For this year’s Banned Book Week, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the best books some people don’t want you to read. For a comprehensive list of the banned books — from classics to the top 10 most challenged titles — check out the American Library Association website.
- The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum: There is no story I love more than this classic. I love every iteration from the original book to the 1939 MGM movie to the retelling in Gregory MacGuire’s Wicked series to the fanciful musicals both texts have inspired. From a literary standpoint, Oz was quite unique in its day. No other book at that time had a girl as a central character — one with her own agency and that the story revolved around completely — like Baum’s book. Yes, Alice in Wonderland has a girl in it, but the story is not so much about her as it is about a strange land and things that happen to her. She has no power. And the story is not told from her perspective. Likewise, Dorothy is a thoroughly American girl and represents a thoroughly American experience. It would be a long time before there would be another story so rooted by a female protagonist — Anne of Green Gables and My Anotonia (also on the all-time 100 list) come to mind. But there is no doubt that Dorothy was the first and her story has been one that has had ever-lasting appeal. I encourage anyone to read the original book that started it all. (It will actually make the most recent James Franco movie make a lot more sense.)
- Charlotte’s Web, EB White: This was the first chapter book that my parents read to me as a bedtime story. (Something I look forward to doing with my own child in a few years.) It was delicious to be involved in a story night after night. And what a story! It was Some Pig, after all. And of all the tender, loving, motherly protagonists to have, only EB White could make us love a spider enough to mourn her passing at the end. Charlotte showed us all the true love of a mother, whether biological or not. And that families come in all shapes and sizes, regardless of whether you look alike. What’s not to love here? And honestly, what on earth is there to ban?
- The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger: This classic is No. 2 on the all-time list of classics that are banned. (Number one is The Great Gatsby.) I first read Catcher in junior high and would go on to read it at least five more times before I got my college degree. Holden Caufield was emo before The Cure invented emo and strange music videos for me to think deep thoughts to late at night. I identified with his misplaced rage and his ennui about phonies. Even though it had been written decades earlier, it felt fresh and relevant, even to a girl sitting in the woods in Wasilla, Alaska. And Salinger’s work was the first time I read something that made me want to sit down and write down stories of my own. The fact that it gets banned for the more racy developments in the book is a missed opportunity for a teachable moment by people who completely miss the point of this brilliant book.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: Another top 10 banned classic (No. 4). Somehow I completely missed this book in school — probably because I lived in half a dozen states and more than two dozen cities by the time I was 18. Or maybe some of those communities had banned Lee’s work. Either way, I read this on my own as an adult well out of school. It is an experience I highly recommend. While I have no trouble believing that this book resonates with young adult readers, thanks to the youth of its narrator, I was reduced to ugly-crying as I set the book down when I was finished. While it is an imperfect look at race relations in the Jim Crow South, it earns its seat at the table for enabling important discussions about racism, class, and politics. And above all, that doing the right thing, even when you know you will lose, is the noble thing. If only all of us could access our inner Atticus Finch when duty called, this world would be a might better. (Bonus points that the movie version is as faithful a rendition as I think could be made.)
- The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Now this is a book that awakened me to the intersectionality of race and gender struggles. Celie is beaten and abused by her husband — and the world around her, who hates the color of her skin and the stride of her gender. But through her quiet strength — first as a survivor and then as a woman who finds the sound of her own voice — Celie awakens. This is a story of the ways that women get abused by life, and learn to fight back. But not always the ways you think. Sofia’s defiant speech — made memorably by Oprah Winfrey in the movie version — lends a perspective and voice to the legacy of survivors: All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy, my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. Girl-child ain’t safe in a family of mens. But ain’t never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I kill ’em dead before I let him beat me.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway: Papa! I read this book on a dare, really. In eight grade I was selected for an invitation-only creative writing class. We did all kinds of writing as well as studying advanced literature. One of the “elite” books on the class reading list — we got to pick our own selections — was this Hemingway classic. There was a girl in my class named Janine who was sort of my rival. I happened to be waiting behind her at the teacher’s desk one day when she told him she couldn’t make her way through Hemingway’s book and had to pick something else. I seized the opportunity to make her look bad. I’m not really proud of my motivation, but what I got in return was so much better and richer than bragging rights. I not only finished the book, I read it twice. And then I went out and found more Hemingway books to read on my own. There’s no doubt that Hemingway’s books are sexist, even at a young age I could see that. But the world he evoked and the reckless abandon in which he told it was exhilarating. I didn’t relate to the characters in Hemingway’s stories as much as I wanted to be a person who could tell a story like Hemingway. (Cliche, I know.) I wanted to be able to build a scene with three clipped sentences, the way he could. I wanted to draw the reader in to a conversation, even when it was just a couple of phrases. He knew how to build with words in the most economical way and yet produce such vast emotional entanglements and vistas that could stop your heart. No one has ever taken me to the theater of war or the agony of unrequited love, like Hemingway.
- Beloved, Toni Morrison: There is no question that this book has some weirdness. But I happen to be somebody that likes some weirdness in my literature. I guess we’ve been going further and further back in time on the slavery/racism history from Jim Crow with Mockingbird, to share-farmers in Purple. Beloved sits in that uncomfortable space when slaves were sometimes able to live free, but it was a dangerous kind of freedom. And that freedom often came with a hefty price, as we find the protagonist grieving daily for the daughter who did not make it. But in Beloved, resolution comes with a supernatural twist. It’s a disquieting, eery kind of book rooted in the real-world pain of loss and suffering. But that feels right, considering how unsettling and uncomfortable our nation’s history with slavery is.
- Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe: This book, along with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible changed me forever. Both are set in Africa, at different times, and feature the struggles of racism, slavery, the slave trade, and extreme poverty exacerbated by colonialism. Achebe’s masterpiece actually contains a scene that I think of often because it so typifies a basic human response to trauma. In the book, the chief beats one of his wives brutally. Her friend, another wife, comes to walk with her to the river the next day. As they do the washing in the river, the second wife carefully asks if her friend is okay. The first wife, who has been silent, says, “I have not yet found the mouth with which to speak of that, yet.” That just laid me out. Who hasn’t experienced something so devastating, heartbreaking, traumatic, or just terrible that in the shock of it — there are no words. What an image that you need a whole new mouth just to speak of it. You need all new words. It’s a powerful image. And that’s just the tiniest (and not spoilery) scene I can leave you with. It’s a haunting book that will make any white person with a conscience curse their white privilege and want to be a part of dismantling it.
- Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck: I imagine just about every book by Steinbeck has been challenged for a ban and I could read just about any Steinbeck book again and again. While reading Hemingway makes me think about writing the way you appreciate the lines of a sculpture, Steinbeck is a storyteller. Perhaps because I’m a journalist at heart, I love the way Steinbeck weaves a tale and takes you to the truth of his story. I actually prefer East of Eden, but only Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men make it on the top banned classics list. But Men is a classic among classics that only feels a bit worn-out because it’s been told so often and referenced in so many ways. It’s probably been a bit more weathered by repeated readings in high school English classes, not unlike Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. But what is wonderful about Steinbeck is the wonderful sense of a truly American vision of a truly American story. It’s rooted in things that are real, tangible, solid. And you can slide right into it and understand the motivations and tell the right from the wrong. There’s something very satisfying about that. I don’t really understand why a Steinbeck book would be banned, especially this one, with its quintessential morality lesson.
- Ulysses, James Joyce: I have to admit, I hated reading Ulysses. I finally tackled it in an English Lit course devoted exclusively to Joyce. (The pain!) Reading anything by Joyce is like learning how to build a log cabin blindfolded with a broken leg while hungry wolves circle in the distance. It makes you crazy. It makes you want to gnaw your own leg off at times. And as smart as I think I am at reading some pretty tricky literature, I’m pretty sure I would not have gotten my money’s worth out of Ulysses without the help of that class — and mostly my really obnoxious but brilliant professor. Because with a tour-guide, Ulysses was not only bearable, but breathtaking. It’s Homer’s Odyssey on acid. It makes TS Elliot’s The Wasteland look like a paperweight and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales seem like a nursery rhyme. This is Paradise Lost territory. With a description like that, you might be wondering how on earth this could land in my top banned books. I think of Ulysses like a literary marathon. Part of the enjoyment is that I can say I did it. But more than that, reading it made me better at reading everything else thereafter. And there is no doubt in my mind I am a better writer for it.
What are your favorite banned books? Check out the list here and then post your favs in the comments!