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Banned Books: How Schools Restrict the Reading of Young People

Craig Lancto

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.
--Heinrich Heine, 1821

n 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, a depiction of a society so dominated by censorship that firemen burn books and the word intellectual is profane. As Bradbury explained in an afterword for the 1986 edition: "Fire-Captain Beatty ... described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book ... until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever."
A few banned authors and books.
A few banned authors and books.

        In 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature, Nicholas Karolides, Margaret Bald, and Sawn B. Sova report an ironic twist on Bradbury's book about censorship, when the author learned that his publisher, Ballantine Books, had been censoring and expurgating Fahrenheit 451 for years, without his knowledge or permission. Bradbury demanded that the publisher reissue the book as he had written it.
        In 1992 the unexpurgated version was introduced to a middle school in Irvine, California, where school officials immediately ordered teachers to black out "obscenities" such as hell and damn before distributing the books to their students. Angry parents, however, forced the school to rescind its censorship, a gratifying departure from the far more common phenomenon of parents calling for books to be banned.


ahrenheit 451 belongs to a class of literature sometimes called dystopic, as John Stuart Mill termed works that warned of the potentially dire consequences of disturbing societal trends. Other banned or challenged books of this ilk include:
  • Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, which was removed from high school classrooms in Westport, Rhode Island (1977); Aurora, Colorado (1976); and high school libraries in Anniston, Alabama (1982), for "objectionable" language.
  • Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, described as "sordid, immoral, and obscene," has also been challenged for "vilifying the family" and encouraging students "to adopt a lifestyle of drugs, sex, and conformity." In 1966, a Maryland teacher was fired for making the book required reading; in 1979, a Virginia teacher was fired for assigning it after his principal asked him not to; as the result of a challenge in Miller, Missouri, it was removed from the curriculum in 1980; in 1988, parents in Yukon, Oklahoma, demanded its removal because of its "language and moral content"; and in 1993, it was challenged in a California school district for its negativity.
  • In 1928, a shipment of Voltaire's Candide destined for a French class at Harvard was declared obscene and confiscated by the U.S. Customs Service. At the time, all of Voltaire's works were officially banned from the United States.
  • In 1981, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was challenged in Jackson County, Florida, for containing procommunist and explicitly sexual material. Karolides reports that Orwell's Animal Farm rates among the books most often censored. In 1987, it was one of sixty-four books school superintendent Leonard Hill banned from two high schools in Panama City, Florida. It was challenged in Dekalb County, Georgia, for its political theories in 1979--1982, and frequently challenged in New York State because "Orwell was a communist," according to a 1968 survey. A 1963 survey revealed that the John Birch Society in Wisconsin challenged the book because it uses the phrase "masses will revolt."
  • Lois Lowry's The Giver is included on the American Library Association's (ALA) list of one hundred most frequently challenged books of 1990--2000. (See sidebar.) Charges include that it is violent and sexually explicit, that it uses offensive language, and that it portrays infanticide and euthanasia.Most readers, while familiar with the other titles above, might not have read The Giver, a young adult novel published in 1993. It won nearly a dozen awards, including the prestigious Newbery Medal.

            In 1981, Pastor Fred Ohler was among those who opposed the Concerned Citizens of Owens District's (Buncombe County, North Carolina) effort to remove a list of books they found objectionable. In 100 Banned Books, Karolides reports that Ohler said, "Why is immorality seen only as profanity and sexuality in Steinbeck, Salinger, or Kantor, and the larger issues of grinding poverty and social misjustice, of adult hypocrisy, of war camp atrocities never faced?" He added, "To read the Bible as some folks read The Grapes of Wrath would be like going through the Gospels and only seeing tax collectors, wine-bibbers and Mary Magdalene."
            He was absolutely right.
            During the Middle Ages, translating the Bible from the Latin was forbidden because translations could distort the official Latin version--itself, of course, a translation. John Wycliffe's fourteenth-century translation was provisionally accepted, in that a favored few could read it with special dispensation. A late-fourteenth-century decree provided for excommunicating those who translated--or read a translation of--the Bible without such dispensation.
            In the sixteenth century, reformers who believed that every Christian had the right and obligation to study the Bible prompted vernacular translations throughout Europe. William Tyndale's translation was popular--and banned. Published elsewhere, it was smuggled into England, where officials satisfied themselves with burning the Bibles until Tyndale himself was apprehended in Belgium. Convicted of heresy, he was strangled and burned at the stake--amid copies of his translation of the Bible. Eventually, much of his translation would be incorporated in the 1611 King James Version.
            In 1537 Henry VIII succumbed to popular pressure for a vernacular Bible and declared a translation based on the work of Tyndale and his colleague Miles Coverdale as the authorized version. Known as Matthew's Bible, this edition was prepared and annotated by a former Catholic priest, John Rogers, under the nom de plume of John Matthew. Another revolution of the wheel of fate brought the Catholic Mary I to the throne, and in 1554 Rogers/Matthew was among the first of three hundred to burn at the stake as heretics under Bloody Mary.
            The version that might truly have worried the faithful was the 1631 Bible published by R. Barker, whose inadvertent omission of "not" in the seventh commandment caused it to be popularly known as the "wicked Bible."
            Shocked by the racier bits, Victorians in England and the United States avidly bowdlerized the Bible. Several nineteenth-century Bibles revised "indecent" passages and removed inappropriate behavior. Noah Webster published his own sanitized version in 1833.
            Any use of the Bible in American schools has been challenged as a violation of the First Amendment. Others have challenged teaching it as literature when they believed that it should be taught only as a sacred text, the word of God as they interpret it. Even the presence of the Bible in schools or school libraries has been widely challenged. In a notorious 1989 case, an elementary school student in Omaha, Nebraska, was forbidden to read or carry the Bible on school grounds.
            Some recent cases have been based on its containing indecent material. In 1992 it was challenged in Brooklyn, New York, on the grounds that "the lewd, indecent, and violent contents of that book are hardly suitable for young children." In Fairbanks, Alaska, a 1993 challenge branded the Bible "obscene and pornographic," and a Pennsylvania challenge cited "more than 300 examples of obscenities" and "language and stories that are inappropriate for children of any age."
            The effectiveness of censoring the Bible is doubtful, though. It remains the best-selling book of all time. Karolides devotes five pages to censorship of the Bible.

            Sometimes it is clear that those who challenge a book have not read it. Such was the case with a challenge to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. There have been numerous challenges based on its conflicting with community values since it was first published in 1850. Indeed, the outrage of Hawthorne's fellow citizens of Salem was so great that he moved his family to the relative serenity of the Berkshires. Given Salem's history of draconian punishment, that was evidently a wise move. More recent challenges include a successful one in 1966, in which a principal deemed the novel too "frank" and "revealing" for students who apparently should be nurtured on obliqueness and obfuscation. In 1977 there was an unsuccessful challenge in which a Missouri parent demanded its removal because it contained "four-letter words" and "other undesirable content." Of course, it contains four-letter words, but none that might be considered obscene.
            Similarly, the objections to The Giver did not resemble the book I read twice. Not only does the book not contain violence, it was premised on a society that prohibits violence in any form--physical, psychological, or verbal. It is not sexually explicit, unless one considers use of the word stirrings explicit. However, the society it portrays medicates youngsters at the first sign of such stirrings to subdue those objectionable impulses. Infanticide is another case. In fact, the sterile euthanasia of an infant is the dramatic climax of the book, the event that opens the eyes of the twelve-year-old protagonist, whose horror at the act motivates him to risk his life to save another infant and to escape the community in which fear, violence, and unkindness are unknown and everything from meals to the one son and one daughter allotted each family is provided.
            It is a beautiful book, a dramatic parable.
            In a prizewinning essay (, University of Pittsburgh student Justin Chalker analyzes the reasons that The Giver was removed from the required reading list at Meade Grade School in Kansas, ostensibly because its "mature" themes were better suited to "upper level" students. Chalker suggests that upper level refers to status rather than reading ability or critical thinking. Overhearing a substitute librarian brand the book blasphemous, Chalker concluded that removing the book was a "pretense to serve other means, those of control and conformity which, ironically, are deftly addressed in Lowry's book." We are not protecting the children, he argues; we are manipulating them and stunting their social growth. His conclusion applies to most of the books considered here: "By constricting the breadth of education, especially exposure to controversial literature, the ... community hindered students' ability to address and understand real world issues."
            Lowry made the same point in a Boston Globe interview: "I just always wish the parents would read the book in full before they challenge it," she told the Globe's Louise Kennedy. "I think fiction, in order to say anything, has to startle and upset you at some point. To be a book that affects you, it has to make you think."
            Edward Albee, author of disturbing plays such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The American Dream, observed: "You should be holding a mirror up to people and saying, 'This is the way you behave, and if you don't like it, you should change.' "
            More unsettling than the themes of these books is that they are often challenged by people who have not been able to transcend the literal meaning. Recall the outrage provoked by Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal." The pacifist minister stirred up a storm of protest among readers who took literally his suggestion to raise Irish babies to feed the wealthy British. In "The Battle of the Books," Swift defines satire as "a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own."
            The Giver is disturbing as it portrays a sort of Stepford community, but it is not sexually explicit. In fact, sexuality is medically suppressed, and childbearing, assigned to women who are unfit for intellectual or otherwise challenging work, carries a stigma. After they fulfill their obligation to provide the community with babies, mothers work at manual labor until it is time for their release. The charge of explicit sex in The Giver is not surprising, though, even given its absence. Because the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that it is unconstitutional for a school board to deny students access to ideas with which the school board disagrees (Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, challenges usually are based on objectionable language or sexuality. In the case cited above, the school board had removed eleven books, including The Fixer, Go Ask Alice, Black Boy, and Slaughterhouse-Five, because they were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy."
            Among the notable books that have been challenged on sexual grounds are Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Sir Richard Burton's translation of The Thousand and One Nights, Voltaire's Candide, Boccaccio's Decameron, and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.
            Karolides notes that in 1930, at the same time that the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a publisher who sold the "impure and obscene" novel An American Tragedy, the same book was required reading in an English course at nearby Harvard University. Incidentally, the court refused to consider the work as a whole, allowing the prosecuting attorney to read aloud only those parts that were deemed "obscene, indecent, and impure."


    he fear of censorship has already limited what is published. Popular young-adult author Judy Blume says, "It's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers."
            Academic publishers are avoiding or expurgating material that might be challenged, a form of de facto precensorship. With publishers avoiding controversial manuscripts, writers stop producing them. If bookstores don't offer books that they fear will be offensive, publishers become increasingly cautious about purchasing controversial manuscripts, and the result is blancmange for everyone.
 On June 21, 2003, children and teenagers rushed to buy the fifth installment of the often-banned Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Peter Holden / The World & I
    On June 21, 2003, children and teenagers rushed to buy the fifth installment of the often-banned Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Peter Holden / The World & I

            Pressure from people opposed to having young people exposed to things that might disturb or challenge anyone has led to an appalling dumbing down of textbooks, as Diane Ravitch details in her new book The Language Police; How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (New York: Knopf, 2003). [See a review of this book, "The Search and Seizure of Textbooks," in this month's Book section.] While researching textbooks a few years ago, she writes, she "stumbled upon an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government." She learned that it is now "standard operating procedure in the educational testing industry to submit all passages and test questions to a bias and sensitivity review."
            That may seem unexceptional, but "bias" has now been taken to mean "anything in a test item that might cause any student to be distracted or upset. The pressure groups of left and right have important points of convergence," according to Ravitch. "Both right-wingers and left-wingers demand that publishers shield children from words and ideas that contain what they deem the 'wrong' models for living. Both assume that by limiting what children read, they can change society to reflect their worldview." Moreover, "Most classical literature is unacceptable when judged by the new rules," so it is either gutted or not taught. Thus, "We are systematically failing to introduce the younger generation to the writers who might enlarge their imaginations, enrich their emotional lives, and challenge their settled ways of thinking."
            "There is more than one way to burn a book," said Bradbury in a coda from the 1979 edition of Fahrenheit 451, "And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/ Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blancmange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme."
            Writing above a fairy tale is no exaggeration. Digital Library reports that two California schools banned "Little Red Riding Hood" because the heroine carried a piece of cake and a bottle of wine in her little basket for grandmother, which, the schools maintained, "condoned the use of alcohol." The familiar tale is based upon "Little Red-Cap," from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm; according to Alibris, one Arizona elementary school restricted access to the tales to students in the sixth grade or above, citing "excessive violence, negative portrayals of female characters, and anti-Semitic references."
            When I was a high school teacher, I observed the ALA's annual Banned Book Week by asking students to read a book they selected from the ALA banned book list, report on why it had been challenged, and offer their opinion of the grounds. Not surprisingly, I don't recall any student supporting a challenge; surprisingly, I was never challenged for giving the assignment.
            If there is a place for "disturbing" books, it is in the classroom of an intelligent teacher who can help students to understand them in context, identify satire and metaphor, and help to make sense of the work. In The New Assault on Libraries, San Jose State University professor Persis M. Karim says, "Obviously, the danger is not in the actual act of reading itself, but rather, the possibility that the texts children read will incite questions, introduce novel ideas, and provoke critical inquiry." Those who challenge disturbing books deny the opportunity for critical inquiry.
    The American Library Association
    The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990--2000
    (of 6,364 Reported Challenges)
    1. Scary Stories (series) by Alvin Schwartz
    2. Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
    3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
    4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
    5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
    6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
    7. Harry Potter (series) by J.K
    8. Rowling
    9. Forever by Judy Blume
    10. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
    11. Alice (series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
    12. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
    13. My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
    14. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D
    15. Salinger
    16. The Giver by Lois Lowry
    17. It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
    18. Goosebumps (series) by R.L
    19. Stine
    20. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
    21. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    22. Sex by Madonna
    23. Earth's Children (series) by Jean M
    24. Auel
    25. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
    26. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
    27. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
    28. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
    29. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
    30. The Stupids (series) by Harry Allard
    31. The Witches by Roald Dahl
    32. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
    33. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
    34. The Goats by Brock Cole
    35. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
    36. Blubber by Judy Blume
    37. Killing Mr
    38. Griffin by Lois Duncan
    39. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
    40. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
    41. Final Exit by Derek Humphry
    42. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
    43. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
    44. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    45. What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
    46. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    47. Beloved by Toni Morrison
    48. The Outsiders by S.E
    49. Hinton
    50. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
    51. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
    52. Deenie by Judy Blume
    53. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
    54. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
    55. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
    56. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
    57. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
    58. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
    59. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.
    60. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
    61. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
    62. Cujo by Stephen King
    63. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
    64. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
    65. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
    66. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
    67. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
    68. What's Happening to My Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
    69. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
    70. Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
    71. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
    72. Fade by Robert Cormier
    73. Guess What? by Mem Fox
    74. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
    75. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
    76. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    77. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
    78. Native Son by Richard Wright
    79. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Fantasies by Nancy Friday
    80. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
    81. Jack by A.M
    82. Homes
    83. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A
    84. Anaya
    85. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
    86. Carrie by Stephen King
    87. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
    88. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
    89. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
    90. Family Secrets by Norma Klein
    91. Mommy Laid an Egg by Babette Cole
    92. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
    93. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
    94. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
    95. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
    96. Private Parts by Howard Stern
    97. Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford
    98. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
    99. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
    100. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
    101. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
    102. Sex Education by Jenny Davis
    103. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
    104. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
    105. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
    106. View From the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
    107. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
    108. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
    109. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

            In 2002, Russell Banks made such a case convincingly when he responded to a challenge to his book The Sweet Hereafter: "[It's] in the world, and if I'm writing in the real world, I can't leave that out. It would be a false portrait of the world. Anybody who picks up a paper and reads about the priest being indicted for pedophilia knows this goes on, and to pretend it doesn't, is to lie. It's the same thing with drug abuse, domestic violence and school bus accidents and then the question becomes, 'How do you deal with that?' To some degree, everyone has to deal with these issues more or less."
            There may be occasions when there are genuine concerns about what is taught and the way it is taught to schoolchildren. Genuinely racist and offensive books, such as Mein Kampf and The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, are also in the real world; there is the possibility that a teacher might attempt to use a text such as these to promote his own racist or political agenda to his students. This is one important reason that parents should monitor and discuss with their children what they are being taught in school. On the other hand, in the past there were, and no doubt still are, parents who object to having a book such as To Kill A Mockingbird in the curriculum because they wish to maintain the notions of racial superiority that they have taught to their children; they do not want books or teachers challenging those notions. So objectionable attitudes about and approaches to literature can come from either teachers or parents. No simple answer can be given to the questions of who is right or whom we should trust.
            One of the issues is age appropriateness; there are no doubt things that we can and should let students read and study at age seventeen that we would not want them to read at age nine or ten. Another issue is real citizenship. Although there is little agreement today on what it is or how to achieve it, it is still something that should be taken into account in deciding what we want to achieve in our educational processes and what to teach young people.
            Many years ago, when standardization was just beginning to nose its way into classrooms across America, I served on a committee that was to develop a required reading list for the school district in which I taught secondary English. The list would comprise those books that every literate person should have read. Usually, no more than two or three of the eight or so members of the committee had read any book that was proposed by another member, but no one seemed to see the contradiction that in this literate body there was not a majority that had read most of the books that we considered the sine qua non of a sound education. Each member ferociously defended his own choices--and virtually every proposed book has appeared on someone's banned book list.
            The same lack of consensus occurs with banned books. Most readers have found a book or two that they don't think students should read. Others have read books that confused or disturbed them until they had the opportunity to discuss the book with someone who helped to see it in a new light. And therein is the problem with censorship.
            The Washington Coalition Against Censorship (WCAC) lists ten books that have recently faced challenges in that state. The first books listed are probably among the most widely banned--and certainly among the most widely read--today: the Harry Potter series. The Potter books have been opposed on religious grounds: they glorify and promote witchcraft and wizardry. I wasn't bothered by the fantasy and the magic, and I never suspected that our muggle children would pursue witchcraft as a result of being exposed to them. I did see lessons about character, perseverance, love, faith, and loyalty. I saw friendship and trust. I saw books well worth reading, but when fanatics make the rules, fantasy is evil, and imagination and whimsy are suspect.


    am reminded of the man who went to see a psychiatrist, worried about his preoccupation with sex. The psychiatrist showed him a triangle, and asked the man what it made him think of.
            "Umm, sex" the man murmured.
            "Uh hunh. And this?" asked the psychiatrist, showing him an oval.
            "Sex," he muttered.
            "Hmm," said the psychiatrist. In rapid succession, he showed a circle, square, and oblong. "Sex, sex, sex," the man answered.
            The psychiatrist looked at him steadily and said, "You do seem to have a problem."
            "I have a problem?" the man shouted. "You're the one with all the dirty pictures!"
            If beauty is in the mind of the beholder, so is evil.
            Harry Potter is not evil. On the Gloucester Cathedral Web site (www. the Very Reverend Nicholas Bury, dean of the cathedral, where some parts of the Harry Potter movie were filmed, addressed the objections to Harry Potter:
            "I found the book amusing, well written, perfectly wholesome, and would recommend it to any young person wholeheartedly."
            "I regard the books as most wholesome fantasy stories for children, which like all good children's novels, tackle some important issues for children in an imaginative, thoughtful and often very amusing way. The hero discovers his identity, the importance of relationships with his peers, that lies and deceit are corrosive and love conquers evil and so on. It is, I believe, far-fetched to think that anyone could be hurt by such good stories."
            Harry Potter's author, J.K. Rowling, was not the first to introduce children to witchcraft or wizardry. The earliest example of a book containing witchcraft that I found was the Bible. Although it has been widely banned for a host of reasons, witchcraft has not been among them. I think also of The Wizard of Oz. Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, or even Mary Pope Osborne's popular Magic Tree House series, in which children explore significant events in history through an enchanted tree house.


    he first banned book that I read was J.D. Salinger's classic bad-boy book, The Catcher in the Rye. I drove to nearby Amherst (a liberal college town) to buy the book, which had been banned in Boston. At the time, that did not make it a rarity, but when my English teacher mentioned that it had been banned, I counted the minutes until the final bell to satisfy my curiosity about what could make a book so vile that it could be banned by the state government. I was disappointed.
            Recently, I went to the Internet (that haven of decency and bastion of safe reading) to see what others were saying about this classic coming-of-age novel. On the first site, one Tom Leider described it as "the book preferred nine times out of ten by whackos, serial killers, and disgruntled teenagers." I also found a Yahoo group devoted to people "with a special attitude:" those who "like and quote" the book. I found allegations that it influenced Mark Chapman to kill John Lennon.
            The Catcher in the Rye was the most frequently banned book from 1966 to 1975. Australian Customs seized copies of the book that the U.S. ambassador had (inexplicably) given to the Australian government. A Tulsa, Oklahoma, teacher was fired (and later reinstated) for assigning the book. Protesters influenced the Mid-Continent News Company to stop carrying it. In 1963, it was declared "antiwhite" and "obscene" in Columbus, Ohio (although a courageous superintendent supported the teachers' and librarians' competence to decide what to choose). In 1978, the leader of a protest group in Issaquah, Washington, asserted that it was part of a communist plot to take over the schools.
            The only reason that I can fathom for so many teachers to have assigned it is that teachers are desperate to seduce students into reading anything. As Robert Cormier has suggested, they will read a book that rings true, and Holden Caulfield's language and attitude have great appeal. The question is who is best qualified to decide what books to use in class.


    he American Library Association (ALA) began celebrating banned books in 1982. Banned Book Week falls each year in September, providing posters, activities, and a list of frequently banned books. This year, 2003, the week is September 20--27.
            According to the ALA Web site, there were 157 reported challenges in 1990. (ALA estimates that 75--80 percent of challenges go unreported.) The number steadily rose toward the middle of the decade, peaking with 762 in 1995, before slowly declining to below 500 again in 1999. In 2000, the number surged to 646. The most common challenges were that the books are antifamily, followed closely by political viewpoint or the subject of abortion. The occult or Satanist challenges came in third.
            I have taught most of these books. Others, such as James and the Giant Peach and A Light in the Attic, I bought to read to our children. I can't work out what the objection is except that they involve imagination, which alone can set off book burners.

    Censorship closes discussion. It is ignorance by fiat and contagion because one person canít wrap his mind around a larger concept.

            I do understand why someone would object to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It has profanity, rape, and racism. In many ways, it is an ugly book. I taught it in middle school because it also is an important book. In it, Maya Angelou relates the trials of her youth with humor, intelligence, and a gift for crafting language. For black children, it is, as Oprah Winfrey once called it, a "validation." For teenagers, it provides needed reassurance about their own self-questioning and self-consciousness, and validates their awareness that their families don't resemble Father Knows Best (if they remember Father Knows Best at all) or Ozzie and Harriet (ditto). For children great and small, black, white, and other, it gives life to the bitter taste of racism. For me, it was the prose version of Langston Hughes' poem "Mother to Son." ("Well, son, I'll tell you: life for me ain't been no crystal stair. ..." It also conveys the lesson that the scarred little girl could become the elegant, gracious, and gifted poet who would read her work at the inauguration of the president of the United States.
            Does Angelou the narrator seem antiwhite? Yes. Does she seem to paint all whites with the same racist brush? I think so. That is why students should read it with the help of a teacher who can help them to evaluate what is fair and just and what is bitterness.
            But even Mark Twain wrote nigger, so the characters in his best books, Tom and Huck are considered "dangerous." Huckleberry Finn has been challenged for objectionable language and racist terms and content: in Warrington and State College, Pennsylvania; Davenport, Iowa; Fairfax County, Virginia; Houston, Texas; and Springfield, Winnetka, and Waukegan, Illinois. Nigger is an ugly word that ignites strong feelings and diminishes both speaker and hearer. Of course, neither Huck nor Tom meant it in a derogatory way. It was what they heard adults of their day say. Their behavior did not reflect racism, but those who would ban the book because of it rob students of the opportunity to discover that Twain was not a racist. Instead, they exacerbate racial tensions by finding racism where it does not exist.
            In The Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. ... There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
            But the efforts of too many people are to ban it.


    he most unfortunate result of banning these books is not that millions of youngsters will miss the boys' antics and the chance to vicariously enjoy the boys' freedom, nor that they will be deprived of an American treasure and excluded from understanding an allusion to getting someone to whitewash your picket fence. The real tragedy is that they will remember Mark Twain as a racist, instead of experiencing Jim's goodness and Huck's attitude toward Jim, when they escaped Hannibal on a raft in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him. ..." They need to know that Tom gets shot when he and Huck help Jim escape.
            Even the whimsical does not escape calumny. Challengers charge that Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends--which I bought for my grandchildren along with his Light in the Attic, The Missing Piece, and The Giving Tree--undermines parental, school, and religious authority, as if

    Cormier said that his books have credibility with young readers because he uses language and scenes that reflect how kids talk and what they think about.

    reading silly poems will incite children to mutiny. In 1986, the public school libraries in Minot, North Dakota, pulled Sidewalk from shelves for review. It was challenged by Xenia, Ohio, school libraries in 1983. Humor, too, is in jeopardy.
            Even the venerable Dr. Seuss has faced accusers. The Lorax was challenged in the Laytonville, California, school district because it "criminalizes the forestry industry." Certainly, The Lorax illustrates the results of clear-cutting forests. Unfortunately, Dr. Seuss did not write a book about those who would deny others an opportunity to express an opposing view.
            Censorship closes discussion. It is ignorance by fiat and contagion because one person can't wrap his mind around a larger concept.
            Recall Abraham Lincoln's words upon meeting abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose antislavery book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, so inflamed passions: "So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war." They would both be appalled to learn that the larger issue was swallowed up by such priggish tunnel vision as when a Waukegan, Illinois, school district challenged the book because of an objection to the use of the offensive word nigger.
            Despite showing up on required reading lists and high school stages across the country, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the ten books most frequently challenged as dangerous because of profanity and its purported undermining of race relations. It was temporarily banned in Eden Valley, Minnesota; and challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, New York; Warren, Indiana; Waukegan, Illinois; and Kansas City and Park Hill, Missouri. Black parents and the NAACP protested it in Casa Grande, Arizona.
            John Steinbeck's books have managed to attract an impressive array of challenges. The Red Pony, termed a "filthy, trashy sex novel," was challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, New York. East of Eden, called "ungodly and obscene," was removed from school libraries in Anniston, Alabama, and Morris, Manitoba. Efforts to ban The Grapes of Wrath filled more than eight pages of 100 Banned Books. Challenges to the Pulitzer Prize--winning work ranged from a de facto ban in Buffalo, New York, where the head of the city's libraries forbade its purchase because it contained "vulgar words," to the Kansas City, Kansas, board of education that removed it from twenty libraries because it contained "indecency, obscenity," for its treatment of women, and for depicting life "in such a bestial way." In East St. Louis, the library board ordered the book burned, but relented under pressure and relegated it to the "adults only" shelf. But it was California that saw the greatest protests. In Kern County, the setting for much of the novel, the book was banned because it "offended our citizenry" and ignored the amenities of the community and schools. When the ban became effective, it left 112 of the offended citizens on the waiting list to check out one of the 60 copies then in circulation.
            As recently as 1972, a hundred residents of Herman, New York, submitted a petition against a list of books, including The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird, on the basis that they contain profanity, cause sexual desire, and condone immorality or disrespect of parental authority.
            Another name that crops up repeatedly in challenges is Robert Cormier, author of such young adult classics as The Chocolate Wars, I Am the Cheese, and We All Fall Down, all of which have been banned or challenged. [See "Teen Wars: A Profile of Robert Cormier," by J.B. Cheaney, in the December 2001 World & I.] In 2001, The Chocolate Wars was challenged at the Dunedin Highland Middle School in St. Petersburg, Florida. The book was retained despite objections to profanity and segments of the book that involved sexuality, sexual fantasy, and degradation of girls. In 2000, it was challenged on the eighth-grade reading list of the Lancaster, Massachusetts, school district for language and content; and in York County, Virginia, for sexually explicit language. A 2001 challenge to its use in high school classes in Lisbon, Ohio, pronounced the book "pornographic."
            Maura O'Connor, the teacher who was the object of the Massachusetts challenge, said that she assigned the book because it resonated with her students and it involved characters their age. The sexual content wasn't discussed, though students did talk about the language. Most discussions centered on being willing to break from what's popular, and the consequences.
            The language and sexuality are probably more disconcerting to adults because we would like to think that our thirteen- or fourteen-year-old children never use profanity or think about sex, but Cormier said that his books have credibility with young readers because he uses language and scenes that reflect how kids talk and what they think about. Young readers are more likely to take the language and sexuality in stride; seeing them in books assures them that they are not abnormal. Among themselves, preteen children often use language that would make their parents blush. Pubescent children might even entertain occasional thoughts about sex--their teen years being the occasion.
            After thirty years as a reporter and columnist, Cormier had ample material for the magical what-ifs that lead to his books. The Chocolate Wars was inspired by his son's refusal to participate in a school candy sale, but We All Fall Down reflects headlines.
            In Arlington, Texas, access to We All Fall Down is limited to middle and high school students who have written parental permission because it contains violent content. At Carver Middle School in Leesburg, Florida, the book was removed from the library because of complaints about content and language. It was challenged in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, because the book "might not be appropriate for younger schoolmates."
            Objections to the violence miss Cormier's point. The contents of the book are disturbing but familiar to anyone who reads the newspaper: vandalism, violence, and victims. Cormier reveals what doesn't appear in the news: the grinding weight of the victim's memory; her obsession with why the crime happened, why to her, and whether it would happen again; the sensitive boy who is bullied into going along with a resentful herd of boys blindly following a sociopathic leader who exploits their lack of direction and need to belong. We even see conscience at work. In Cormier's world, actions have consequences that young readers need to see. It is cathartic and pedagogical without being pedantic. Adults who would ban these books want to deny that they reflect the world their children know. That world, familiar to young adults, disturbs the world the adults have constructed in their minds for their children.


    n 1980, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was banned by Midland, Michigan, classrooms. Dickens' Oliver Twist suffered a similar fate in 1949 Brooklyn, where Jewish parents protested that the book violated their children's rights to an education free of religious bias. Others might suggest that the book offered an opportunity to discuss the anti-Semitism that pervaded England during Dickens' lifetime and was beginning to fade before he died. The parents sued unsuccessfully to have both books banned from New York City public schools.
            The Merchant of Venice isn't the only Shakespearean play to have been banned. Merrimack, New Hampshire, schools dropped Twelfth Night because a girl dressing as a boy violated the school board ban on "alternative lifestyle instruction." (If they were better read, they could have pulled a few more of the bard's plays.) In 1998, the Christian Science Monitor reported a challenge to Twelfth Night on the grounds that it encourages homosexuality. In 1999, the Savannah Morning News reported that a teacher was requiring permission slips before his students would be exposed to the sex, violence, and adult language in pulp fiction such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear--all of which had been removed from reading lists by the school board.

    When a book contains questionable language or themes, classroom discussion should include the authorís purpose. Sometimes verisimilitude requires vulgar language or unacceptable behavior.

            No one seriously argues that high school students are not regularly exposed to worse examples of sex, violence, and adult language. For some, they are more than abstract concepts. The legitimate question is whether schools should reinforce them, no matter how tacitly. The usual test of whether the work has redeeming social value is not sufficient. Books rife with obscenity that make valid points are not rare. A more important test is whether another work exists that makes the same points without obscenity. We act as if teenagers are untainted by sinful thoughts, words, or deeds. We might wish that to be the case, but with few saintly exceptions, that is not how it is. When a book contains questionable language or themes, classroom discussion should include the author's purpose. Sometimes verisimilitude requires vulgar language or unacceptable behavior.
            Discussion should also include the effect. How do we react to these words or actions? How do other characters in the work respond to them? What motivated them? How do they shape our impression of the character? Why do refined, educated people usually spurn them? How has the standard of language and behavior that is acceptable in public changed over time? These are legitimate issues to help students to understand the effect of coarse language and unpleasant behavior on bystanders.
            Some books are challenged for the opposite reasons. Books that have been challenged on religious grounds include the Bible, the Qur'an, the Talmud, On the Origin of Species, and The Satanic Verses. Recently, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came under fire for attempting to create an understanding of Islam through assigning Approaching the Qur'an as summer reading. Accusers claimed that the university was attempting to establish a religion. In response to the charges, Linda Campbell, whose op-ed ran in several newspapers, offered: "One word to parents who may have sent their youngsters off to college: ideas. They're lurking-everywhere."
            Yukio Mishima's charming book The Sound of Waves was challenged in Kirkland, Washington, for being "crude, vulgar, degrading to women, seductive, enticing and suggestive." If the book is seductive, it is in that it reflects quaint values such as waiting for marriage to engage in sex, as the young couple in question decide. It is as crude and vulgar as haiku and as suggestive as a cool shower after a hard day.
            Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Melville's Moby-Dick were challenged for conflicting with the values of the community. I have to wonder who lives in these communities.
            What has not been challenged? Very little; probably nothing worth reading. MIT Press Bookstore reports that the American Heritage Dictionary survived a 1993 challenge based on its containing "objectionable language" in the Churchill County, Nevada, school libraries. In 1993, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionaries were removed from classrooms in Sparks, Nevada, because a teacher objected to its containing obscene words. The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher survived a 1994 challenge at Maldonado Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona. Parents described the book as "pornographic," "perverted," and "morbid."


    ow, added to the individuals who would deny others a book based on their own beliefs or prejudices, the federal government has imposed a far more invidious form of censorship, one that can circumscribe reading for fear that a cynical government might secretly gather information about one's reading habits. It doesn't require a Kafkaesque mind to envision the nightmarish consequences of the government's misconstruing one's reading habits. The National Coalition Against Censorship has addressed the issue:
    Among the less well-known aspects of the Patriot Act are provisions permitting the Justice Department to obtain information secretly from booksellers and librarians about customers' and patrons' reading, Internet and book-buying habits, merely by alleging that the records are relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation. The act prohibits librarians and booksellers from disclosing these subpoenas, so the objects of investigation don't know and therefore cannot defend themselves and their privacy, or contest the government's actions in court.
            For this article, I purchased dozens of banned and challenged books through, which tracks orders and suggests similar reading material. If I were still a classroom teacher, how might a school administrator construe my reading habits, based upon that record? More alarming is how his opinions of the books--and me--might affect his interpretation and my employment as a consequence of having that information. What if he had obtained the information as a result of my teaching a book of which he disapproves?
            Those who trust us educate us.--George Eliot
Removal of anything remotely controversial or challenging has made textbooks so bland that they bore young people.
Doug Wetzstein / The World & I
    Removal of anything remotely controversial or challenging has made textbooks so bland that they bore young people.
    Doug Wetzstein / The World & I

            It is heartening to see a "Banned and Challenged" Web site such as that constructed by the Wamego (Kansas) High School Library ( that marks some of these books as required reading--and not only because they appeal to the sixties child within me, but also for the hope of academic and intellectual freedom it promises.
            In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy's reign of terror was as close to oppressive government as I hope we will come. According to Walter Harding, Senator McCarthy ordered that the United States Information Service remove from their overseas libraries an anthology of American literature that included Thoreau's Civil Disobedience as un-American.
            In 1962, when James Baldwin's Another Country drew his attention, J. Edgar Hoover sent the book to the FBI lab for examination. The General Crimes Section found that the book had literary merit, but that didn't stop New Orleans police from arresting a bookseller who stocked it. When, in 1965, the book was challenged in Fort Worth, Hoover replied that the author had not broken any laws. A 1969 FBI report, however, included an informant's suggestion that the Ku Klux Klan have an opportunity to determine its suitability for college students.
            Despite the stereotype of prissy librarians insisting on quiet, the ALA vigorously opposes censorship. The ALA Web site elucidates: "Would-be censors may think that it is the role of the library to support certain values or causes--which are, of course, their values and their causes."
            With the increase of standardized testing and curriculum maps that determine what teachers will cover on any given day, reading books might become passā in schools. When I taught junior and senior English, rarely a year went by that some student didn't confide that my class was the first occasion that he had read an entire book.
            There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.--Joseph Brodsky
            Educate means to lead out. One can't lead students out of anything, including ignorance and bigotry, so long as one's experience and tools are circumscribed by what everyone agrees is good and safe. If we try, we end up with the kind of community Lois Lowry presented in The Giver, and those who objected to teaching it would be responsible for bringing it to pass.
            As critics whittle away at what can be taught, we lose culture. Limiting voices, limiting points of view diminish mankind. Students are usually smarter and more perceptive than their parents credit. They don't exist only in the classroom; parents who pretend that they are not exposed to sex, violence, obscenity, alcohol, and other drugs are deceiving only themselves.
            In his 1956 book Must You Conform? psychoanalyst Robert Lindner said, "Our schools have become vast factories for the manufacture of robots. We no longer send our young to them primarily to be taught and given the tools of thought, no longer primarily to be informed and acquire knowledge; but to be 'socialized'--which in the current semantic means to be regimented and made to conform."
            When critics insist that everyone else conform to their beliefs and opinions, when they stifle discussion about the perils that loom large on their children's horizons, they handicap the children and deny them the opportunity to understand the danger as well as the attractions of forbidden fruits.


  • Nicholas Karolides, Margaret Bald, and Sawn B. Sova; 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature (New York, 1999).

    On the Internet:

  • American Library Association (
  • MIT Press Bookstore (
  • Digital Library (
  • National Coalition Against Censorship (
  • Alibris (
    Craig Lancto, a former high-school English teacher, is education editor of The World & I.
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