It’s incredible to me that banning and challenging books is still a thing in 2019, but it still happens all the time. Sometimes a challenge to a book is laughable. 1984, for example, has been challenged for being anti-communist and for being pro-communist; Harry Potter for being overtly occult and for being overtly Christian. Other times challenges actually give educators pause to think and reflect on curricular choices. To Kill a Mockingbird is currently being challenged in areas for promoting a white savior concept. While I don’t think this book should be banished from school libraries, I think this particular challenge is forcing teachers to reflect on whose voices are centered in their curricula, and that’s a good thing!
Unfortunately, a lot of challenged and banned books are not about questioning the dominant narrative, but about reinforcing it. So many challenged texts are by authors of color and queer authors. Many of these works question the status quo and force readers to confront their privilege. These works are essential because they offer representation to students and teachers who may not regularly see themselves in curricular literature, and they offer students in majority groups the experience of being decentered in the classroom and the opportunity to witness another perspective.
Today I’m sharing five of my favorite frequently banned or challenged. These are favorites not just because I personally love them, but because, to me, they’re essential reading.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esqivel
I read this for the first time earlier this year, and I really wish I’d encountered it sooner. Like Water for Chocolate is a beautiful book about love and family and expectations and magic and food. It’s often challenged for its sexual content, and it is a mature book in that regard. What I love, however, is that the main character is sexually empowered, knows what she wants, and is madly in love. This is the kind of intimacy I want to see more of in my books. Additionally this book transports readers to Mexico in the early 20th century and explores that history in a way that is unfamiliar to many American readers. Plus the book is brimming with culture from the recipes that begin every chapter to the rich magical realism.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye has been challenged since its publication in 1970 for sexually explicit and overall “disturbing” content. But this is one of those books that’s difficult in all the right ways and essential reading experience for many. The novel focuses on a young Black girl named Pecola who longs to have light skin and blue eyes to mirror the beauty standards she sees. Her home life is devastatingly violent and her interior is rich and filled with desire. The book forces readers to directly acknowledge and confront the American reality of centering the white experience. It makes for difficult but necessary classroom discussions, allows often marginalized students to see themselves reflected in literature, and encourages readers to seek out more stories from suppressed voices. Click here to read an own voices review from a teacher who uses The Bluest Eye in her classes.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak follows 14-year-old narrator Melinda as she starts her freshman year at a large highschool. Melinda has been ostracized and abandoned by her friends over an initially unnamed incident at a party the summer between their 8th and 9th grade years. As the story moves on, readers learn that Melinda was raped by an older boy at her high school who she calls “The Beast.” The book follows Melinda’s attempt to recover her voice and identity after experiencing this trauma. Speak is frequently challenged for being sexually explicit and “immoral,” but of course both of these things are the point of the book and the lived reality of many survivors of sexual abuse. Speak is intense, but it is a perfect entry point into all too necessary conversations about sexual assault in a society in which 1 in 6 girls and women will experience sexual trauma. And while this book is incredibly empowering for girls, I also believe it’s essential reading for boys who aren’t often encouraged to seriously discuss these topics, but need to be part of the conversation.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This book is so popular that people are often shocked to hear that it’s on the American Library Association’s frequently banned and challenged books list. But The Hate U Give was actually the fourth most challenged book of 2018 in spite of being a darling of young adult literature. Some of the challenges mention sexual situations and “vulgar language,” but THUG is most often challenged for being “anti-cop.” I honestly wonder if the people challenging this wonderful novel have even read it, because Angie Thomas does an incredible job adding layers of nuance so that the book is firmly anti-police corruption without being anti-police. This is another book that provokes excellent conversations about systemic racism, implicit biases, code switching, and more in a story that’s empowering and accessible. I’m glad to see more and more schools (including my own) add this to curricula and book lists.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
I knew about the Bechdel Test long before I knew Alison Bechdel the writer as I didn’t read this exceptional 2006 graphic memoir until I was in graduate school. Like many graphic novels and memoirs that discuss sexuality, Fun Home has been challenged by people who feel it is “pornographic,” and is one of the rare books that’s even been challenged at the collegiate level. The story Bechdel tells in this book is so evocative and vulnerable, that it’s appalling to see it removed from libraries over a few explicit panels. In this memoir, Bechdel shares the story of her closeted gay father, her own coming out, and an exporation of how her father’s repression may have impacted her own sense of identity. Not only is the story profoundly moving, but Fun Home is a masterpiece of graphic literature that allows readers to understand the depth of story that can be told in this medium.