To celebrate Banned Books Week, we asked 12 authors to share the banned or challenged book that made a lasting impact on them as young people. Here are the books that were particularly meaningful to them — because of their ideas, style, or substance — and that have stayed with them through the years.
“I’m so grateful that neither my parents nor any schools I attended considered The Call of the Wild to be a book that was dangerous in any way. This novel brought animals and the wilderness alive in my thinking for the first time when I was about 12 years old, and it remains a favorite all these decades later.”
Andrew Clements is the bestselling author of Frindle and The Loser’s Club, a new middle grade novel about a boy who’d rather spend time alone reading, but finds himself unexpectedly making new friends.
“I still remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as a part of my fifth-grade class. Growing up in a town with a serious lack of diversity, it had never occurred to me that people might be treated (or judged) differently based on the color of their skin. I remember the sense of unfairness that I felt as the book unfolded in front of me. Though the nuance and subtext were far over my head as a child, To Kill a Mockingbird helped me form an understanding of the pain and trouble that racial profiling causes.”
Kiki Prottsman is the author of My First Coding Book, a bright, fun, and interactive introduction to computer programming for little readers.
“Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen tells kids the truth about what really happens after they fall asleep. As all adults eventually find out, the wee small hours of the morning are when the portly bakers of dreamland spring into action, steaming, making, smelling, and baking the morning cake against a dry-goods New York City skyline. The sooner children learn about this magical part of the day, the sounder they’ll sleep and the happier they’ll be.”
Benjamin Errett is the author of Elements of Wit and a fascinating new book about how we develop all of our tastes, Elements of Taste: Understanding What We Like and Why.
“I was 11 and my parents had just gone through a divorce when I read Go Ask Alice. The book shocked me, but it also gave voice to a kind of existential and emotional extremity that I was just becoming aware of in the world. People had more secrets, darkness, complexity, and deeper struggles than I’d ever fathomed, and Go Ask Alice somehow made me feel better about that. Thus began a reading odyssey through books with mental illness, ghosts, death, drugs, love, drama, trauma, etc., that took me through the transition from child to young adult.”
Danielle Younge-Ullman is the author of Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined, a moving YA novel about a teen who attends a life-changing wilderness camp and discovers her own strength.
“I was in shock when, as a high school student in the late 1970s, I discovered in my school library a copy of Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. Good shock. I didn’t know this book had been the subject of a famous obscenity trial when it was published in 1956. But I did realize right away that Howl and Other Poems was a book that many people would think a teenager shouldn’t be reading. It was the poem ‘Please Master,’ an intensely sexual gay poem, that had the greatest effect on me. In popular culture at the time, the wages of being gay were almost always death or disgrace. And here came Ginsberg boldly celebrating his outlaw sexuality. Other books had started to give me a vision of a life I could look forward to without dread. Here was a vision of a life that pushed the boundaries of my imagination. And that wasn’t just affirming — it was thrilling.”
Will Schwalbe is the author of the New York Times bestseller The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living: Some Thoughts on Reading, Reflecting, and Embracing Life, a memoir that reflects the ways in which all different kinds of books can move and inspire us.
Having been born and raised in Missouri, the same as author Mark Twain, I visited his childhood haunts on vacations with my family when I was growing up. As an adolescent, I admired Huck Finn, the protagonist of Twain’s 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck was a clever and ingenious child.
Widely considered one of the first truly American novels for its use of and reverence for uniquely American dialects, Huckleberry Finn has been frequently banned over the years. Originally, strict grammaticians considered its use of vernacular a crass model for child readers. Later, others objected to its racist language and scenarios.
Once I saw past the novel’s coarseness, which does serve a purpose, I eventually understood Twain’s master objective, which I believe was the humanizing of people and the dehumanizing of one of our most shameful creations, slavery.
David Barclay Moore is the author of The Stars Beneath Our Feet, a novel about an imaginative tween boy who navigates his grief by building a miniature city of LEGOs.
“Of all the banned books I’ve loved, the one that’s impacted me the most is Our Bodies, Ourselves. Like so many Our Bodies, Ourselves readers, I explored its pages in secret, sneaking my mom’s tattered copy off the shelves in the early ’80s. I learned about my period, about childbirth, about sexuality, about abortion. It gave me the knowledge and the tools to develop a feminist consciousness and a strong sense of self. I still have my mom’s first edition copy, as well as a contemporary edition. I can’t wait for my daughter to get her hands on it.”
Kate Schatz is the author of Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History, a bestselling book of illustrated biographies of strong, inspiring women who changed the world for the better.
“The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a cornerstone of Gulag literature, which revealed the concentration camp system in USSR right down to the bone. The book was smuggled to the West, published first in France in 1973, but it wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until Perestroika.
When I was young, we talked about concentration camps with my family in Soviet-Estonia, but only under euphemisms, and even then only in trusted company and preferably outside. Under a dictatorship, the language is controlled, and printed words are littered with propaganda. Therefore, The Gulag Archipelago was a huge revelation to me: The language was so direct — and it was written down. I hadn’t read anything like that before. No euphemisms, no writing between the lines, no symbolism. It felt like I had been watching snow on the TV screen for my whole life, and then the picture was suddenly sharp like a knife. That’s what Solzhenitsyn’s text did to readers and that’s why he was so dangerous to Soviet rulers. And that’s when I understood the power of the language: It can break cement.”
Sofi Oksanen is the author of Norma, a dark, riveting new fantasy about a woman with unexpected supernatural powers.
“When Toni Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, she knew she was writing something different, and right from the beginning of my first reading, that difference was apparent. I was a young, hopeful writer and I was reading widely — attempting to learn from the greats — when I came across Morrison’s Dick-and-Jane primer material at the start of the seasonal chapters. Slowly, the Dick-and-Jane paragraphs transformed and I thought, ‘This, this is what a book can do.’
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison took the world of known literature and flipped it. Brought in a new voice and her own version of style. She moved past Joyce. Past Faulkner. Went a direction Kesey didn’t go. Without Morrison’s bravery, without her literary daring, I wouldn’t have known how to take chances as a novelist. I wouldn’t have known how to mix disparate narrative arcs, how to change directions and write through to the end of an evocative image.
The fact that The Bluest Eye is widely banned and challenged only makes it more important. As a writer, Morrison taught me that fear isn’t even worth thinking about.”
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is the author of This is the Part Where You Laugh and the upcoming Too Shattered for Mending, a YA novel about a boy living in a drug-ravaged small town, who unwittingly finds himself roped into an investigation that could turn his loved ones against him.
“Childhood is terrifying. Adults forget this. I used to sandwich Goosebumps between two other books on the way out of the library so my mom couldn’t see the cover. She thought they were teaching me about monsters … except that the news exists, and kids talk to each other. I already knew there were monsters in the world.
What Goosebumps gave me was a few years of blissful reassurance that, yes, evil was everywhere, but sometimes it had a recognizable bright, rubbery face and rickety, ill-conceived schemes. The series taught me that monsters were beatable. More than anything, it told me that there were other kids facing them too.”
“The words, ‘Kill Julia!’ will forever resonate as a lesson on the power of self-preservation and the limits of compassion to this then 14-year-old growing up in a San Francisco suburb in the 1970s. So too did the paradoxical slogans ‘war is peace,’ ‘freedom is slavery,’ and ‘ignorance is strength’ teach me more than any other text I can recall about the ability of language to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Banning a book like 1984 is a direct assault on every human freedom we hold dear in this country.”
Jess Shatkin, M.D., M.P.H., is a nationally recognized expert in child and adolescent mental health, and the author of the upcoming Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Keep Them Safe.
“Even though I was already teaching by the time I read his books, Chris Crutcher changed everything for me. Here were these high school athletes, thinking and talking the way I did, working through real, serious problems, and figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be in this world. Young people need to see themselves in the books they read, and for me, even though I was into my early 20s, reading Crutcher was really the first time that had happened — in Athletic Shorts, in Whale Talk, then in every single one of his books I devoured and shared with my own students after that.”
Jared Reck is the author of A Short History of the Girl Next Door, a heart-wrenching and humorous YA novel about a teen boy and his unrequited love for his next-door neighbor.
The Banned Books Mentioned in This Article
What banned or challenged books do you recall reading when you were young?