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A Tennessee school board’s recent ban on Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is the conclusion to a story we’ve already seen. A group of adults, whether it be parents or teachers, finds a book’s content to be so offensive that they call for it to be pulled from shelves, taken off syllabi or even banned entirely from schools.
In the case of “Maus” — which details Spiegelman’s father’s experience of the Holocaust — it was “inappropriate language and nudity” that caused a Tennessee school board to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel from its eighth grade curriculum. But many have criticized its removal as just another case in a trend of schools targeting books that teach the history of oppression. Books such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” have famously topped the ALA’s lists of most challenged books throughout the years, with more recent examples including anti-racist books such as Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped.”
While the Tennessee school board has yet to retract their decision on “Maus,” a firestorm on social media shot the book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list since the controversy arose last week.
Below, check out more banned and challenged books throughout history worth reading.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
“Maus” details the cruelties that Spiegelman’s father Vladek faced throughout the Holocaust, from the years leading up to World War II through his own liberation from Auschwitz. Through serialized conversations with his son, Vladek discloses the starvation and abuse he endured at the hands of Nazis, and the resourcefulness he tapped into in order to survive. Some parts of the book show Jews depicted as mice, stripped naked in concentration camps (nudity being one cause for the ban). Of course, the book does contains gruesome details and grisly imagery — like any truthful telling of the Holocaust does.
During an interview on Holocaust Remembrance Day following the ban, Spiegelman said, “This is disturbing imagery. But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”
1984 by George Orwell
A book about the dangers of censorship being censored is (almost) comical in its irony. Orwell’s “1984” was challenged for its pro-communist and sexually explicit content, alongside other subversive and dystopian stories such as Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Alduous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but has since become known as one of the most significant rationalizations for freedom of speech and expression. The page-turning novel doubles as a scathing polemic against totalitarian governments as it invites readers into an imagined future in the superstate of Oceania, wherein the ruling Party keeps all citizens under the constant, watchful eye of Big Brother and persecutes, tortures or kills anyone that engages in individual thought.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas’s debut novel “The Hate U Give” became an instant #1 New York Times bestseller upon its release in 2017, but it only took a few weeks for school officials in Katy, Texas to challenge the book for “pervasive vulgarity and racially insensitive language.” One teen saved the day after collecting 4,000 signatures from students on a petition urging the the district to restore the book. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas’s moving novel tells the story of Starr, a teenager who witnesses the police shooting of her best friend, serving as an important message in the midst of a much-belated reckoning over race in the U.S.
Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
This #1 New York Times bestseller is one of the most recent books to join the ALA’s list of banned books throughout the past year, challenged for its “selective storytelling incidents” and for neglecting to include racism towards “all people.” Really, the anti-racist book is an amendment to the revisionist history taught in schools across the country. In its pages, the acclaimed author and historian Ibram X. Kendi offers readers unwashed versions of four well-known historical figures such as the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and activist Angela Davis, and the ways racism played into their lives.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
It may be a surprise to many that Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s book, known for its comical whimsey and vivid imagery, was once banned. In a seemingly wholesome story about a young girl’s journey to a magical alternate universe, one U.S school in 1900 claimed to find endorsements of rebelling against authority figures and allusions to sexuality and masturbation. Decades later, the story came under fire again after Disney’s 1951 animated production. Criticism stemmed from parents against the counter-culture of the 1960s, worried about its allusions to hallucinogenic drug use.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita” was never banned in the U.S.. It was instead met with unprecedented fanfare when it was finally published in the states, after being pulled from shelves in France, England, Argentina and New Zealand. If Carroll’s children’s book garnered criticism in the ’60s, it’s no surprise that Nabokov’s story about a man’s pedophilic longings and obsession with a young girl named Lolita was also initially met with outrage. However, the bans on the acclaimed novel were eventually overturned in Europe and has since been heralded as a great and darkly symbolic work of art — all its perversions be damned.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
William Golding’s debut novel remains one of the most banned books in history, famously challenged by Waterloo, Iowa schools in 1992 for its profanity, lurid passages about sex and defamatory remarks about minorities and God. But despite ongoing contention over its explicit content, it remains one of the most popular novels on syllabi across the country, with its story about a group of young boys on a deserted island who succumb to violence praised for its daring themes about groupthink versus individuality. For many teachers and scholars, it’s deemed “required reading.”
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand remains one of the most controversial writers in recent history, often criticized for capitalist ideologies encapsulated in her groundbreaking philosophy of Objectivism, the seeds of which which were first planted in “The Fountainhead.” The story follows Howard Roark, an intransigent young architect who refuses to conform to conventional standards, sacrificing commercial success for innovation. Roark’s noble journey counters that of his former classmate Peter Keating, who revels in a short-lived and shallow success, a symbol for the dangers of collectivism as opposed to individualism.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
For all its ubiquity in the high school classroom, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of the most famously challenged and banned books, condemned for its use of racial slurs by dozens of school districts across the country. For all its contention, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel remains one of the most widely read books about race in America, and its narrator, Atticus Finch, an enduring fictional character of racial heroism (although more recently, Finch’s storyline has been criticized for following the reductive arc of a “white savior”). Today, there are plenty of Black authors to read to better understand race in this country (including those on this list like Ibram X. Kendi and Angie Thomas), but Lee’s revolutionary denouncement of prejudice from the 1960s is also a worthy read, if not to better understand its pitfalls.
Melissa by Alex Gino (previously published as George)
Alex Gino’s “Melissa,” originally published as “George,” is a 2015 novel about a transgender fourth grader. It was the most challenged book in 2020, a tragic byproduct of anti-trans attitudes around the world. After being pulled off shelves for its LGBTQ+ content and conflicting religious views,” Gino was vocal about the stigmas such actions perpetuate. “When I write a book about someone who is transgender … just simply someone who is transgender — they’re not doing anything, they just are transgender — and that book gets banned?” Gino told Yahoo Life. “That is my existence being so scary and so reprehensible and so monstrous, that I cannot be shown to children.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was banned from five U.S. schools following its 1987 publication, the most recent case being in 2007 when an AP U.S English class in Kentucky abruptly pulled the book from its syllabus. Despite calls for censorship on claims of its bestiality, infanticide, sex and violence, it still boasts a legacy as one of the most important fictional works about the Antebellum South. Those that have read it are well aware of the powerful and disturbing imagery Morrison uses throughout the story to illustrate the horrors of slavery, in a way few other works have. Even more, the tragic novel is inspired by the real story of an enslaved women, who in the the fictionalized version is haunted by a malevolent spirit after fleeing captivity.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Alexie’s young adult novel casts a necessary critical eye on poverty at an Indian American reservation, acclaimed for the impressive levity and humor it’s able to sustain through darker material. However, the book continues to pop up on banned books list for illicit material, pornography and sexual maturity that some adults believe are not fitting for young audiences. But others will say it s story of self-discovery and independent growth as it follows a 14 year-old named Junior living on the Spokane Indian Reservation who decides to go to a nearly all-white school away from the reservation.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
Criticized for being “anti-white” and “obscene,” J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel has been a favorite of censors. But despite being banned and challenged at dozens of schools throughout the years, the novel’s infamous protagonist Holden Caulfield remains an icon of teenage angst and rebellion, serving as the archetype for countless fictional characters that followed. In the story, a depressed 17 year-old Caulfield deals with complex feelings of grief, identity, loss and lack of connection after after being discharged from a mysterious institution in California.
Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck’s classic novella is on the ALA’s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century, targeted for its vulgarity and for what some consider to be racist language. Although it’s been the face of controversy in the years since, it earned Steinbeck some of the greatest praise of his career upon its initial publication. George and Lennie’s story, based on Steinbeck’s own experience working alongside migrant farmworkers in the 1910s, has been recreated in operas, Broadway plays and musicals, in addition to a 1939 film adaptation that earned four Oscar nominations. But for all the controversy that “Of Mice and Men” caused, it might be seen, in retrospect, as preparation for the national phenomenon “The Grapes of Wrath” caused years later. The sweeping Great Depression-set novel was publicly banned and burned by citizens who denounced it as communist propaganda. Now, of course, it’s recognized as a Great American Novel.
Slauterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The function of the novel in modern society is something that’s discussed in the pages of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” with characters’ responses ranging from a “way to describe a blowjob artistically” to a way to “provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls.” It’s one of many funny scenes in the book but also one that might’ve been lost on the school administrators throughout the years that have decided to pull the novel from their shelves. What might’ve also been lost is the book’s theme of history repeating itself, as a never-ending campaign to ban “Slaughterhouse-Five” persists through the 21st century. The story follows an imprisoned soldier Billy Pilgrim doomed to relive moments of his life on an endless loop, many of which consist of grisly details that one circuit judge called “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian.”
Satrapi’s use of graphic language and images in “Persepolis” has caused controversy since it first came out in 2004. But the autobiographical series, which recounts Satrapi’s own childhood and adult life in Iran and Austria, serves as an important history lesson on the Islamic Revolution. Through the protagonist Marji, the compelling comic details the impact of war and religious extremism on Iranian women, while taking readers through Marji’s own educational journey as she discovers numerous philosophers who help her understand her own class privilege and identity.
The Kite Runner
Despite appearing on the ALA’s 2008 list of Most Challenged Books, “The Kite Runner” lived on The New York Times bestseller list for over two years upon its release, acclaimed for its powerful themes of grief and redemption. The story centers around the unlikely friendship between a wealthy Afghan boy named Amir and the son of his father’s servant, a narrative that many educators believe is essential reading for young adults. One pivotal scene depicting an act of sexual assault, however, has made it a target of censors around the world, despite the powerful message it holds for readers.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Much like the banning of “1984,” the censoring of “The Giver” is particularly ironic given its subject matter. Lowry’s social critique on the dangers of conformity is illustrated in an imagined futuristic society, wherein citizens are stripped of any free will: everything from their partners to jobs to children are chosen for them. It’s a society that sees no war, poverty or or pain, but also no emotion, joy or love. The story follows an 11 year-old boy who uncovers his world’s dark secrets, leading him to make the bold and noble decision to flee. But despite the critical acclaim garnered since 1993, the book has been challenged and banned for violent and sexual passages, in addition to mentions of euthanasia and suicide.
Lowry responded to the initial banning, saying “I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book you should fight it as hard as you can.”
Ulysses by James Joyce
The U.S ban on James Joyce’s seminal “Ulysses,” criticized for harboring “impure and lustful thoughts,” was finally overturned in 1933 when Federal M. Woolsey ruled that the novel was not only “not obscene” but a work of literary merit. The story is considered a modern parallel to Homer’s “Odyssey,” following the journey of three central characters in Dublin, Ireland that loosely mirrors Odysseus’s famous journey home from the Trojan War. One particular episode featuring masturbation and sexual fantasy was excoriated by reviewers upon its 1922 release, but the book as a whole is now regarded as one of the most important works of modernist literature, particularly for its at-the-time unconventional stream of consciousness technique and experimental prose.