The American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week each year during the last week in September. This celebration has a two-fold purpose – illuminating past and present banned books and drawing attention to the First Amendment and censorship. As an avid reader, I find this even interesting. Each year, I think back to my years in middle and high school.
I lived in a small town and attended a school with less than 500 students. In our school library, numerous books had black marks. Mrs. Andre, the school librarian and my eighth-grade homeroom and reading instructor, told us that the previous librarian covered any words or phrases she deemed inappropriate for our young, impressionable minds. I remember trying to read Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War” but returning it because of all the black marks. To this day, I don’t know how the book ended and I refuse to watch the movie based on the novel.
I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 banned books of the past century.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” JD Salinger
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist and antihero of the novel, has been expelled from Pencey. He embarks on a strange journey in New York. “The Catcher in the Rye” is a frequent target because of it is laced with profanity and adult themes. Holden is also an unstable, unreliable character. It doesn’t help that this book is a favorite of Mark David Chapman – John Lennon’s murder –, John Hinkley, Jr. – President Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassinator – and Robert Bardo – the man who stalked and murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer in the 1980s.
“Lolita,” Vladmir Nabokov
“Lolita” has the distinction of being banned in several countries, including the United States, France, England, Argentina and New Zealand. The book’s basic storyline covers a very sensitive topic, a middle-aged man obsessed with a teenage girl to the point of dragging her across the country and pretty much enslaving her. Child abuse is just as sensitive now as it was in the 1950s, so it continues to be a favorite banned book.
“Speak,” Laurie Halse Anderson
Published in 1999, “Speak” is a fairly recent entry to the list of books subjected to bans by individual schools or school districts. In the book, high-school freshman becomes an outcast for calling the police at a summer party. Most of the people in the student body don’t realize that she called the police because she was victim of date rape. She stops speaking as a way to cope with her pain. The book is banned because of its sensitive subject matter.
“Give a Boy a Gun,” Todd Strasser
Also published in 1999, the events at Columbine serve as an inspiration for this book. The main characters, Brendan Lawlor and Gary Searle, carry out a school shooting after being bullied almost every day. It’s written in a documentary style, featuring interviews with teachers, students and even the shooters. Strasser’s book has been banned because it almost mimics the events surrounding Columbine.
“In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote
First of all, “In Cold Blood” is one of my favorite books because I like the way Truman Capote blended elements of fiction to tell the story of the 1959 murder of Herbert Clutter and his family in their Holcomb, Kansas farmhouse. At the same time, I can understand why schools may not want to add it to a high-school reading list. He provides grisly details of the murder and other atrocities committed by the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee
Written by Truman Capote’s childhood friend, “To Kill a Mockingbird” deals with racism in a small Alabama town. Told from the point of view of six-year-old Scout, she tells the story of her father, Atticus Finch as he defends Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape. The book has been banned because of the subject matter and harsh language, including the use of the “N” word.
“The Outsiders,” S.E. Hinton
Actually, two of S.E. Hinton’s books, “The Outsiders” and “That Was Then, This is Now,” have been challenged by school districts, particularly between 1990 and 2000. I guess I missed the banning because I read both of these books in the late 1980s. The prime reasons for these challenges have been because of the use of slang and juvenile delinquency. “The Outsiders” also have a gang fight and “That Was Then, This is Now” depicts drug addiction.
“The Awakening,” Kate Chopin
Written in the late 1800s, “The Awakening” is set in New Orleans and Grand Isle, Louisiana and focuses on Edna Pontellier. For more than half a century, it remained barely unread because of contrasted with views of motherhood and femininity, especially in light of what a proper Southern lady should be like. Edna doesn’t care too much for her children and she hates most of the wives of her husband’s friends. The book has been banned because of her “awakening,” sexually and creatively. The book is reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence, two more challenged and often-banned books.
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
“The Bluest Eye,” written in 1970, tells the story of Pecola, an African-American girl living during the Great Depression. She lives in a dysfunctional home, her parents fight, she’s a victim of incest from her father, and she’s being humiliated by her parents. Pecola thinks that, if she were white, she would have a better life. The depictions of child abuse and racism have landed this book on banned book lists. I had to read “The Bluest Eye” in college, and it was pretty hard for me to read.
“The Merchant of Venice,” William Shakespeare
“The Merchant of Venice,” one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, deals with unrequited love. The controversy, however, focuses on the depiction of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Some school districts, such as the Midland Michigan district, banned the book because they feel it’s anti-Semitic. “The Merchant of Venice,” though, is one of my favorite works particularly because of Shylock’s impassionate speech, which people who’ve never read quote. Favorite, oft-quoted lines in the speech are, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Banned Books Week can be a time to reflect on the books you may not have been able to read in high school, revisit classics or read books you’ve always wanted to read.