banned Book

According to the American Library Association (ALA), a book challenge is defined as, "an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group." In contrast, book banning is defined as, "the removal of those materials."  

The ALA website lists the following top three reasons cited for challenging materials as reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom:

  1. the material was considered to be "sexually explicit"
  2. the material contained "offensive language"
  3. the materials was "unsuited to any age group"

The ALA notes that challenges to materials are an attempt "to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others."

American Book Banning

Strangely enough, before the founding of the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), a branch of the ALA, there were public libraries that censored reading materials. For example, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first banned in 1885 by the librarians in the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts.

At that time, public libraries acted as guardians of literature, and many librarians believed that guardianship extended to protecting young readers. As a result, there were librarians who exercised their license to censor what they viewed as morally destructive or offensive literature under the claim that they were protecting young readers. 

Twain's Huckleberry Finn is one of America's most challenged or banned books. The main argument used to justify these challenges or bans is Twain's use of what are now considered racial slurs in reference to African Americans, Native Americans, and poor white Americans. While the novel is set during a time when slavery was practiced, a modern audience will likely find that this language is offensive or even that it condones or promotes racism.

Historically, most serious challenges to books during the 19th Century were made by Anthony Comstock, a politician who served as the United States Postal Inspector. In 1873, Comstock organized the  New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The objective of the organization was to supervise public morality. The combined powers granted from the US Post Office and the NY Society for the Suppression of Vice gave Comstock exclusive control of the reading materials for Americans. Numerous accounts confirm that his agenda to withhold materials that he viewed as lewd or obscene eventually led to the denial of anatomy textbooks being sent to medical students by the US Postal Service. 

Comstock also claimed his efforts led to the destruction of fifteen tons of books, millions of photos, and printing equipment. In total, he was responsible for thousands of arrests during his tenure, and he claimed "he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his 'fight for the young'."

The power of the Postmaster General position was adjusted in 1965 when a Federal Court determined,

"The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers." Lamont v. Postmaster General.

2016 Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read, September 25 - October 1

The role of libraries has changed from book censor  or guardian to a role as the defender of free and open access to information. In June 19, 1939, by the ALA Council adopted a Library Bill of Rights. Article 3 of this Bill of Rights states:

“Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

One way that libraries can call attention to challenges to reading materials in their holdings, and in other public institutions as well, is to promote Banned Book Week, celebrated typically the last week in September. TheALA celebrates this week claiming that:

"While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available."

The reason books and materials remain available is due in large part to the efforts of community librarians, teachers, and students who speak out for the rights of readers.  Any type of book could be challenged, although most often the challenges or banning come from sexually explicit or religious materials. Novels associated with the category of young adult (YA) literature dominate the banned book list of 2015. 

As of 2015, the record of challenges shows that 40% of book challenges come from parents, and 27% from patrons of public libraries.  45% of challenges are made on books in the public libraries, while  28% of challenges are related to books in school libraries. There is still some form of censorship alive, however, in the ranks of educators and librarians. In 2015, 6% of challenges came from librarians or teachers.

Examples of Frequently Challenged Books

The kind of literature that is banned or challenged is not limited to a particular context or genre. In a recent report released by the ALA, one of the most challenged books is The Bible on the grounds that it contains "religious materials."

Other classics from the literary canon or even textbooks can be the subject of censorship. For example, a Sherlock Holmes story first published in 1887 was challenged in 2011:

  • A Study in Scarlet  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
    • Challenge:  Removed from the Albermarle County, Va. School sixth-grade required reading list because the book casts one religion, Mormonism, in a negative light. 

Textbooks also can be challenged as was this textbook from Prentice-Hall:

  • World HistoryElisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler (editors) Prentice-Hall
    • Challenge: challenged, but retained in the Volusia County, Florida (2013) despite a thirty-two-page chapter on “Muslim Civilizations” that covers the rise of Islam and the building of a Muslim empire. 

Finally, the classic eyewitness account of the horrors of the Nazi regime and Holocaust was the subject of a 2010 challenge:

  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
    • Challenge: Challenged at the Culpeper County, Virginia public school by a parent requesting that her daughter not be required to read the book aloud. Initially, it was reported that officials have decided to stop assigning a version of Anne Frank’s diary due to the complaint that the book includes sexual material and homosexual themes. 


The ALA believes that Banned Book Week should serve only as a reminder in promoting the freedom to read and asks the general public to act to preserve the right to read beyond this one week in September. The ALA website offers information on getting involved with Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read, with Ideas and Resources.  They also have issued ​this statement: 

"The freedom to read means little without a culture of conversation that allows us to discuss our freedoms openly, work through issues that books raise for our readers, and wrestle with the challenging balance between freedom and responsibility."

Their reminder to educators and librarians is that​ " Creating that culture is a year-round job."