Support literacy and give challenged novels to your friends this Christmas.
by Suzi Parker
The history of banning books dates back to 450 B.C., when Anaxagoras wrote about the sun and moon and his critics thought he was insulting the gods. Challenging the written word certainly hasn’t stopped through the centuries.
In the 1870s, a wave of book censorship occurred when Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Its mission was to curb obscene material, especially dime novels that could taint the minds of youth. But even now, challenging books still occurs, although the U.S. Supreme Court, through myriad cases, has attempted to balance personal tastes with intellectual freedom.
According to the American Library Association, 326 challenges were reported to its Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2011. If you're looking to get a family member or friend a book for the holidays, think about choosing a challenged classic.
Here are eight favorites.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger didn’t start out to write a book for teenagers. Instead, The Catcher in the Rye was written for adults, but teens quickly embraced its themes of teenage angst and alienation. The story of Holden Caulfield still resonates in the 21st century as much as it did in 1951, when it was first published.
From 1990 to 1999, The Catcher in the Rye was the tenth most frequently challenged book for a myriad of reasons, including vulgar language, blasphemy, and lack of morality, according to the American Library Association. Holden has often been cited as a poor role model for teens because he drinks, smokes, and lies. Regardless of its controversial nature, the book has been listed as one of the best books of the 20th century on various lists.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age story centers around teenager Charlie and the awkwardness of being a freshman in high school. Quickly becoming a modern-day classic, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is told by Charlie in a series of letters to an anonymous stranger.
“So, this is my life,” Charlie writes as he starts to tell his story. “And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.”
Charlie often cites popular banned books such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby and makes references to 1980s band The Smiths and cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While pop culture weaves its way through the book, the story, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, centers on Charlie’s family life and his two new friends, Sam and Patrick. The book is often challenged because of teenage sex, homosexuality and drug use, but in 2012, the film version, directed by Chbosky, was released.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
It’s amazing that more than 80 years after it was first published, Brave New World continues to be a challenged, and banned, book in the United States. Still, the Modern Library ranked Brave New World fifth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century in 1999, making it a solid classic.
Aldous Huxley attempts to describe a utopian future where “humans are genetically bred and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively serve a ruling order.” Perhaps it was because Huxley so accurately described the future that it still terrifies people. After all, Huxley—as if peering into a crystal ball—predicted much of what is now part of our daily lives, including drugs to fight depression, babies born in laboratories, and overpopulation.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Poet and writer Maya Angelou covers a lot of ground in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, published in 1970. Writing from her experience as a young girl who finds herself in the small town of Stamps, Ark., battling prejudice and parental abandonment, Angelou addresses racism, rape, literacy, and women’s rights in a male-dominated world, and in the process creates a book that everyone should read.
Continually challenged in schools, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has often been praised for its honest depiction of rape and racism and the institution of organized religion. Angelou, now 84, calls herself a “global renaissance woman,” and is known as America's most visible black female autobiographer. Nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Now considered one of the best young adult novels of all time, The Chocolate War tells the story of Jerry Renault, a teenager who attends Trinity School, a fictional Catholic high school where he struggles with teenage angst and a secret society of teenage pranksters known as the Vigils. Because of Jerry’s sexual ponderings, this book is often challenged.
When the book was released in 1974, The New York Times wrote, “The Chocolate War is masterfully structured and rich in theme; the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill A Mockingbird was the only book that the reclusive Harper Lee ever published, but she captured a complex era in the Deep South of racial inequality and poverty. Every teenager should read the story of Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus, during the Great Depression in Maycomb, Ala.
First published in 1960, the book received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 but has often been banned because of its plot concerning a black man accused of raping a white woman. The book is a perennially challenged classic also because of racial slurs, profanity and other controversial content.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Published in 2007, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was quickly challenged because of its content—alcohol, bullying, poverty, sex, and profanity.
The novel tells the story of Arnold Spirit, Jr., a promising cartoonist and a Native American teenager, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to attend an all-white, public, off-reservation high school. The novel contains 65 comic illustrations that intertwine with the plot centering on Arnold as he straddles his two lives: dealing with the school’s rich bullying white students and his family’s poverty on the reservation.
The Color of Earth by Dong Hwa Kim
A beautiful black-and-white graphic novel, The Color of Earth is the first in a trilogy about a girl named Ehwa coming of age in rural Korea during the 19th century. Dong Hwa Kim, a male writer, superbly captures the life of a teenage girl and her trials and tribulations with boys and her body in this Korean manwha, or comic book. The two other books in the series, The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, are equally as compelling.
In 2010 The Color of Earth was the second most challenged book on grounds of its sexual content, nudity, and suitability for age group. Calisa Brill, senior editor at First Second Books, which published the series, says, “These books are about what it means to grow up—and it’s impossible to have that conversation honestly without dealing with love, and sex.”