Literary Censorship in America: Challenged vs. Banned Books

Challenged vs. Banned Books

Did you know...

Mr. Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (pub. 1885) was once dismissed as "trash, suitable only for the slums." It is ranked as the fourth most banned book in the United States, even though the book is recognized as a "Great American Classic" and sells 200K copies each year.

Or that... 

"The Diary of a Young Girl" (pub. 1947), a historically-important book of diary entries by a 13-year old girl named Anne Frank, who hid with her family for two years (1942-1944) from being captured by Nazi soldiers in her homeland of the Netherlands, was considered "too depressing" and "too sexual," and therefore pulled from libraries and curriculums. This is despite the fact the book is published in more than 60 languages and has sold more than 30 million copies.

Or that... 

J.K. Rowling's famous Harry Potter book series has been challenged by numerous theological groups and banned in several countries due to complaints that the stories encourage witchery.


In earlier centuries translating the Bible from Hebrew into English was at one time an excommunicable offense.

Free Speech or Free Censorship?

Throughout history, philosophers, artists, novelists, and poets have been pilloried and their works destroyed because someone else thought them offensive and potentially harmful. Such book banning is a method of censorshipit suppresses speech, writing, voice, and opinion that hypercritical people consider offensive, salacious, or too controversial. Every year books are challenged for a range of positive or negative reasons, periodically leading to their permanent removal from public and private schools, institutes of learning, and public libraries.

Differences Between 'Challenged' and 'Banned' Books

Materials are considered "challenged" when an individual, a group, or an entity attempts to pull them from the public or restrict access to them. Merely voicing an objection to a particular book does not constitute a challenge; it usually unfolds like this:
  1. One must file a formal written complaint, requesting that the school or library removes or restricts the material due to its controversial content or inappropriateness. 
  2. An appointed committee reviews the complaint for justification, validity, and virtuousness.
  3. The committee holds a public or private hearing to determine if the material warrants removal, restriction, or retainment. 
  4. If the challenge is successful, the material is removed (i.e. now officially classified as banned) from the classroom or library. 
Not surprisingly, most challenges target juvenile literature and classroom reading lists. Parents challenge books more than any other group, followed by library patrons and school administrators. Challenges are usually well-intentioned, especially in cases concerning children. Parents and school officials believe they are protecting juveniles from "sensitive" or "offensive" ideas, opinions, viewpoints, and information that they'd misunderstand or not process appropriately. Other challengers believe certain ideas are morally corrupt, contextually misinterpreted, culturally inaccurate, or religiously dangerous to the community.

Why Do We Challenge Specific Books?

While some of the reasons why materials are banned may be quite inaneone edition of Little Red Riding Hood was banned because Riding Hood's basket contained a bottle of winemost works are challenged due to a combination of legitimate concerns. The top 10 usual suspects in book controversies are:
  1. Material considered anti-family.
  2. Portrayal of drug and alcohol use.
  3. Nudity. Many anatomy textbooks have been banned for this reason.
  4. Religious viewpoint.
  5. Homosexuality.
  6. Occult themes.
  7. Mature themes considered inappropriate for a given age group.
  8. Violence.
  9. Offensive language. This can be profanity or derogatory terminology.
  10. Sexual explicitness.
Recently-Challenged Books

Every year the American Library Association (ALA) gathers reports from libraries, schools, and media to compile a list of that year's most challenged titles. In 2012, the ALA received 464 reported challenges, an increase of 25 percent from the previous year.

Five of the most challenged books on the most recent list are:

"The Adventures of Captain Underpants" by Dav Pilkey

1. "The Adventures of Captain Underpants" and its subsequent series by Dav Pilkey, initially published in September 1997. It has been cited for offensive language and age inappropriateness.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James

2. "Fifty Shades of Grey" (published June 2011) by E.L. James. It is challenged because of offensive language and explicit sexual content.
"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hossein

3. "The Kite Runner" (published April 2004) by Khaled Hosseini. A perennial book-club favorite, it has drawn objections for explicit sex, homosexual themes, offensive language, and religious viewpoints.
"And Tango Makes Three" by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

4. "And Tango Makes Three" (published April 2005) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. This children's book about a penguin family is on the list due to age inappropriateness and perceived homosexual themes.
"Beloved" by Toni Morrison

5. "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, originally published in September 1987. Considered a modern classic, it is often cited for its violence, religious viewpoints, and sexuality.

The Freedom to Read

The American Library Association (ALA) promotes the last week in September as Banned Books Week [website], an annual event designed to call attention to challenged works and the dangers of censorship and to encourage reading and discussion of ideas. The national event brings together librarians, booksellers, educators, and readers to celebrate the freedom to read, andto paraphrase French philosopher Voltaireto "think for themselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too." This year, Banned Books Week is September 22-28, 2013.

I welcome your comments, suggestions, or corrections. Please use the Comments form below.

Brian Scott