The Banned Books We Have Loved

The ironic and rather wonderful thing about banning books is that the act doesn't, actually, do much to keep the books from being read. If anything, it inspires further interest in them, and sometimes sales, too.

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Y.A. for Grownups is a weekly series in which we talk about Y.A. literature—from the now nostalgia-infused stories we devoured as kids to more contemporary tomes being read by young people today.

The American Library Association recently released its list of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2011. Included in that list, along with classics like Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird, were newer books allegedly threatening the hearts and minds of our youth—like the Gossip Girl books and Lauren Myracles's ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r series, and, of course, The Hunger Games trilogy, deemed "anti-ethnic" and "anti-family" as well as insensitive and featuring offensive language, violence, and "occult/satanic" elements. The Hunger Games had already been on the American Library Association's list, but the popularity of the movie and, in particular, charges of racism against it seem to have ratcheted up the "need" to ban it in the minds of censors, which has resulted in a move in the rankings from fifth to third. (Oddly, the charges of racism seem to have come from the fact that people reading and watching it are upset certain characters are black—reflecting not racism in the book but in the readers, a fact that, like many, seems lost on the book banners.)

But a popular book being banned comes as no surprise: People have been fighting to ban any number of young adult and children's books for a variety of reasons for years, and as helicopter parenting persists there's no doubt that the "banning" of books that are controversial, deal with complicated subjects, are challenging to young readers, and probably resonate on a deeper level—meaning they're actually popular enough to inspire fights against them—will continue. But here's the ironic and wonderful thing that the book censors don't seem to have realized: banning books doesn't, in fact, hurt them much at all. If anything, it may even inspire more interest in them, and sometimes sales, too.

The list of "most frequently banned" books from the past 20 years is like a who's who of great American Y.A. and kid literature. Among them:
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Forever; Deenie; Blubber; and Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume
  • In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
  • Go Ask Alice (Anonymous) 
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
  • Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
  • The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney

So many familiar names and covers, almost like old friends. In fact, from 1990 to 1999, an era in which we were reading Y.A. avidly, the majority of our favorite books might have been sourced directly from the banned books "top 100" list—the honor of number 1 on that list, for the record, goes to Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series. Not only were these books ones we read intently, and over and over again, they were the books that taught us important things.

From Bridge to Terabithia, we learned the importance of friendships and being open to those that might not seem "appropriate." We learned that death can be sudden and unexpected, and terribly tragic—but that we owe it to ourselves, and those we've loved, to go on. We learned that boys and girls can be friends. We learned to love deeply and protect our imaginations, and to respect and care for our friends and family. From Go Ask Alice, we learned that a life can go off the rails all too quickly; that drugs should be considered with caution; that a diary can be an important record of our time. Judy Blume's Blubber taught us very early the dangers of bullying just to go along with the crowd, and to stand up for ourselves, and others. Stine's Goosebumps series taught us that fear could be fun. Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins tackled foster children, racism, and childhoods that don't go the way they're supposed to in storybooks. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle showed us how much a little girl could do, if she tried, and James and the Giant Peach taught us that about a little boy. And about imagination, so much imagination. We could dream of anything with these books. Outside of the realm of fiction but still a pretty crucial growing up tome: What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters, by Lynda Madaras, taught us, along with books like Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, some very crucial information about what was happening to our bodies, and how to deal with those changes. Over and over again, the books worth reading were the banned ones.
There's a positive note to book banning that comes from the side of the authors themselves. Rather than shaming the writers of such books, bannings can be sources of pride, because it means their work is actually being read. R.L. Stine, whose Goosebumps series is number 15 on the top 100 list from 1990 to 1999, told The Atlantic Wire, "It is a badge of honor to have people try to ban your books from schools and school libraries, only because it means your books have become popular and are being noticed. Unpopular books seldom get banned." And despite what censors would presumably hope to believe, Stine tells us, "I've never noticed any kind of sales decrease because of these censorship campaigns. Usually they prove to be good publicity." Comparably, The Hunger Games' Suzanne Collins seems unaffected by the criticisms of the censorship contingent: According to the Daily Beast, Collins has said she's fully aware “people were concerned about the level of violence in the books. That’s not unreasonable. They are violent. It’s a war trilogy." (You can just imagine her saying, "Like, duh.")

But on the negative side, the people who suffer most from the banned books list are, sadly, some of the people most invested in getting kids to read: teachers and librarians, for instance, who have to deal with what Stine calls "unwanted parental pressure." We spoke to Brooklyn children's librarian Rita Meade, who told us, "First of all, librarians, as a general rule, are not big fans of censorship. In fact, it kind of flies in the face of everything that librarians are supposed to stand for. It's not surprising to me that The Hunger Games is on the ALA banned books list, although it is unfortunate—but only in the sense that it might reduce access to the book (if a school takes it off the shelves, for example) and, more importantly, it shows that people are seemingly afraid or unwilling to have conversations with their children about what they are reading."

Taking a look at some of the banned books of our youth, they stand out as important, books that we read because they dealt with important, hard subjects, like death or race or sex, deep emotions, and possibly isolation. They were books in which kids may have struggled, where the stakes were high, and where everything did not work out perfectly. If taken out of the context of "children's" or "Y.A." literature, these qualities would simply mean they were great fiction, the kind of meaningful stuff that adults want to read rather than simply fluff. But book banners and overly protective parents or maybe even folks without kids would have you believe that this sort of stuff will hurt the minds of younger readers, will disturb them, will be bad for them, somehow. The good news is that these bannings, while a pain in the neck, don't serve to destroy the books important enough to attract the censure. Meade continues, "I honestly don't think that banning a book ruins its reputation or makes children afraid to read it. If anything, the opposite will happen. Young people are still going to read the series, it's still going to be hugely popular, and—guess what!—it's still going to get kids to read who might not have otherwise. The Hunger Games series is being requested almost daily at my library—the holds list is is 700 people long for the first book alone. Being on a 'banned' list in general probably won't do anything except increase curiosity and interest for a book. As they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity."

Meade sagely recommends that instead of "shoving these books under the proverbial rug, parents should let kids read what they want and talk honestly and openly to them about any 'controversial' issues that may arise." She adds that a book being added to a censored list simply means she'll only fight harder to get it into the hands of kids because it means the book has an important message along with being just entertaining. "Overall, I see it as my job to make sure that kids have access to the books they want to read, even if I don't necessarily agree with the content," she said. "We as librarians want to encourage literacy, not discourage it." And that means letting kids read the books that matter to them, regardless of the activity of censors.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.