It’s Banned Books Week! Or, maybe you’re reading this at some point in the future and it’s no longer Banned Books Week. Easy solution: Live your life like every week is Banned Books Week.
In the past, I have often celebrated this auspicious occasion by reading a banned book. When I used to do a book podcast (um, I used to host book podcast called Novel Ideas, if you want to listen to some old book takes), my brother and I would go look up recently challenged books and read them.
On the one hand, if you take this approach, you get to read a lot of great books! On the other hand, it’s depressing and predictable what’s going to make the list. If a book has LGBTQ+ content it’s like a million times more likely to be on the list. Also, books that deal with important but dark subjects get put on there a lot because the content is so shocking and terrible! But the point is to talk about a difficult subject? And how can we talk about difficult subjects without talking about them?
It probably goes without saying, but I am not a fan of banning books or trying to dictate what anyone reads. When I was a kid, my mom let me read pretty much anything, even if it was out of my age range or above my reading level. (This is how I read The Fellowship of the Ring in the fifth grade and didn’t understand it at all and then read Dracula in the seventh grade and what the hell. My mom truly let me read whatever.) I got to experience some really cool books this way! I also read some stuff that went way over my head and I didn’t realize just how much until I read the books again at an appropriate age.
I’d also like to say that this isn’t the sort of position where I don’t like it when certain books are banned but am okay with it in other contexts. I do not approve even when stupid books I don’t like are challenged. Reading a stupid book I don’t like has often made me annoyed, but I think there’s value in reading them nonetheless. Reading opens you up to new worlds and perspectives and helps you learn more about what you like and what you think. And if that book challenges your set worldview? Good.
Reading dumb stuff you don’t like sometimes can help you clarify your thinking more. Maybe it helps you better articulate why you don’t like certain things, maybe it helps you think more critically about why you don’t like certain things. Whatever the result, the process is good and it helps you grow.
What’s not great is looking at list of what a book contains and claiming that it’s going to corrupt young minds. That shit is tired. Scandalized by sex? The internet and television both exist and both of those things contain sex, so it’s not like teens will never hear be exposed to sex unless they read Lady Chatterly’s Lover or something. Violence is all over television too. The American Library Association points out that some of the most frequently challenged books contain diverse content. I mean…gay people exist and so do Black people and banning a book won’t change that.
Also, can we please stop trying to ban books that teach children about their bodies and where babies come from? They need to get the information from somewhere and a reliable book with good information is much better than a parent stammering through a half-assed explanation. We all have bodies! It’s okay to learn about them.
Reading new books will challenge you, will teach you to think about different people and points of view, will introduce you to new ideas, will generally make you more empathetic, more open, and more willing to embrace nuance.
I’m incredibly biased because I love to read, but even if you think the above is a little too rosy, you have to admit that a good book can make you have a lot of feelings and a lot of thoughts and that’s a good thing.
With all that said, I encourage you to read some banned books! Maybe some that have been challenged recently or are frequent targets. Maybe something like…
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
I had to include this because Speak was one of the most challenged books in 2020 and the thought that a whole swathe of people saw a book that is literally about a young girl trying to find the courage to speak out and then decided they wanted to silence it is really just a whole level of irony I wasn’t prepared for.
The book does deal with sexual assault, so take that into account. But I remember when I first read this book in high school, it blew my entire mind. It takes the issue really seriously and shows the long-lasting effects of assault and how people’s responses to it often continue to harm victims.
Apparently one of the reasons it was challenged was because “it was claimed to be biased against male students.” Umm, only those who commit sexual assault. Which, is probably an okay reason to be biased against someone. Maybe read the book next time?
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
This is a cute picture book features two male penguins at a zoo who adopt an egg and when the baby penguin hatches, they have a little family. The story is based around two real life penguins who did something similar.
The fact that an adorable children’s book about gay penguins nurturing an egg and subsequently a baby penguin is the sixth most challenged book of the past decade really tells you something about society. Not sure what, exactly, but something.
Read this one to your children out of spite and then feel a little warming in your heart.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
A graphic novel and a memoir, this book is a really interesting look into Bechdel’s family and her relationship with her father. It includes a couple surprising revelations about her dad and her own journey to discovering who she is.
In case you haven’t guessed it already, the book is not called Fun Home because Bechdel grew up in a really fun home. But certainly one rife with secrets and frustrated desires.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Timely for a whole host of reasons and I’m sure it’s challenged for the exact reasons it’s relevant. I liked this book and thought it did a good job tackling a tough topic and making it relatable. The book is definitely YA and features some of those common YA tropes, but I didn’t mind that so much because of who the intended audience is. It’s a good entry point for adults too, though.
This book also recently was made into a movie, which I didn’t see, so I can’t vouch for its quality. But the book is definitely worth checking out.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
This book is wild and dark. It has lots of metaphorical hauntings and one haunting that seems to be pretty literal. At times this one takes turns that will leave you scratching your head, but ultimately it faces the brutal history of our nation and grapples with how the past can cause ongoing trauma that people carry with them for a long time.
Quick aside: I recommend reading Toni Morrison in general, but if you are an audiobook person, try to find one that she has narrated! Her voice is lovely and soothing and listening to her read her own work made a lot of the writing style come alive for me in a way it didn’t when my own clunky brain was trying to process it.
Awakening by Kate Chopin
In my junior year of high school we had the option of reading a couple different books, and I specifically chose Awakening because it had created such a scandal when it was first published for featuring a woman who cheated on her husband. Spoiler alert: This book is not lurid and contains no sex. It’s all implied and vaguely talked around. Seventeen-year-old me was extremely put out by this fact.
Reading the book again years later, I was less annoyed by the lack of sex. Instead, I was struck by the fact that the main character had complicated feelings about her children, and I thought that was really cool. She’s allowed to be unhappy in her marriage, not because her husband is a terrible, abusive human being, but just because she doesn’t like him very much. And she’s allowed to be ambivalent about being a mother. Those are not things you get to see very often!
Spoiler alert: She is not allowed a happy ending and gets punished for her transgressions. Thank goodness they don’t make us all walk into the sea when our children give us complicated feelings.
This list is definitely not exhaustive. I’ve read other books on the banned and challenged lists and enjoyed them! I’ve read some books on those lists and not liked them much at all. Consider checking out these 100 most challenged books from the last decade. Give one a try. Or if you’re just looking for some books from different perspectives, you can see some of my recommendations for Juneteenth and Pride Month.
It’s okay if you don’t like one. Or if you don’t want to read a certain entry. We can all choose what we want to read. And it’s okay if those things are different than what other people want to read.
Have you got a favorite banned book? Let me know!