The history of banned books might easily be misconstrued as a history of important books — so many organizations, private and public, have targeted influential books for censorship that it may seem as though a book must be banned to make it onto a list of classic literature. Luckily, the bans are mostly ineffective and limited in their longevity.
Let’s review some of the most ridiculous reasons that classic books were ever banned, so we might laugh at this ineffectual bit of literary history.
1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Since its immediate success upon its release in 1951, J.D. Salinger’s famous character study of disaffected boarding school dropout, Holden Caulfield, has been a frequent target of censorship. An Oklahoma school board fired a teacher for assigning the book to students. An Ohio community organization petitioned to ban the book from local schools, on the grounds that it was “anti-white.”
The book, which contains one scene wherein Caulfield hires a prostitute but tries only to talk and connect with her, was banned by one library for violating codes concerning “excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence and anything dealing with the occult.”
2. 1984 by George Orwell
George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece about a brutally efficient surveillance society was viewed as a veiled attack on the policies of Joseph Stalin’s regime in the U.S.S.R. Predictably, the book was banned in Russia for 40 years for its anti-communist sentiments.
However, oddly enough, the book was banned in 1981 by parents in Jackson County, Florida for being pro-communist. It seems that someone didn’t read the book, which chronicles the horrifying implications of a totalitarian government regime that systematically robs citizens of their free will.
3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
William Golding’s classic, which was a failure upon its initial 1954 publication, gained its current status as a classroom staple in the ’60s. The book follows a group of upper-class school children who form a primitive society after crash-landing on a deserted island. Lord of the Flies has been banned by organizations time and time again.
For example, in 1981, a North Carolina high school criticized the book for being “demoralizing, in that it implies that man is little more than an animal.” So, essentially, Lord of the Flies is wrong for having a powerful, thought-provoking theme. The book has been challenged further by schools in Arizona, Texas, South Dakota, Iowa, New York, and Florida.
4. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
Judy Blume’s novel about the adolescent struggles of a preteen girl is one of the definitive coming-of-age texts in American literature, but its frank discussion of budding sexuality and womanhood has ruffled many feathers since its publication in the ’70s.
Across the country, parents, schools, and other organizations have protested Blume’s book for its “two themes of sex and anti-Christian behavior” and its “profane, immoral, and offensive” content. These are strange criticisms for a book that does little worse than use honesty to help children understand the struggles and changes that occur during the teenage years.
5. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Yes, the diary of a budding Jewish girl hiding from the Third Reich is one of the 20th century’s most oft-challenged books. Critics from various nations have alleged that Anne Frank never existed, and the book was written by an adult along with Anne’s father, Otto Frank, as a piece of pro-Jewish propaganda.
In the U.S., it was banned for certain “sexually offensive” passages and because it might be “depressing” for young readers — because we should focus on happy books to help us learn about the Holocaust!
6. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel about a girl who stumbles upon a fantastical world has been banned for myriad reasons, each more ridiculous than the last. U.S. officials banned it in the ’60s because its mushroom and hookah imagery reflected the drug culture of the era. Later, in the ’90s, it was banned in New Hampshire for promoting “sexual fantasies and masturbation.”
Chinese officials in the ’30s perceived a problem with the book’s depiction of talking animals, considering it “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.”
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This dystopian science-fiction novel about a future where ideas are repressed and all books are illegal has been banned repeatedly since its 1953 publication, possibly for the sake of rich irony.
Parents in Mississippi once got the book removed from a required reading list because it used the words, “God damn.” Others have criticized the book for its “questionable themes,” which may be the vaguest excuse for banning a book ever conceived.
For its anti-government advocacy, the book remains a controversial, regularly challenged mainstay on required reading lists.
8. Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford
What’s there to be offended about in a Where’s Waldo? book, you ask? Some claim the apparently innocent images of sprawling cartoon scenes, wherein young readers are challenged to find the title character, also contain “inappropriate and seditious hidden imagery.” In the 1987 edition of the series, according to the Banned Books website, someone pointed to an inappropriate inclusion:
The infamous charge was in reference to a page containing a frenzied beach scene in which a woman tanning without her bikini top is being splashed on the back with water and the dots in the sand creating the impression that her nipple is erect. The scene is made all-the-more controversial due to the image of two men in a somewhat compromising position to the upper left of the topless sunbather. One of the men happens to be black, prompting those who take offense to the apparently homosexual situation to also call foul with issues of interracial coupling.
9. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s fantasy novel is perhaps one of the world’s most famous works of literature and its enduring popularity has inspired Broadway musicals, movies, and countless cultural references in other works of art. Nevertheless, the director of Detroit’s libraries still found reason to ban the book from the city’s library shelves in 1957. According to the Chicago Tribune, the book was banned for having “no value” for children, promoting “negativism,” and for bringing children’s minds down to a “cowardly level.”
Fortunately for fans of classic literature in Detroit, Professor Russel B. Nye of Michigan State University was around to heap scorn on the idea that the message of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was somehow harmful to children. “[I]f the message of the Oz books — love, kindness, and unselfishness make the world a better place — seems of no value today” then maybe it’s time to “reassess a good many other things besides the Detroit library’s approved list of children’s books,” said the Nye, per the Chicago Tribune. Well said, professor.
10. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s own experiences as a German soldier during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front describes the hardships of military life on the front lines, as well as the difficulties veterans face when trying to re-enter civilian life. The best-selling novel is widely considered one of the most important books written about World War I, and even inspired an Academy Award-winning film of the same name. Unfortunately, it was published just a few years before the Nazi government came to power in Germany, and the book was soon banned, and in many cases, burned.
So what did the Nazis dislike about this classic work of war literature? According to The Telegraph, All Quiet on the Western Front was banned by the Nazis for “its apparently unfavourable portrayal of German military forces.” This is deliciously ironic, considering that most people who think unfavorably about German military forces today are probably not thinking about Remarque’s novel, but the people who banned it.
11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly inflammatory about Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22. But in the 1970s, towns across the country banned it, citing indecent language, including multiple uses of the word “whore.” The ban was, of course, lifted later on, and today, the book is taught in English classrooms everywhere.
12. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Jack London’s The Call of the Wild doesn’t espouse any crazy political ideals, but that didn’t stop the Nazis from straight up burning it in the early 1930s, citing a perceived radical slant. Today, it’s hailed as an amazingly-told story about survival, and is held up as the crowning achievement of Jack London’s literary career.
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Shockingly, The Great Gatsby found itself banned as recently as 2008, when Coeur d’Alene, Idaho’s school board removed it from sanctioned reading lists. “Some parents complained that teachers had selected and were discussing books that ‘contain vulgar, profane language and dealt with subjects inappropriate for students,'” the book, 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature claims.
Later that year, the board voted to return The Great Gatsby and other banned books to reading lists, following vehement protests to their original decision.
14. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
When it comes to banned books, it doesn’t get any more ridiculous than the case lobbied against Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Towns throughout the southern United States had the children’s book pulled from shelves immediately following its release, with Pen America blaming “prominent child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal ‘What [Sendak] failed to understand is the incredible fear it evokes in the child to be sent to bed without supper, and this by the first and foremost giver of food and security—his mother.'”
15. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck is widely regarded as one of the greatest literary talents to ever come out of the United States, and Of Mice and Men is “exhibit A” to that claim. It was also followed around by multiple attempts to ban it across multiple states and countries, all citing everything from profanity to “vulgar language.” In addition to netting a ban in Ireland, it also found itself removed from reading lists in small towns in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana.
Additional reporting by Nathanael Arnold and Nick Cannata-Bowman.
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