You can’t please everyone. Every book will have its fans and its foes. But restricting reading for another person or group of people? That goes too far.
Those who ban books believe that not only are banned books not appropriate for their own kids, they’re not appropriate for anyone else’s kids. Their biggest complaints usually center on the following issues:
- alcohol use
- anti-God / religion
But, I’ll give them one thing. Ideas are powerful.
Ideas in books can ignite discovery, encourage empathy, and offer solace. (Among other things.) With that in mind, here are 17 banned and challenged books that are worth reading (maybe more than once) for their ideas.
CHALLENGED FOR: conflict, crime, death of a character
S. E. Hinton’s groundbreaking classic — now available in a 50th anniversary edition — centers on two rival groups of teen boys, the Greasers and the Socs, who are divided by unassailable class differences in 1965 Tulsa, Oklahoma.
BANNED AND CHALLENGED FOR: rape, incest, teen pregnancy
For many readers, The Bluest Eye is their introduction to Toni Morrison. It tells the powerful and harrowing story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl desperate for the blonde hair and blue eyes she believes will make others accept her.
CHALLENGED FOR: sexual content, mental illness, teen suicide
Finch and Violet meet at a pivotal moment in their lives, and what unfolds is a meaningful romance between two young people struggling openly and honestly with grief and depression. Billed for fans of The Fault in Our Stars (another banned title).
CHALLENGED FOR: sex, homosexuality
In this novel based on true events, two teen boys’ attempt to beat the world record for the longest kiss provides the backdrop for a larger meditation on acceptance and love. It is skillfully written and simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming.
BANNED FOR: childhood rape, racism
Reading this powerful story is like stepping into the shoes of a poor Black girl in the South. We discover that despite all of life’s hardships, the wounded can heal. They can even sing. What’s even more powerful is that the story is autobiographical.
BANNED AND CHALLENGED FOR: sex, profanity, homosexuality, undermining religious beliefs
Named the most challenged book of 2015, John Green’s debut novel centers on a teen seeking new adventure and happiness through his self-destructive yet alluring classmate. Soon to be a limited series on Hulu, it’s an essential part of the John Green canon.
BANNED FOR: immorality, anti-Christianity, offensiveness
Margaret conversationally talks to God about her periods, boys, breasts, and her questions about religion. What growing girl can’t relate to that?
BANNED FOR: witchcraft, misogyny
This is a hilarious story about a young boy who discovers that witches hate all children. With help from his Grandmamma, he outwits the witches, turning them into mice.
BANNED FOR: nudity, sex, abortion, homosexuality
I think information is power — or at least if not power, it’s really, really helpful. This controversial book covers everything about puberty and sex that kids wonder about. Seeing the illustrations of naked bodies may be uncomfortable for parents, but I think it’s a great way to empower and educate.
BANNED FOR: anti-God
An adventure of heroic children, villainous adults, fantastical creatures, and a challenging quest make this an entertaining and award-winning fantasy novel.
BANNED FOR: violence, profanity
Often used as a class book in middle school, this thought-provoking allegory of the human condition forces you to notice and think about the real-life connections to the story. Yes, real life is often disturbing.
CHALLENGED FOR: language, anti-police sentiment
Adapted for film in 2015, Trash is the story of three boys living in extreme poverty, who find something in a dumpsite that propels them on a heroic journey to restore justice.
CHALLENGED FOR: language
Mark Twain’s classic follows the adventures and exploits of young Huck Finn and runaway slave Jim — two friends who raft down the Mississippi through a Southern antebellum society where they’re repeatedly confronted with racism and corruption.
BANNED AND CHALLENGED FOR: graphic language and images
Marjane Satrapi’s widely hailed graphic memoir is a stunning coming-of-age tale about growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Narrated by Satrapi, a precocious only child, it’s simultaneously an intimate story and a treatise on the devastations of war.
CHALLENGED FOR: female anatomy
Rebecca Skloot’s investigation into the woman behind HeLa cells — which changed medicine forever — led her to the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose tissue samples were taken without her consent while she was being treated for cervical cancer in 1951.
CHALLENGED FOR: language, sexual content, racism
Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953 and established Ralph Ellison as a voice of American literature. It tells the story of a nameless black narrator who moves from the South to Harlem and navigates intolerance and indifference in early twentieth-century America.
CHALLENGED FOR: sexual content
Lee Fiora feels like an outsider at Ault, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts. Her experiences over the next four years — which build to a self-destructive peak — make for a poignant examination of adolescence and its many angsts.
Learn more about banned books and Banned Books Week here.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2019.