Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Highlighting the value of free and open access to information, Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek, to publish, to read, and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted for removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.
Are you curious about some different books that have been banned or challenged over the decades? This timeline is an excellent resource with plenty of examples of specific books and why they were challenged, and what the outcomes of the challenge were.
What do you think about a rating system for books? Read this article to find out if Americans support this idea or not.
“I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.” – For more quotes about the idea of censorship and book banning, read this article.
A Few Examples from History
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Though many are familiar with the poems and fantastical story of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, perhaps not as well known is the book’s history of censorship. The book has been challenged and banned several times since its publication in 1865, largely due to its alleged promotion of drug use. In the book, Alice encounters a caterpillar who sits on top of a mushroom smoking hookah. Alice herself becomes exposed to psychedelic, mind- and body-altering experiences, in which she grows and shrinks in size (undoubtedly inspired by Carroll’s own experiences with a rare neurological disorder that causes hallucinations and affects the sufferer’s perception of size—later named Alice in Wonderland Syndrome).
However, it was not the drug references but the talking animals that ultimately got Carroll banned in China in 1931. Though characters like the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit remain amongst the most popular in Carroll’s Wonderland novels, General Ho Chien, the governor of Hunan province, deemed it offensive that animals were anthropomorphized and placed on the same level as humans.
Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
In the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer, considered the “father of English literature,” wrote Canterbury Tales, a humorous and critical examination of twenty-nine archetypal characters of late medieval English society. The text drew immediate criticism due to its critical look at the medieval church, as well as its obscene language and sexual innuendos, the latter of which remained a point of contention even centuries later.
In 1873, Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, achieved a federal bill that banned the mailing of “every obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter writing, print or other publication of an indecent character.” The Comstock Act, officially known as the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, banned many world classics, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for its sexual content.
Federico García Lorca is one of the most important Spanish poets and dramatists of the twentieth century, the author of such celebrated works as Romancero Gitano (The Gypsy Ballads), which was reprinted seven times during his lifetime. But his work was still the object of censorship in Spain in the early 1900s. Lorca was openly homosexual and known for his outspoken socialist views, and his works were deemed dangerous for their sexual content, language, and political underpinnings.
In 1936, Lorca was shot to death by Spanish nationalists due to his support of the deposed Republican government. Lorca’s work was burned in Granada’s Plaza del Carmen and banned from Francisco Franco’s Spain. His books remained censored until Franco’s death in 1975.
A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein
Known for his whimsical illustrations and verses about mischievous children, transformed adults, and strange monsters and beasts, Shel Silverstein published his second poetry collection, A Light in the Attic, in 1981. The book spent 182 weeks on The New York Times general nonfiction bestseller list and spent fourteen weeks in the number one spot.
However, Silverstein’s books were accused of being not for children, encouraging bad behavior, and addressing topics some people deemed inappropriate for kids. Challengers at two elementary schools in Wisconsin said one poem “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them,” and that other poems “glorified Satan, suicide, and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.”
The book was so contested that it became number fifty-one on the list of 100 most frequently challenged books in the 1990s.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Seminal to the history of American verse, Leaves of Grass, a frank and sensual celebration of America and the human body, would later be considered a classic that established Whitman as one of the originators of a uniquely American poetic voice.
Fellow writer and critic Ralph Waldo Emerson attempted to persuade Whitman to drop some controversial, sexualized passages, but Whitman refused. However, when it was first published in 1855, Emerson wrote a letter to Whitman praising the collection: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Many critics did not give such a warm welcome to the book, which they denounced as crude and offensive. The Watch and Ward Society in Boston and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice pressured booksellers to suppress the sale of the book, and the Society of Suppression of Vice then sought to obtain a legal ban of a new edition of the book in Boston, which caused it to be famously “banned in Boston” in 1882.