Celebrating Banned Books Week: An Editor’s Collection of Challenged Books

by Rose Brennan A&E Editor

Near the end of September, America celebrates Banned Books Week, which centers around frequently challenged books in society.

Though people cannot be arrested for the controversial material they write and produce, that does not mean their books are free from censorship.  Schools, libraries and other institutions may remove said controversial works for any number of reasons.

Though this is a terrible practice, it is actually a testament to the power of the written word.  Many of these frequently challenged books are life-changing and can have a lasting impact on someone’s point of view.

So many controversial books have impacted so many people for so many reasons.  That being said, here are some of my favorites.

Fun Home- Alison Bechdel

Challenged for violence, graphic images, homosexuality

Alison Bechdel is not only an icon in terms of feminist theory (ever heard of the Bechdel Test?); she is also a celebrated graphic novelist.  “Fun Home” tells the story of the relationship between herself and her father, especially in regards to her coming to terms with her homosexuality.

Alison’s father Bruce is seen as a tyrannical ruler in their home, largely in part due to his closeted homosexuality.  He is extremely resentful of this aspect of himself, especially when Alison realizes she might be homosexual as well.  This is portrayed in a particularly pivotal scene in which Alison sees a female truck driver in a restaurant, and is in awe of her masculine appearance.  This greatly upsets Bruce, who has always wanted her to be more feminine.

In addition to sexuality and gender roles, throughout the novel, Alison is also intrigued by the mysterious circumstances surrounding her father’s death.  While they had a difficult relationship when he was alive, she still obsesses over it and wonders if she was partly responsible for it.

“Fun Home” has a unique viewpoint on the matters of family, identity and gender from which nearly anyone would benefit.  Banning and challenging it due to perceived “controversial” content is ludicrous.

The Handmaid’s Tale- Margaret Atwood

Challenged for strong political perspective, portrayals of rape, genocide

Note to all readers: I loved this book before it was cool.  And I fell in love with it all over again after it came out on Hulu.

While this book came out in 1985, it has recently experienced a resurgence of popularity following the recent political climate, not to mention its development into a hit TV series.  For some reason, people really like dystopia novels, even ones as horrifying as this one.

In the not-so-distant future of the United States, the three branches of government have been overthrown by a fundamentalist religious group known as the Sons of Jacob.  In this new theocracy, now known as Gilead, women have been stripped of their fundamental rights.  They are not allowed to read, vote or leave the house without an escort.  Furthermore, fertility rates have declined massively, so there is a set class of women, known as “Handmaids,” whose sole purpose is to reproduce for the high-ranking Commanders and their infertile Wives.

Though it is an extreme case, “The Handmaid’s Tale” now serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when church and state align, and when women are robbed of their bodily autonomy.

The Outsiders- S.E. Hinton

Challenged for graphic depictions of violence

Yes, it’s a book mostly everyone reads around sixth grade, but it has remained my all-time favorite book for all of the years following.

In Tulsa, Okla., 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis lives with his two older brothers, Sodapop and Darry, following the death of their parents.  In Tulsa, there are two distinct rival gangs.  The greasers, Ponyboy’s gang, are poor, work low-end jobs, and are seen as menaces to society. Meanwhile, the “Socs” are rich, privileged and wear madras shirts.

This ever-present tension between the two comes to a head one night after Ponyboy and his friends go to the drive-in movie theater and meet two pretty Soc girls.  Later that night, when a Soc ends up dead, Ponyboy must go on the run simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The fact that this book is on the list is actually kind of ridiculous to me.  Yes, there is a murder and an all-out “rumble” between the two gangs, but the portrayals of violence are hardly explicit.  However, some people thought they were explicit enough for them to earn a place on this list.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Stephen Chbosky

Challenged for underage drinking and drug use, homosexuality, sexually explicit, portrayals of sexual assault

This might be considered a quintessential book for angsty teenagers, but it actually has quite a few nuggets of wisdom in it for an adult audience.

High school is hard for everyone, especially for Charlie, who is dealing with the deaths of his beloved Aunt Helen and his best friend MIchael.  On his first day of high school, he starts off with no friends and ends the day with exactly one: his English teacher Bill.

As time goes on, Charlie begins to branch and befriends two step-siblings: Sam, a girl with whom Charlie develops a crush on, and Patrick, who is in a secret relationship with the school quarterback.  Between the three of them and their group of friends, it is an extremely tumultuous year they will not soon forget … and not for the best of reasons.

The special thing about “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is the way in which Charlie’s story is told.  The book is composed of a series of letters written by Charlie, which always begin with “Dear friend,” and end with “Love always, Charlie.”  There have been quite a few debates as to whom Charlie is writing, but many believe he is writing to the reader, therefore bringing you into the story as a part of his adventure through his freshman year of high school.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood- Marjane Satrapi

Challenged for offensive language, graphic depictions of violence

I love this book so much that I actually wrote an entire Book Nook on it alone.  But I thought it was time to bring it back for Banned Books Week.

“Persepolis” is the autobiographical account of Marjane “Marji” Satrapi, whose childhood and adolescence take place during Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the subsequent institution of the Islamic regime.  Marji’s parents are by no means fundamentalist, and the entire family has difficulty adapting to the new lifestyle: no alcohol, no gambling and Marji and her mother must cover their hair every time they leave the house.

Because Marji was not raised with these beliefs, it becomes easy for her to disobey and rebel against the institution, particularly as a teenager.  Several times throughout the novel, she is seen buying Western music, wearing Western clothes and standing up to her teachers when they tell the students false information about the regime.

Satrapi wrote a sequel to “Persepolis” entitled “Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return,” which details Marji’s life in Europe during her high school years, as well as her return home as a young adult.  Both novels, however, are essential to an insider’s understanding of the Islamic Revolution and how it impacted a generation.

To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee

Challenged for racial slurs, portrayals of violence

I read this book for the first time when I was thirteen, and it’s remained a favorite of mine ever since.

Told from the perspective of a young girl by the name of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird” focuses on the trial of a black man by the name of Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman during the 1930s.  Scout’s father, whom she absolutely adores, is Robinson’s defense attorney, alienating him and his children from other people in their hometown of Maycomb, Ala.

As much as some of us would like to believe that racism ended after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, it most certainly did not.  Unfortunately, this book is therefore still relevant when we speak of our criminal justice system, racial profiling and wrongful convictions of people of color.