10 censored books to add to your reading list
Professors recommend their favorite titles for Banned Books Week.
In an era of rising book challenges, your choice of reading material matters more than ever. In 2022, the American Library Association documented 1,269 attempts to censor 2,571 library books — the most ever recorded by the organization.
Recent ban attempts are so pervasive, said Kathryn Crim Shrumm Schmidt, Ph.D., assistant professor of Philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver, that, “Overall, I think the current increase in book bans and challenges is hugely problematic and worrying. As a philosopher, I think we should be having more conversations as a society about hard topics, not trying to remove difficult material from public libraries.”
In observance of Banned Books Week (Oct. 1-7), Schmidt and Judith Strathearn, Ph.D., lecturer in Gender, Women and Sexualities Studies and affiliate professor in Africana Studies at MSU Denver, recently participated in a panel discussion on censorship and book bans at the University’s Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry.
Afterward, they spoke with RED to recommend their favorite banned and challenged books and discuss their take on modern-day bookshelf battles.
What’s your all-time favorite banned book?
Schmidt: John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” I love that it deals with political issues of injustice and addresses important topics like poverty. It was also an emotionally impactful reading experience for me — I really felt the weight of the characters forced to leave their homes.
Strathearn: Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” It was and is banned because of sexual content that includes rape and incest. It is the story of (a girl) who is molested by her father, so yes, it does have those sexual pieces. But the foundation of the story is about the feelings of being unworthy, unpretty and unseen that Black women felt in 1970 when it was published and many of us still feel today. Part of me thinks the banning is not just about the sexual content.
RELATED: 8 great reads for Banned Books Week
Why do books have the power to elicit such strong emotions and even inspire attempts to censor them?
Schmidt: Great literature is powerful because it can help us to relate to experiences that we’ve never had but that are meaningful.
There’s been an avalanche of book challenges this year. Why do you think that is?
Strathearn: It’s really not surprising right now. We are in a time where many identities can have a voice and be heard, but at the same time, it’s a time of political fights centered on race, gender and sexuality or a combination of those identities. The books being challenged address the systemic oppressions that coincide with those identities.
What can people do to support authors with banned and challenged books and to make their voices heard?
Strathearn: First, know what’s happening in your local schools and in your local government. Even if you’re not a parent, keep tabs on what the elected school-board members are doing, what’s happening at board meetings. Go to or listen to council meetings. That’s where you will find out what’s happening. In August, the Douglas County library board was going to ban four different books and folks showed up to fight that ban; the books remain on the shelves for now. Stay aware.
The other thing is to support those authors. Buy those books if you are financially able. If you have the resources, buy banned books for those who cannot afford them. Lastly, the ALA (offers) a form letter you can download and modify to send to your local paper or officials speaking out against the banning of books. If folks are going to try to take words away from you, fight that by writing back.
Schmidt: (Another) thing we can all do as readers and members of society is to make sure we are talking about banned books.
Ready to add some banned and challenged books to your reading list? Here are a few more of Strathearn and Schmidt’s favorites:
“The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien: The 1990 short-story collection immerses readers in the brutality of the Vietnam War. Since its publication, it’s been challenged due to its unsparing depictions of violence and warfare.
“Native Son,” Richard Wright: In 1940, the novel became a bestseller because of its searing indictment of systemic racism and the poverty and desperation faced by Black Americans. Over the years, it’s been challenged because of its language, depictions of violence and sexual content.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood: The 1985 novel shows life in a dystopic and cruelly misogynistic society, and objections to its portrayal of sexual assault have made it one of the nation’s most challenged books.
“Kindred,” Octavia Butler: The time-traveling 1979 novel shows a modern woman’s trip to the antebellum South, where she must grapple with enslavement and survival. It is widely banned in U.S. prisons.
Save the Date
George M. Johnson, author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” the second-most banned book of the 2021-22 school year, will visit MSU Denver at the Tivoli Turnhalle on Nov. 7 at 11 a.m. for a reading and discussion as part of MSU Denver’s common reading program, 1 Book/1 Project/2 Transform.
“Giovanni’s Room,” James Baldwin: The 1956 book portrays an American man’s romantic and sexual relationship with another man in Paris and sparked multiple censorship and banning attempts because of its portrayals of LGBTQ characters. Baldwin’s publisher even suggested he burn the book rather than risk publishing it for audiences critical of homosexuality.
“Hood Feminism,” Mikki Kendall: In her 2020 essay collection, Kendall questions mainstream feminism and its failures to include women of color. The book faced ire among parents and elected officials who attempted to pull the book from Texas shelves due to the “discomfort” it might elicit with its candid critique of modern-day misogyny, racism and classism.
“Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel: The 2006 graphic coming-of-age novel has sparked a cult following and even a Broadway musical. But it’s faced multiple challenges because of its portrayal of LGBTQ characters and suicide.
RELATED: 9 graphic novels for beginners
“Forever” and “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Judy Blume: The classic young-adult author’s 1970 and 1975 novels sparked parent outrage due to their depictions of teen sexuality, menstruation and children’s struggles with religion and authority.