15 Banned Books That Are Still Powerful Today

    Celebrate your freedom to read.

    For readers like you and I, it might be hard to imagine banning books in the 21st century, but censorship remains a very real threat to the availability of important works today. From obscenity trials and jail time to school board scandals, writers and their works face surprising hurdles on their way to connecting with readers and shelves like yours.

    The story of how a book was received when it was published—especially if it was censored in some way—can make for rich discussion about the culture of its day. Whether we look at the 1899 response to Kate Chopin’s then-scandalous The Awakening, or the 1967 burning of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, public response to literature speaks volumes about the social standards of an era. Read on to see an example of the books that faced and overcame controversy.


    Annie on My Mind

    By Nancy Garden

    Published in 1982, this staple of LGBTQ literature remains of the most influential works of the 20th century—but it didn’t always receive such good praise. In 1993, the Kansas City school district burned and removed it from their libraries (to which Nancy Garden quipped, "Only Nazis ban books"). A court case ensued that would ultimately return the novel to school shelves and make it one of the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books" during the 90s. It’s a tender-hearted portrait of two teenage girls, Annie and Liza, whose budding romance sparks controversy at home and at school.

    Annie on My Mind

    By Nancy Garden

    The Prince of Tides

    By Pat Conroy

    Scandalized parents attempted to remove this novel—a stirring saga of a man’s journey to free his sister (and himself) from a tragic family history—from a West Virginia high school in 2007, citing violence and explicit sexuality. Conroy replied, “Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them.” Read his letter to the editor of the Charleston Gazette here.

    The Prince of Tides

    By Pat Conroy

    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

    By Dee Brown

    First published in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee generated shock waves with its frank and heartbreaking depiction of the 19th-century systematic annihilation of American Indian tribes across the Western frontier. A school district in Wisconsin banned this now-classic history in 1974 for its controversial subject matter.

    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

    By Dee Brown

    Always Running

    By Luis J. Rodríguez

    School districts in several states—including the author’s home state of California—have banned this gritty autobiography, in which Rodríguez portrays the sex, drugs, and violence of his former gang life in Los Angeles.

    Always Running

    By Luis J. Rodríguez

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    The King Must Die

    By Mary Renault

    In myth, Theseus was the slayer of the child-devouring Minotaur in Crete. What the founder-hero might have been in real life is another question, brilliantly explored in The King Must Die. Drawing on modern scholarship and archaeological findings at Knossos, Mary Renault’s Theseus is an utterly lifelike figure—a king of immense charisma, whose boundless strivings flow from strength and weakness—but also one steered by implacable prophecy. This work of historical fiction about Ancient Greece has been banned in some middle school libraries for having too much sex.

    The King Must Die

    By Mary Renault

    The Confessions of Nat Turner

    By William Clark Styron, Jr.

    Styron—a white, Southern author—wrote from the point of view of the leader of an infamous American slave rebellion. The Pulitzer Prize committee commended it, but it was challenged in some schools, and some activists burned the novel.

    The Confessions of Nat Turner

    By William Clark Styron, Jr.

    God's Little Acre

    By Erskine Caldwell

    God’s Little Acre is a classic dark comedy, a satire that lampoons a broken South while holding a light to the toll that poverty takes on the hopes and dreams of the poor. During a visit to Manhattan, Erskine Caldwell was arrested when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice charged him with obscenity for this novel. Caldwell won his case, then countersued, in an important moment for First Amendment rights.

    God's Little Acre

    By Erskine Caldwell

    The Awakening

    By Kate Chopin

    According to the American Library Association, The Awakening "so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward." Overwhelmingly criticized in its day for its frank depictions of female sexuality, marriage, and a woman’s desire for independence, the book is now celebrated as one of the earliest—and most revolutionary—feminist novels in American literature.

    The Awakening

    By Kate Chopin

    Candy

    By Mason Hoffenberg and Terry Southern

    Originally released under a pseudonym, this book was first published in France in 1958, then immediately banned. The racy novel, which echoes Voltaire’s scandalous classic Candide, became a chart-topping bestseller in the United States, and brought its authors both acclaim and infamy for breaking the grip of American literary censorship along with Lolita.

    Candy

    By Mason Hoffenberg and Terry Southern

    Kramer vs. Kramer

    By Avery Corman

    Adapted as the landmark film starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer is an unforgettable and heartrending story of love and devotion in the wake of divorce. A teacher removed Avery Corman’s novel about the end of a marriage and the bond between father and son from a Seattle school reading list.

    Kramer vs. Kramer

    By Avery Corman

    Gentleman's Agreement

    By Laura Z. Hobson

    A landmark novel that ranked #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for five months straight, Gentleman’s Agreement speaks to the pervasive nature of prejudice after World War II. This novel was banned by one of New York’s largest public high schools in 1948, for supposedly making light of extramarital affairs.

    Gentleman's Agreement

    By Laura Z. Hobson

    Citizen Tom Paine

    By Howard Fast

    In the middle of his productive, highly public writing career, Howard Fast’s Communist ties led to blacklisting and a jail sentence. In 1947, his bestselling historical novel about a Tom Paine—a voice of the people and a prophet of democracy—was banned in New York public schools for supposed “vulgar scenes.”

    Citizen Tom Paine

    By Howard Fast

    Contract with the World

    By Jane Rule

    Told from the perspectives of six characters during the social upheaval of the 1970s, Contract with the World brings together feminism, creativity, and sexual politics. It was denied entry into Canada because customs officials had (and have) the power to exercise ‘prior restraint’ of any book, magazine or picture they believe to be obscene.

    Contract with the World

    By Jane Rule

    Letty Fox

    By Christina Stead

    Australia declared this frank and comedic novel a prohibited import in 1947 for several years. The novel spans several decades, and its depiction of a woman's coming-of-age journey in New York City and London during the first half of the 20th century was banned for its salacious content.

    Letty Fox

    By Christina Stead

    The Picture of Dorian Gray

    By Oscar Wilde

    Ever since its original publication, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been frequently banned throughout English speaking countries. As baffling as it is, it also still stirs up controversy today. According to the American Library Association, in 2005 an Alabama congressional representative proposed legislation that would prohibit the purchase of library materials that "recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." The bill also argued for the removal (and destruction) of any literature with homosexual themes from schools, including novels like Brideshead Revisited, The Color Purple, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray

    By Oscar Wilde

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    Featured Image: Roman Kraft / Unsplash 

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