Banned Books Week: Which Outlawed Books have you Read?

Posted September 27, 2014 in BOOKS / 2 Comments

As you may have heard, this week is Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It’s about celebrating the books that have been challenged, restricted and outright forbidden in some parts of the world.

According to the American Library Association, more than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982. A challenge is an attempt to ban or restrict materials based upon the objections of a person or group. When books are banned, they are removed from libraries and schools and people’s access to them is restricted, so it’s a type of censorship. Books have been challenged or banned for all sorts of reasons, including their sexual or violent content and religious or political messages.

I obviously agree that young children shouldn’t be exposed to books containing graphic scenes or adult topics. However, as they get older and enter secondary education, I don’t think it does them any harm to read books containing curse words, sexual language or challenging political viewpoints. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these kind of books can benefit young people as they make them question their assumptions and challenge their normal world-view. I believe in giving young people the chance to think for themselves and read about topics that interest them.

Banned books are often brilliant works of literature because of their challenging, edgy themes. Many of the books considered to be classics were banned at some point-often for ridiculous reasons. Check out this list of 15 Books Banned for the Most Absurd Reasons Ever. It includes reasons such as talking animals being ‘blasphemous and unnatural’ and a boy throwing a tantrum being ‘dangerous behaviour’.

Whatever your stance on the appropriateness of these books, I hope you can agree that no one should be able to dictate what someone else’s children can read, or what other adults can read. The decision of whether or not to expose young people to books that conflict with their religious or political views should be down to individual parents, who can always request that their child be excused from studying them. But attempting to ban those books and restrict other people from reading them is controlling and wrong.

Here’s a list of some of my favourite banned or challenged books:

1) The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.

This has been banned because of fears that it is teaching children about witchcraft and dark magic, and is therefore anti-Christian. I wholeheartedly disagree with this. They are fantasy books-brimful of harmless imaginary creatures and characters. While some of the spell names are based on ancient spells in Latin, they are only harmful if you believe this type of magic is real (and so far no one has successfully recreated any of the spells from Harry Potter!). It’s far from being a practical guidebook! The same kind of fantasy magic is also used in The Chronicles of Narnia, which are arguably heavily influenced by Christian ideology.

Besides, Harry and his friends use their magic for good-fighting the dark forces and promoting bravery, loyalty, friendship, wisdom and love. The books are completely compatible with Christianity in my view, even hinting at a Christian afterlife. There are many things in the book that point to Harry and his family being Christians, including the fact that Harry has a godfather, his parents are buried in a churchyard and he celebrates Christmas.

2) The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R Tolkien

This classic fantasy masterpiece has been banned in many schools and public libraries across America. Some find the story to be ‘irreligious’, despite the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He even wrote in a letter to C. S Lewis that LOTR was a ‘fundamentally religious and Christian work’.

3) Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

Orwell’s chilling dystopian vision about dictatorship and surveillance has been banned in the former U.S.S.R. Not surprising when you consider the novel’s themes of nationalism, sexual repression, censorship and privacy, which closely parallel actual events of the 20th century. Between 1965 and 1982, the book ranked 5th on the list of most challenged titles for being “immoral and pro communist” and is also frequently challenged for being ‘anti-government’. It is currently 9th on the ALA’s list of banned classics.

4) Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This is a beautiful, moving novel about a woman ‘ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny’ [1]. The main character Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in her early forties, tells the story of her life through flashbacks, in which she survives rape, forced marriage, bereavement, domestic violence and natural disaster.

The novel tackles issues of racism, slavery and the treatment of women in the early 1900s. Parents of students in Advanced English classes in a Virginia high school objected to the language and sexual content. Such a shame, as it really is an amazing book.

5) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This has been challenged on the grounds that it is ‘a degrading, profane and racist work that promotes white supremacy’. This one really surprised me, because I got the exact opposite message from it. For me, the book challenges the racial inequality in the American South. The racial slurs are part of realistic dialogue spoken by the characters that Harper Lee is challenging and showing to be racist.

6) The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This amazing novel tells the story of a black woman called Celie Johnson and her struggles through life in the American South from the 1930s onwards. It’s told in a series of diary entries and letters over a period of 30 years through Celie’s life as she suffers through neglect and abuse at the hands of the various men in her life. It’s been challenged for including homosexuality, offensive language and sexually explicit scenes. 
R. Wolf Baldassarro from Banned Books Awareness sums my views up perfectly in this passage:

“How can silencing the intellectual discussion of rape, incest, violence, and racism be of any service to its victims? Placing these themes in the context of outside characters helps to convey a sense of understanding, and provide comfort in the knowledge that these experiences are not unique.

No one is claiming that it be used as a bedtime story for a 5-year-old, but unless you’ve raised your child in a bubble with the belief that a complex, multi-faceted world doesn’t exist beyond the end of the street, these are subjects that should and need to be dealt with; and by high school a student should have enough intellectual and psychological development to not only deal with it, but to analyze it with logic and reasoning for its artistic and social relevance. That’s all part of learning how to think, act, and live as an adult.”

7) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Huxley’s sci-fi dystopian novel set in the year 2540 explores the dangers of technology such as cloning, mass-production and genetic engineering. It was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2010 for themes of sexuality, drugs and suicide and was banned immediately in 1932 in Ireland for its language and for claims of being anti-family and anti-religion. But my favourite reason for it to be banned is from Miller, Missouri, where it was removed from classrooms for ‘making promiscuous sex look like fun’.
8) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I find it ironic that a book about censorship, in which books are forbidden and burned before people can read them, was actually censored itself. Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA used a version of the text in which all the ‘hells’ and ‘damns’ were blacked out. It’s also been objected to on religious grounds for some unbeknown reason.

9) Animal Farm by George Orwell

This thought-provoking political satire tells the tale of a worker’s revolution that goes horribly wrong. In the 1940s, Allied forces found the book critical of the USSR as it drew close parallels to the communist revolution. It has since been challenged by both Christian and Islamic organisations for going against religious values by including talking animals.

10) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Kelsey’s novel, published in 1962 and set in an Oregan asylum, criticises the institutional process and compares the mental ward to a prison. It shows authorities controlling the individuals in their care through subtle and coercive methods and using barbaric ‘treatments’ such as electric shock. It has been challenged and banned for ‘glorifying criminal activity, corrupting juveniles and containing descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, torture, dismemberment, death and human elimination’ as well as for promoting ‘secular humanism’.
11) The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic version of North America in which The Capitol controls the rest of the nation and forces one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts to compete in an annual televised battle to the death. It has been challenged for being anti-ethnic, anti-family, insensitive, containing offensive language, references to the occult/satanic and violence. I don’t really understand any of those charges, except perhaps the violence, but even then it’s very understated compared to most films and video games.
12) Howl by Allen Ginsberg

This is a wonderful collection of thought-provoking poems, challenged because of descriptions of homosexual acts.

13) My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

I really can’t understand why this was has been challenged at all! It’s a story about a young girl who has been a medical donor all her life for her older sister, who has leukemia. Apart from being terribly sad, I don’t see how anyone could possibly object to it. Apparently one of the reasons it has been challenged is because it mentions homosexuality. There is only one reference to homosexuality in the entire book. Even if there were several mentions of it throughout I really don’t see why this is an issue for people. Some people are gay-get over it!

So, where do you stand on banned books? Do you believe in censorship? Have you read any banned books? 

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2 responses to “Banned Books Week: Which Outlawed Books have you Read?

  1. I'm reading "Looking for Alaska" by John Green right now. I'm about halfway through it. Yes there is smoking, drinking, bad language and the characters talk about sex, but it's about high school students at a boarding school. I know I knew people in high school and even middle school who did these things so I find it hard to believe that this book would be introducing anything new to anyone over the age of 12. Unless you've lived in a bubble, these are things you already know about. It's a wonderful story that deals with loss, guilt, loyalty, student stress; the things that are important for kids to learn and talk about before they grow up. But it's one of the top ten most challenged books from 2013. It's sad. Nobody should have to miss out on reading it. Especially teens! Sorry for writing a diatribe. I just hate seeing books banned.

  2. I agree, Kimberly. Teens know a lot more than their parents or teachers realise and we should give them credit for being mature enough to read about these issues and not let that affect their behaviour. Besides, most of them are exposed to much more violence and sexual references through TV, films and video games. As you mention, books often tackle difficult issues that kids need to learn about. Books are a safe medium through which they can experience difficult issues and begin to understand them before they encounter them in the real world.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kimberly.

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