September 23-29 marks Banned Books Week. This annual celebration of the freedom to read was conceived in 1982, when the Office of Intellectual Freedom received an unusually high number of challenges to books based on things like offensive language, violence, sexuality, and political and religious viewpoints. The list is extensive, often head-scratching, and frequently hilarious—if you forget that bookshelves (ours and yours) would be bare if all of these titles were strictly and successfully suppressed. So, in the spirit of exercising our right to read and for pointing out the perils of censorship, we give you a handful of our favorite books that have—in some way, at some time—been "challenged," "banned," and "burned."
Learn more about Banned Books Week here.
I won’t argue that The Hunger Games isn’t violent, because it is. These are, after all, kids being forced to kill each other in a death match, while the rest of the country watches and bets on the outcome. But I would argue that the ends justify the violent means. Besides exploring important themes of oppression and sacrifice, Collins's bestseller satirizes our obsession with reality television which has only gotten more obnoxious since the book released in 2008. Teens (and adults for that matter) who were not readers came to the party for The Hunger Games and then returned for the next book, and the next. In my opinion, a book that demonstrates the entertainment value of a great story, and gets kids reading, deserves a place on the shelf. —Seira Wilson
When I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a teenager, I thought I was reading about the battle between individualism and conformity, self-determination and institutionalism, freedom and power. Was I ever wrong! Decades after its 1962 publication, Kesey's proto-counterculture classic held fast to the number 49 position of "most commonly challenged books in the United States" (per the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom) for the rather pedestrian criticisms of obscene language, violence, and references to mental illness. But I (and probably many others) missed the book's secret message, hidden in plain sight. According to one concerned southern California parent, it's a manual for parricide: "It teaches how very easy it is to smother somebody. ... They're going to think that when they get mad at their parents, they can just ax them out." Very easy, indeed! —Jon Foro
I was at the grocery store over the weekend, and overheard a couple of teenage girls discussing Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. One mused, “Maybe I should read the book that it’s based on.…” Um, yes! For the five of you not familiar with either version, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic examines an anti-feminist future where sexual relations are clearly prescribed, and not following that prescription is punishable by death. It was banned for being too explicit, and for supposedly being insensitive to certain religious groups. So, why shouldn’t you ban it from your bookshelf or Kindle? Atwood penned this novel in 1985 and it’s eerily prophetic—frighteningly so—and speaks to many of the thorny issues we’re grappling with today. —Erin Kodicek
Based on the number of people who wanted Cujo banned because it was “trash,” this book is a great example of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” As a teenager, I found the story of a mother and son trapped in their car by a rabid dog mesmerizing, and as I raced through the pages, I absorbed lessons from Stephen King about how to build suspense and tension. You might never think about poor Old Yeller the same way again, though. —Adrian Liang
I don't even know what to say here. REALLY? But yes, as recently as 2011, To Kill a Mockingbird made the list of ten most challenged titles. And yet, this novel is frequently listed as a favorite book of all time. People name their children Harper after the author (I’ve met several personally) and Scout, for the young protagonist. Obviously, this is a book that touches many readers in a deeply profound way. The themes of racism and inequality, seen clearly through the eyes, and innocence, of an eight-year-old, are every bit as powerful—and relevant—today as when the book was first published in 1960. In this age of unprecedented bullying, we need to encourage kids to stand up for what they know is right, even if it's unpopular. —Seira Wilson
It's ironic that people would seek to ban a book about the banning of books. There's a weird circular logic at work. (Like eating all the pretzels out of the Chex mix because you don’t like pretzels.) I once had a discussion with Ray Bradbury about what he was thinking when he wrote Fahrenheit 451. I told him that I thought it was a response to the excesses of McCarthyism. He told me, "I wasn’t thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking about the burning of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years before." He wrote the book in a typing room at UCLA in the early '50s. He said, "I would walk through the stacks at UCLA, look at all those books, and think about more recent events in Italy and Germany, and the rumors about Russia during the war. What could endanger all those books?" Turns out normal, well-intentioned people can. —Chris Schluep
Suicide, sex, drugs. Okay, I get why Thirteen Reasons Why might make some parents uncomfortable, but these are topics that frequent teenage minds and hallways. The story is intriguing: Clay Jensen receives a box of audiotapes recorded by Hannah—a classmate and love interest who recently committed suicide. The tapes take him on a journey of the 13 incidents—and the people who perpetrated them—that led to her decision to end her life. Some are big things, like a date rape. Most, however, seem mean or hurtful but individually not enough to push someone over the edge. That is one of the great things about this book: you see the effects of individual acts of unkindness and how devastating rumors, lies, and staying silent can be. I also appreciate that rather than glorifying suicide as revenge or martyrdom, it was obvious that Hannah's stubbornness and pride ultimately decided her ending, which was a waste and a regret. —Seira Wilson
The Sun Also Rises has a lot going for it: sex, bad words, unsuccessful sex, a girl with a boy’s name, Paris, Pernod—these are just a few of the louche particulars that tend to bunch staid underpants. And predictably, underpants were bunched, landing Hemingway’s landmark novel on banned lists in Boston, California, and Ireland at various points since its 1926 publication (we might also assume it was banned in Hemingway’s mother’s house; she reportedly called it "one of the filthiest books of the year," which is better than "of all time," I guess). But the Nazis took it one step further, burning the book along with some of his others (A Farewell to Arms), either because Hemingway was a decadent communist or for his accurate depictions of war. (Apparently depravity is in the eye of the beholder). It’s unclear. But here’s the thing: While it was banned in Boston in 1930, Ireland (1953) and Riverside, CA (1960) took offense after the Nazis. When anyone bans a book, or burns a book, or takes violent action against the author of a book, they are probably not asking themselves Hey, the Nazis did this. Should we be doing this, too? As for the book itself, some love it while others find it insufferably self-absorbed (I can understand both; I loved it as a young man, though that’s a gray memory and I haven’t tried it recently). But its impact on 20th Century literature is undeniable, even if Hemingway’s terse, direct style has taken its hits over the years. There’s risk in being successful and inimitable: many people will imitate you, and when they can’t, they resort to parody, which at this point is an overtold joke. You think you can do better? Isn’t it pretty to think so. —Jon Foro
Portions of this list have been previously published on Omnivoracious.com and The Amazon Book Review.
Subscribe to the Amazon Book Review, featuring picks for the best books of the month, author interviews, reading recommendations, and more from the Amazon Books editors.