In celebration of Banned Books Week, I encourage you to read or check out at least one title from this list of banned children's books. As you peruse the list, you may be surprised at seeing titles you enjoyed when you were a child.
Most children's books that are challenged or banned in school libraries and curricula are done so because they don't reinforce traditional narratives about power, class, gender and race. In other words, the books in question encourage children's to think critically about society.
In addition, these books often depict the experiences of marginalized individuals who deserve to be seen and represented. It's morally wrong to censor the stories of people just because they don't reinforce a particular political or religious world view.
In fact, challenged and banned books provide wonderful teaching moments. Does a book deal with difficult topics? Does it share the experiences of others? Talk about it with your child. Open the door and encourage your children to keep an open mind about what they read. They (and you) will become more discerning readers and empathetic citizens as a result.
- The American Library Association has a list of the 10 most challenged books for each year, and the reasons why they were challenged or banned.
- Authors talk about the experience of having their books banned from schools.
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A dangerous book will always be in danger from those it threatens with the demand that they question their assumptions. They'd rather hang on to the assumptions and ban the book.-Ursula K. Le Guin
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson
I read the beautiful Bridge to Terabithia as a kid and I still list it as one of the books that has stayed with me. Two 5th grade friends, Jess and Leslie, create an imaginary world they call Terabithia. One day a tragedy leaves Jess alone and he must rely on all he learned through his friendship with Leslie to work through his grief over her death. Parents have trouble with a children's book that has death as a central motif, and some claim the book promotes witchcraft. However, children need books that help them deal with big emotions, and the author always found the accusations that the book was anti-Christian somewhat odd as she herself was the child of missionaries and the wife of a minister. Patterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins is another frequently challenged book which is worth a read. Ages 8 and up.
THE GIVER (series) by Lois Lowry
It is rather ironic that a book about the dangers of restricting information would be challenged and banned, yes? 12 year old Jonas lives in "The Community" in which sameness is valued and everyone's life is pre-determined by the elders. Jonas learns the truth, however, when he is designated as the next "Receiver of Memory", the only person who is allowed to learn about the past and the outside world. There are some heavy issues in the book, but the message is clear: freedom for people to learn and follow their own path, despite pain and chaos, are more valuable than ignorance and safety. That's a lesson I want to teach my kids. Ages 10 and up.
FRONT DESK (series) by Kelly Yang
Mia Tang lives in a motel where her immigrant parents are the managers for an exploitative owner. Mia wants to be a writer but worries about her English skills. She takes over running the front desk of the motel and makes friends wherever she goes. She experiences anti-Chinese prejudice and witnesses racial bias against People of Color in her neighborhood. She dreams of winning a writing contest so her parents can own their own hotel instead of working endlessly for little pay. Yang based the novel on her own experiences growing up in similar circumstances. A winning, funny and heartwarming novel; not to be missed. Ages 8 and up.
ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY (series) by Mildred D. Taylor
Here's another book I read as a child that had a profound impact on me; I remember being moved by it, even 30 years later. Published in 1976, (and on my list of must read books from the 1970s) this is the story of a family deeply affected by racism. It's not a pretty story, and it's about the shameful way people can treat each other. I remember reading it and feeling as though, as a child growing up in a sheltered environment, that my eyes had been opened, but that there was possibility for positive change. Isn't that what we want for our kids? Ages 10 and up.
NEW KID (series) by Jerry Craft
After I brought this book home from the library, my son loved it and read it ten times in a row! I'm not surprised because after I read it, I realized how nuanced this story is. Art-loving Jordan navigates a new school as one of the few kids of color in his seventh grade class. Craft's story offers much to discover, even after multiple readings. The book was removed from shelves at a Texas school after a parent complained that it promoted "Critical Race Theory." Fortunately, the book was reinstated! Ages 8 and up.
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN by Maurice Sendak
I will admit that the reason parents want to ban this book makes me roll my eyes. Nakedness. Seriously! I don't want to seem disrespectful but does not that seem a tad ridiculous? As an adult I found this book sort of weird on the first reading, but the more I read it the more I love it and understand how it speaks to children and their anxieties. While he dreams, Mickey floats naked through the air and into a bakery when the cooks are preparing a cake. Mickey becomes the hero when he secures the missing ingredient so the cake can be finished by, and eaten for, breakfast. The whole book is surreal and adults will be able to see references to cultural events that kids won't see. I recommend reading it to your kids and if they like it, keep reading it. Ages 4 and up.
A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC by Shel Silverstein
I admit I was confused as to why in the world this book would be banned, so I had to do a little Google search to verify. Indeed, school libraries have banned this book because parents have complained that some of the poems promote the occult and that a poem with the line "someone ate the baby" would encourage kids cannibalism. (Seriously! For real!) I'm pretty sure reading poetry has never resulted in the eating of babies. As you know, I am a big believer in the power of poetry to bring joy to daily life. Read these awesome poems with your kids. Ages 4 and up.
THIS DAY IN JUNE by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten
Sadly, I'm sure you can guess why some small-minded individuals want to remove this book from library shelves. This is a short, sweet and joyful look at the Pride parade and celebration that happens every June for Pride Month. The rhyming text makes it perfect for preschoolers and an endnote gives further information as well as helpful advice for talking to young children about LGBTQIA+ issues. Age 3 and up.
THE AGONY OF ALICE (series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Naylor's Alice series, which I included in my list of must read books from the 1980s, has made her one of the most challenged children's authors of all time because she write honestly about Alice's "agony" of dealing with the transition into tweendom -- socially, biologically and emotionally. Alice's mother has passed away and she lives with her brothers and father, who don't always "get" her, but who love her. There are 25 books in the Alice series chronicling Alice's journey through middle and high school. Ages 10 and up.
THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS by Dav Pilkey
Sure, Captain Underpants relies on silly, gross humor to entertain kids and keep them reading, but so what? I've written before about why I let my kids read potty humor. My son loved these books about two boys with an overactive imagination. Some of the complaints about this series include accusing it of disrespecting school authority figures, but I don't think parents want their kids to blindly follow whatever adults say. In addition, school is a source of anxiety for kids (whether it's academic or social, mild or severe) and I think it's good for kids to have a way of thinking about school in subversive, non-traditional ways. Ages 5 and up.
MELISSA (previously published as George) by Alex Gino
Melissa is a girl, but everyone thinks she is a boy named George. She is worried no one will know who she is and she will stay hidden forever. She dreams of playing Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte's Web but the teacher won't even consider her for the part. Melissa confesses her secret to her best friend, who helps her concoct a plan. This is a quiet gem of a book and I am impressed at how accessible the text is for the intended audience. Melissa is a fifth grader and the story is not overcomplicated or bogged down with social and political backstory or controversy. While some want to ban the book because it sheds light on transgender issues, it is much more than just an LGBTQ story. All kids are familiar with keeping secrets and worrying about being accepted by others. This is a moving and hopeful story. Ages 8 and up.
We can certainly agree that not all books are appropriate for every child at any given time. Certainly, some titles are best appreciated when kids are older. However, let's encourage inquiry, thoughtfulness, and a curious approach to the world by leaving all books on the shelves.
Celebrate the freedom to read.
For more books we love, banned and otherwise, check out the index of all my book lists.