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Banned books worth reading

By Kobo • February 20, 2024Big Ideas in Books

While books in public schools and libraries have always been questioned, challenged, and sometimes banned—there's a troubling new wave of enthusiasm for putting some books out of reach.

Whether the books in question address the history of racism or other hot-button issues that parents are afraid to talk about with their kids, we're left with a question that's difficult to answer: what is and isn't appropriate for kids to learn from books? 

These books address difficult topics, such as racism, sexism, sexuality, gender politics, and violence. Some of these subjects might be challenging for young people to think about (maybe even more challenging for older folks), but they also raise issues worth thinking deeply about, such as the reach of compassion, speaking up even when it's hard, embracing authenticity in oneself and others, engaging with painful aspects of history, and so much more. 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

And in case you were thinking bans only target recent books, or just books that are marketed to young readers, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s novels frequently come up against challenges every school year. The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s 1970 debut novel, and tells the story of a Black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who prays for her brown eyes to turn blue so she can experience the world as someone who will be seen as beautiful. It’s a challenging book to read, but going slowly and thoughtfully yields dazzling emotional textures and insights that can only come across through the written word.

It has been challenged for depicting the sexual abuse of a child.

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved has seen many challenges since it was published in 1987. Critics cite its sexually explicit content, violence, and dark themes surrounding death, grief, guilt, and slavery as reasons to remove it from school libraries. To this day, writers frequently reference the novel's innovative use of language to explore themes of race, sex, and motherhood, finding poetic beauty in dark, difficult topics. Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her body of work, of which the most recent under review by the prize committee was Beloved.

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l8r, g8r: 10th Anniversary update and reissue by Lauren Myracle

This story about a trio of close friends is told entirely in the style of text messages. We follow them through all the ups and downs of adolescence. This is the third installment in Lauren Myracle’s The Internet Girls series.

It has been challenged for containing discussions about adolescent sexuality.

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Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

The young adult version of Ibram X. Kendi's nonfiction book Stamped from the Beginning, co-written by novelist and poet Jason Reynolds, has been banned in many school districts for the way it aims to educate children about race by focusing on present-day anti-Black racism.

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

First published in 2003, Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel was an instant international bestseller. Set in Afghanistan, it’s the story of two friends, Amir and Hassan, who grow up in Kabul and witness the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s and the country’s reactionary turn to radicalism—which sends each of their lives in very different directions.

It has been challenged for its depictions of sexual violence and because it is believed (presumably by people who have not read it) to promote terrorism.

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This One Summer  by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer is a coming-of-age graphic novel that has been banned from schools because of its use of profanity, its references to sexuality, and "explicit" illustrations. The story follows two teenage girls over a summer as they discover themselves, learn more about their sexuality, and grapple with family and mental health issues. The novel, which won the Caldecott Medal in 2015, includes challenging material, and has lessons to teach about self-acceptance, compassion, and growing up.

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Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Maia Kobabe’s illustrated memoir tells the author’s story of growing up feeling at home in neither of the gender options that society was offering. It includes many moments of adolescent embarrassment that anybody can relate to, told from Maia’s unique perspective. The book was initially written for the author’s own family to better understand gender identity issues, but it has found a diverse and enthusiastic readership.

It has been challenged for having LGBTQ+ content.

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Melissa  by Alex Gino

Alex Gino's Melissa—previously marketed under the title George—is Lambda Literary Award-winning book that has been challenged and banned because of its inclusion of a transgender child. Some parents have taken issue with the idea of their children reading about transgender issues and perspectives, citing that it goes against religious beliefs and traditional family values. At its core, Melissa is a story about self-acceptance, and accepting the differences of others.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Greg is a high schooler just trying not to get too much attention in the hopes that through invisibility he might make high school suck less. When his mom pushes him to befriend a girl with cancer, his plan for anonymity is completely undone. If you can’t tell from the title, it’s a pretty funny book.

It has been challenged because of sexual content.

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson's feminist young adult novel Speak has been challenged and banned for its profanity, for including scenes of sexual assault and violence, for being biased against male students, and for the perception of its political agenda. Speak is a story of trauma and recovery with the potential to make young people feel less alone, whether they have similar experiences or know someone who does. The novel has received several awards, including the American Library Association's 2000 Michael Printz Honor and the 2000 Golden Kite Award.

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This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson

For young people trying to figure out where they fit, and for their caregivers to better understand what they’re going through, Juno Dawson’s cheekily-title non-fiction guide to gender and sexuality is a light-hearted and affirmative overview of the spectrum of gender and sexuality.

It has been challenged for having LGBTQ+ content.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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