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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.

  • 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.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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