When I was 15, my high school banned a book from being taught in the honors senior English classroom. In my hazy recollections, a parent had called and complained about the book, and one thing led to another, and the book was removed from the curriculum. I can’t remember what book it was, because it was banned for the senior classes and I was a mere freshman, but needless to say the book was never taught again. It was one of two books that would suffer that fate during my teenage years. Now, my parents were not really the censoring type. They paid close attention to my internet activities and what TV channels I watched, but as far as books were concerned, I was allowed to delve into whatever I wanted from the YA section of the bookstore (Which my parents took me to frequently. They bankrolled my literary addiction very generously). So it was a very foreign concept to me throughout most of my teenage years that a parent could call the school (that all-powerful institution that governed nearly everything) and have something removed from the curriculum purely because they didn’t want their kid to read it.
My interest in the matter might have dropped right then and there, if it weren’t for a collection of the district’s English teachers who banded together and decided that it was Not Okay for students whose parents were fine with the curriculum to not be able to learn from the novels that they were supposed to read. So they created an after-school club. Every other week, students could get permission slips signed and stay after school to read banned and contested books, and watch films that were meaningful but not generally considered appropriate for a high school audience.
I was one of the youngest participants in this group, and I cringe to think about what awful contributions I no doubt made as a freshman to this group of juniors and seniors (who, in truth, were a terrifyingly sophisticated group to be associating with). But I made a lot of close friends in that group that stuck, and grew even closer to one boy who (nearly 9 years later) I would marry. So in a superficial way, banned books are important to me. But it goes a bit deeper than that– banned books are typically banned because they’re honest. They tell hard truths, and they do it by giving the reader a perspective that may not be comfortable. How many of us would forget the the depravity of victim-blaming after reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Or the disgusting realities of deep racism if not for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? Even contemporary books that have been banned, like Looking for Alaska by John Green and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky have a meaningful place in the lives of the youth today who have read them; they are a voice to the soft spoken in a world that’s become increasingly cruel to youth. They deal with issues that, like it or not, teenagers are facing when they get up every day. And then there’s books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley- they may not take place in a world that’s shaped like ours, but these books reach out and show us what the alternatives could be- they show us the dangerous parallels and why we need to maintain our voices in times where it would be easy to be silent. Banned Books are frequently silenced because they have a lot to say, and they’re worth listening to.
So use this week to take a look at some of the absolutely fantastic banned books available at your local library or independent bookstore. If you’d like some guidance, (and I am no expert) here are my top ten favorites:
1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
2. Looking for Alaska by John Green
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
4. The Great Gatsby by Scott F Fitzgerald
5. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
6. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
7. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
8. All Quiet on the Western Front by Enrich Maria Remarque
9. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky