Banned books: 10 of the most-challenged books in America

America isn't immune to attempts to remove books from libraries and schools, here are ten frequent targets and why you ought to go check them out.

Banned books: 10 of the most-challenged books in America
Nazis burn books on a huge bonfire of 'anti-German' literature in the Opernplatz, Berlin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
  • Even in America, books are frequently challenged and removed from schools and public libraries.
  • Every year, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week to draw attention to this fact.
  • Some of the books they include on their list of most frequently challenged are some of the greatest, most beloved, and entertaining books there are.

Book censorship in the United States has a long and ignoble history. The Puritans burned books they disagreed with, Darwin was banned in Tennessee classrooms, and in 1992 41% of all attempts by censors to remove books from libraries had some measure of success. To help bring attention to this shameful phenomenon, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week every year to draw attention to some of the most frequently banned and challenged books in the United States.

Here, we have ten of the most frequently challenged books in the United States, why they are challenged, and why you ought to read them.

Harry Potter (series)

A copy of a Harry Potter book burns in a bonfire during a protest outside the Christ Community Church December 30, 2001 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Photo by Neil Jacobs/Getty Images)

Topping the list of the most frequently challenged books for the first decade of this century, the Harry Potter novels are among the most beloved works of children's literature of the last few decades.

Why are they challenged? Attempts to remove the books tend to invoke the book's use of magic to claim that they encourage witchcraft or bad behavior. These allegations also prevented J.K Rowling from getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom during the Bush years. Other attempts to keep the books off the shelves argue that the books are too scary for children.

Why should you read it? Not only are they fun books to read, but a study revealed that people who read the book are more empathetic towards stigmatized groups than those who do not read them are. They are frequently used to help encourage children to read more, and even adults will find the later books worth their time.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Shoppers read about a Chicago program involving the 40th anniversary edition of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'To Kill A Mockingbird' (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Another challenged book which often appears in the top ten most challenged books list, To Kill A Mockingbird is a heavyweight contender for the title of The Great American Novel. Published during the civil rights movement, Harper Lee's masterpiece continues to inform discussion of racial issues today.

Why is it challenged? The book is challenged for its "offensive language," "racism," and being "unsuited" to the age group schools tend to offer it to. In 2016, the public schools of Accomack County, Virginia successfully removed the book from classrooms over the use of racist language.

Why should you read it? The book is a classic and shows us a side of American history most of us would like to pretend never happened in intimate detail. It explores themes of innocence, racial justice, hypocrisy, class, social norms, courage, and morality in a way few other novels can. It does this in a very readable style with unforgettable characters, including a young Truman Capote.

Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret

Judy Blume has the honor of being the author with the most books on the frequently challenged list. This book, her third, focuses on a young girl named Margret who is struggling with issues of faith, family, and growing up. It was placed on Time's list of the top 100 English language novels of the last century.

Why is it challenged? The book deals frankly with Margret's religious issues and her concerns over menstruation. As such, it has been dubbed "sexual," "amoral," "anti-Christian," and "profane" by would-be censors.

Why should you read it? Judy Blume has a knack for approaching difficult subject matter in a way that young adult readers can fully appreciate without dumbing it down or glossing over unpleasant concepts. It is well written and addresses issues that are perpetually relevant.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huck Finn' fish on the river Mississippi, near the childhood home town of Mark Twain (1935 - 1910), Hannibal, Missouri. (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Another one of the leading contenders for the title of The Great American Novel, Huck Finn has found itself in the middle of controversy since the day it was published.

Why is it challenged? When it was first published, libraries refused to stock the book because of its crude humor and realist style. Twain himself recorded that "the Concord library has condemned Huck as 'trash and only suitable for the slums." Today, the chief complaint against the book is its frequent use of racial slurs and stereotypical depictions of several characters.

Why should you read it? Huck Finn is, without a doubt, one of the greatest American novels ever written. It turns a critical eye on American culture, racism, and personal identity with results that are both scathing and often hilarious. It shows Mark Twain's brilliance at full tilt, and you can't really hope to understand American literature without reading it.

Goosebumps (series)

R.L. Stein's series of spooky children's stories is the second-best selling book series of all time. They are fun tales that never get too scary or serious, and purposely avoid instances of death, drugs, or depravity.

Why are they challenged? The supernatural elements of the stories and scary tone have gotten the books challenged by buzzkills ever since they came out. The controversy has begun to die off though; it fell from the 15th spot on the 1990s list to 94th for the early 2000s list.

Why should you read them? They are entertaining kids' books that can give a good fright without relying on anything too terrifying or offensive. The series is also an excellent tool for encouraging children to read.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Poet Maya Angelou reads a poem during a ceremony to present Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa the William J. Fulbright Prize for International Understanding November 21, 2008. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Maya Angelou's autobiographical coming of age story has captivated millions since it was first published in 1969. It is the first of a series of autobiographical books she wrote, and easily the most well-known. It is a gripping story of struggle and personal development that can inspire any reader.

Why is it challenged? The book is often called sexually explicit, includes references homosexuality, and includes the use of racist language.

Why should you read it? It is one of those rare biographies that also reads well as a piece of literature. It confronts issues of racism, sexual assault, illiteracy, personal identity, and growing up in a difficult environment with all the beauty of Angelou's prose.

Bridge to Terabithia

Katherine Patterson's classic story of two children who invent a magical kingdom to play in, Bridge to Terabithia has appeared on countless middle school reading lists since it was first published in 1977.

Why is it challenged? The bizarre list of reasons for challenges to the book includes offensive language, violence, Satanism, and the promotion of secular humanism.

Why should you read it? It is an excellent children's book, it won the 1978 Newbery Medal, that brilliantly deals with issues of death, grief, and friendship in a way that is neither patronizing nor sanitized.

Brave New World

English novelist Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel of hedonism, genetic engineering, conformity, and mass consumption has been knocked off countless times since it was first published in 1931. Based on what he thought the America of the 1920's would decay into, it remains a haunting vision of things that may still come to pass.

Why is it challenged? It has been most frequently challenged for its depiction of drug use and sex. The school district of Miller, Missouri banned the book for making promiscuous sex "look like fun."

Why should you read it? The book shows us how what we love can come to control us if misused and investigates the dark side of genetic engineering and modern technology. It forces the reader to confront questions of what utopia actually is and at what price we are willing to accept a world where everybody really is happy all the time.

It’s Perfectly Normal

Author Robie Harris' children's book on sex, puberty, and relationships was perhaps doomed to appear on the most frequently challenged list. It is an extremely detailed book that covers a wide variety of topics, much to the irritation of the puritanical.

Why is it challenged? The book is quite detailed, and many challenges relate to it being rated as appropriate for children as young as ten. Its use of cartoon illustrations has also drawn ire, and it has occasionally been called "pornographic" as a result. It also references the existence of homosexuality.

Why should it be read? Given the rather pathetic state of sex education in this country, the book's honest and detailed explanations offer a needed alternative to the abstinence-only programs which tend to be inaccurate and unable to achieve their goals.

Of Mice and Men

US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John Steinbeck's 1937 book about migrant farm workers in California predates his other classic, The Grapes of Wrath, by two years. It is technically a novella, as it weighs in at a mere 30,000 words.

Why is it challenged? The book's ability to present profound ideas in an accessible manner makes it a staple of many high school reading lists. It has been scorned and banned for profanity, using the Lord's name in vain, sexual themes, racism, being depressing, and being anti-business.

Why should you read it? If you want a work of classic literature that is also easy to understand, you can't do much better than this. It hits many of the major themes in Steinbeck's later work inside of two hours reading time. It is also an excellent work onto itself that is worth the time of any reader.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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