Celebrated annually during the final week of September, Banned Books Week was launched in the 1980s, following the highly popular 1982 American Booksellers Association BookExpo America trade show in Anaheim, California which showcased over 500 banned books. The week-long event spotlights both current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools, celebrates the freedom to read, and encourages the value of open access to information.
In celebration of Banned Books Week, we have put together a fine selection of some of the most frequently banned and challenged books, each of which is now regarded as a highly desirable classic in English, American, and even children’s literature and most of which have won major literary awards and sold millions of copies.
Written over an eight-year period, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was controversial from the outset, attacked by critics for its crudeness, coarseness and vulgarity. Upon issue of the American edition in 1885, several libraries, including the Concord and Brooklyn Public Libraries, banned it from their shelves. Twain later remarked to his editor, “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”
The book nevertheless emerged as one of the defining novels of American literature, prompting Hemingway to declare: “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain. It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing since.”
One of the most desirable classics in American literature, Jack London’s Call of the Wild was burned, among many other books, in Nazi Germany. “Starting in 1933, the German nationalist ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’ burned over 100 million volumes of allegedly anti-German texts, including… The Call of the Wild” for its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual” (Spoth, 241).
It is now regarded as “one of the first American novels to examine the quest of the pioneering individual who breaks away from the sheltered environment of civilization and is romantically compelled to find freedom in nature. In the early part of the century this was considered the American dream” (Parker, 16).
Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath has faced a great amount of controversy since its first appearance in 1939, primarily for the “often profane” language used throughout the text and inclusion of sexual content.
Upon publication, the book was banned in Kansas City, Missouri and Kern County, California; burned by the East St. Louis, Illinois Public Library; and barred from the Buffalo, New York Public Library. It was banned in Ireland in 1953 and in 1973, with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, faced controversy in Turkey being accused of including “propaganda unfavorable to the state.”
The book went on to win the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Since publication in 1951, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has been one of the most frequently targeted books by censors. Between 1961 and 1982, it was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States yet in 1981, it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.
Early challengers of the book criticized young protagonist Holden Caulfield’s vulgar language and it was soon accused of undermining family values, encouraging rebellion in teenagers, and promoting drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity.
The novel was included on Time Magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923 and approximately one million copies of The Catcher in the Rye are sold each year, with total sales of more than 65 million books.
Translated into over 60 languages, Munro Leaf’s classic children’s story The Story of Ferdinand became a number one bestseller in 1938 and has never gone out of print since. Despite its beloved place in children’s literature, the book was banned in many countries including Spain and Nazi Germany who denounced it as a pacifist work and ‘democratic propaganda.’ Following the 1945 defeat of Germany during the Second World War, 30,000 copies were published to be given to the children of Germany in an effort to encourage peace.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm faced an array of major challenges upon publication, particularly in American schools. It was challenged by the John Birch Society in Wisconsin in 1965 because of its reference to masses revolting, deemed a “problem book” by New York State English Council’s Committee on Defense Against Censorship in 1968, and in 2017 was removed from the Stonington, Connecticut school district curriculum.
Time magazine chose the book as one of the 100 best English-language novels (1923 to 2005); it also featured at number 31 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels, and number 46 on the BBC’s The Big Read poll. It won a Retrospective Hugo Award in 1996 and is included in the Great Books of the Western World selection.
One of the most challenged novels in schools according to the ALA, To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned over a dozen times in American high schools and middle schools primarily for the inclusion of “profanity and racial slurs” in the text. In 1981, the book was challenged by parents in Warren, Indiana Township schools and accused of representing “institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature” and in 2006, it was challenged in a Brentwood, Tennessee Middle School for promoting “racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and. white supremacy.”
The book is now widely considered one of the best-loved classics of all time and has been translated into more than forty languages, selling more than forty million copies worldwide.
Another one of America’s most challenged and banned novels, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was branded as violent and obscene by critics including five residents of Strongsville, Ohio who sued the local Board of Education in 1974, deeming the book “pornographic” and accusing it of glorifying criminal activity and having a “tendency to corrupt juveniles.” The book was banned several other times in the U.S., most recently at the Aberdeen Washington High school in 1986 and Placentia Unified School District in 2000.
The book was adapted into the 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson which won five academy awards.
Although Toni Morrison’s third and breakthrough novel Song of Solomon was met with widespread acclaim upon publication in 1977, it faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. between 1993 and as recently as 2009. The complainants, including a parent from the Richmond County, Georgia School district in 1994 and the superintendent of St. Johns County Schools in St. Augustine, Florida referred to the novel as “filthy and inappropriate” and “repulsive”.
The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s popular book club, and was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature.
The book that made Alice Walker the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, The Color Purple has a long history of bans and challenges, particularly in American high schools. In 1984, it was challenged as appropriate reading for an Oakland, California High School honors class due to the work’s “sexual and social explicitness” and its “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” In 1992, the book was banned in the Souderton, Pennsylvania School District as appropriate reading for students and labeled as “smut.”
“Critics have both praised and attacked Walker’s use of black folk English to capture [protagonist] Celie’s perspective. Walker responded, ‘Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us. And, amazingly, it has sustained us more securely than the arms of angels'” (New York Public Library, Books of the Century, 135).
Now one of the scarcest and most desirable books in modern children’s literature, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are faced many opponents and was banned in several libraries upon publication in 1963. Its challengers accused the work as being “too dark” and “traumatizing” to young children due to its often frightening imagery.
The book went on to win the 1964 Caldecott Medal and remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.
In addition to the titles featured above, our collection includes a number of other banned and challenged books, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange among others.