These Are the Books That Were Banned the Decade You Were Born
Are books dangerous? You might be surprised! Check out the masterpieces, bestsellers, and picture books across the decades that got people riled up.
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What gets a book banned?
According to the American Library Association, books are usually banned or challenged for reasons that are guided by good intentions. Book banners are driven “to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information.” However, censorship can be harmful, especially if the desire to ban a book stems from protecting one’s own beliefs if a book conflicts with them. Books usually get banned or challenged due to sexually explicit content or offensive language. These challenges often come from parents groups, governments, religious groups, school districts, and even libraries. Read on to see the surprising books that people have found offensive across the decades. Even the dictionary got banned—along with these 19 books you’d never guess were offensive.
1950s: The Wizard of Oz
What could be offensive about Frank L. Baum’s classic and beloved children’s novel? Turns out most of the complaints have to do with the book’s presentation of strong female protagonist—and also the witchcraft. Libraries in Michigan and Florida banned the book during the 1950s. As one report puts it, complaints included, “that the inclusion of a good witch is theologically impossible, because witchcraft is bad and, therefore, a good witch could not exist.” The Wicked Witch actually has a much smaller role in the book than the movie according to these 56 weird and wonderful facts about The Wizard of Oz.
1950s: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
D.H. Lawrence’s novel is as much about class conflicts as it is sexuality. The novel’s scandalous plot involves a woman who not only has an affair (under her husband’s advice due to his war injury,) but does so with the couple’s household employee. Her husband is incensed by her lowly choice. The gamekeeper ends up offering Lady Chatterley a sexual awakening that her paralyzed husband could not. The novel was banned in Britain throughout the 1950s, and generally considered risque and indecent. When a court removed the ban in 1960, much of the book’s salaciousness was no longer a social taboo.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel introduced the panoptic and oppressive Big Brother to the world when it was published in 1949. It was banned in Communist Russia by 1950 due to its satirical presentation of an authoritarian regime. Owning a copy was reason for arrest during that time period due to the novel’s purported anti-communist views. Copies were burned.
Vladimir Nabokov’s scathing critique of post-war American culture was recognized as both a masterpiece and an abomination. The story follows pedophile Humbert Humbert as he manipulates and abuses the young adolescent girl Lolita after the death of her mother. The subject matter and plot focus on sex with a minor, and though the book doesn’t endorse the practice, the novel was banned in France and England due to obscenity throughout the 1950s. Not surprisingly, Lolita is one of the 13 most controversial books of all time.
1950s: Howl and Other Poems
Allen Ginsburg’s radical and oppositional poem became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. The book’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, went to court over claims that the poem was indecent and immoral. Though the judge ruled against the claims, the book gained a reputation for its defiant stance on America culture and politics. The poem still remains controversial today and emblematizes the Beat poet’s aesthetic and generation.
1950s: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain’s classic American novel is frequently considered one of the greatest books of all-time. The narrative follows a slave, Jim, escaping horrific bondage, and the young boy Huck. Both characters head down the Mississippi River on a raft. The book often incites claims of racism—it has excessive use of the n-word. Critics also argue that the novel seems to engage in racism, rather than presenting it as a problem. These troubling representations with regard to race often get the novel banned.
1950s: The Sun Also Rises
Frequently taught in English classes, The Sun Also Rises is considered one of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpieces. The story follows an expatriate, Jake on his postwar adventures traveling in Spain and pursuing a British divorcee Brett. The novel was burned in Germany after publication but also banned later in the United States for its portrayal of promiscuity and a decadent, frivolous lifestyle.
1960s: Naked Lunch
Published in 1959 to immediate controversy, William Burroughs surreal and episodic satire became the center of an obscenity trial in Massachusetts—the State Supreme Court there eventually reversed its ban. The novel is considered both an important masterpiece, but also a book filled with vile, disturbing content that presents the worst of humanity. One judge called the book “literary sewage.” It was adapted into a film in 1991 by director David Cronenberg who’s known for horror films that push the boundaries of the grotesque.
1960s: The Catcher in the Rye
According to the American Library Association, a high school teacher was fired in 1960 for assigning J.D. Salinger’s classic novel to an 11th grade English class. Though the teacher was later reinstated, the book remained banned at the school. The Catcher in the Rye has always been beset with controversy. It’s most often criticized for being obscene and featuring profane language. The narrator Holden Caufield has a distinct voice that is part of the novel’s status as a great work of art. Though he uses profanity, Caufield’s voice captures the depressive, apathetic, yet also compassionate nature of adolescence.
Written in 411 B.C. by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, Lysistrata dramatizes the conflict that ensues after a group of women refuses to have sex with men until the men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. This early examination of gender roles still incites controversy in the modern age. The play was often banned in Europe and Australia for its lewd bawdiness, alongside its themes on the empowerment of women. The play remains a popular work to reference and adapt because of its alluring, hot button, subject matter.
1960s: Rabbit, Run
John Updike’s first novel to center on the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom character was banned in Ireland in 1962 due to what was considered its explicit presentation of sexuality. Censors there deemed the novel obscene and indecent. In the novel, Updike describes Rabbit’s sexual encounters in language that is both lyrical and explicit in its description of physical acts. The character also cusses and is open about sexual desire as he pursues an extramarital affair, abandoning his wife and child.
1960s: Last Exit to Brooklyn
First published in 1964, Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel sets in a Brooklyn neighborhood and delves into the lives of the characters who live there. These figures include prostitutes and gang members in book sections filled with brutality, and what were considered at the time, taboo subjects. Selby writes in a style that subverts conventional grammar using slang and the colloquial diction of his characters in a stream of consciousness style. The novel was banned in Britain in 1967, a ruling that was later reversed with advocacy from other writers.
1960s: Tropic of Cancer
First published in 1934 in Paris, this novel wasn’t published until 1961 in the United States, where it immediately caused a stir by igniting obscenity trials that led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court held that the novel could not be “constitutionally banned,” and reversed prior court’s decision that it was “obscene.” The novel follows author Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical experiences in a Parisian Bohemia with explicit descriptions of various sexual encounters that skew misogynistic.
1960s: The Country Girls
Edna O’Brien’s influential Irish novel that follows two young women from a small village, was reportedly written in just three weeks—and incited instant controversy when first published in 1960. The author reportedly received anonymous hate mail and a priest actually burned the book in public. The novel was banned for explicit sexual content by Irish censors. According to New Statesman, “The moral hysteria that greeted the book’s appearance has ensured that both it, and O’Brien, have become era-defining symbols of the struggle for Irish women’s voices to be heard above the clamor of an ultra-conservative, ultra-religious and institutionally misogynistic society.”
This classic American novel, considered a masterpiece of satire, follows a World War II bomber consigned to fly combat missions. The title refers to the absurd rule, using circular logic, where if a soldier makes a request to be relieved of duty due to the insanity of the missions, he’s thereby considered sane and ineligible to be relieved. The novel was banned in Ohio in 1972 due to indecent language, but a court overturned the ban in 1976. The book stands out as a subversive novel with themes about resisting and questioning authority. Catch-22 became a hit movie, just like these 18 other novels.
Judy Blume’s novels are a hit with young readers for their relatable portrayal of the awkward, painful experiences of their many lovable tween and teen characters. Forever delves into the experience of a teenager losing her virginity, and was groundbreaking when published in 1975. Blume wrote it for her teenage daughter, who requested a book where sex wasn’t punished. The book focuses on birth control and both the practical and romantic details of teen sexuality. The novel is still frequently banned and was shelved in the adult section of book stores when first published. Don’t miss these 22 quotes from young adult books that will still inspire grown-ups.
Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful 1969 antiwar novel is frequently banned, notably in 1972 when a Michigan judge called it, according to Betsy Morais writing for The Atlantic, “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” The very next year a school board in North Dakota burned copies in the school’s furnace. The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, a World War II prisoner of war who becomes “unstuck in time” and travels to different moments in his life as well was to another planet. The novel’s themes explore the irrationality of war. When a book is banned, readers wonder why. And some feel compelled to buy the restricted work as a vote for free speech—like the teens who’ve created banned book clubs in protest.
1970s: The Scarlet Letter
Published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel sets in a puritanical outpost in colonial America. The novel concerns Hester Prynne, a woman jailed for adultery and forced to wear a red letter “A” due to conceiving a child in an extramarital affair. The novel examines a judgemental, repressive culture, but it still incites controversy and bans. In the 1970s, one school district deemed the “pornographic and obscene.” Hester undergoes a significant version of what’s now known as “slut-shaming.” Some readers find these presentations to be “sympathetic” to an adulteress.
1970s: The Anarchist Cookbook
William Powell wrote this incendiary tome when he was just 19 years old, but later disavowed what became a bestseller, urging publishers to stop selling it since the copyright was out of his hands. The book contains instructions for making bombs and contains a general manifesto for anarchist behavior. At the time he wrote it, Powell was beset with frustration over the Vietnam war draft and sought to resist U.S. government authority. Current printings have been edited from the original.
1970s: To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece that explores the injustice of racism has often ended up on banned books lists. According to the American Library Association, the novel was first banned in 1977 in Eden Valley, Minnesota due to its use of the words “damn” and “whore lady.” Subsequent bans take issue with the book’s use of racial slurs and with its presentation of racism that can be seen to uplift white supremacy amid racial division. More recent controversies contend the book degrades black people and contains adult themes.
1970s: The Lord of the Flies
First challenged by high school libraries in Texas in 1974, William Golding’s esteemed novel for young adults has been banned for violence, profanity, and defamation toward black people, disabled people, and women. The novel has also been criticized for denigrating God and for its sexual passages. The plot concerns a group of young boys marooned on a remote island who, when left to their own devices, devolve into primitive brutes and unleash the darker aspects of human nature.
1980s: The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie’s novel is one of the most controversial books of all time, according to the American Library Association. Upon publication, it was deemed critical of Islam due to its perceived mocking of Muslim beliefs. The novel was subsequently banned in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Quatar, Indonesia, South Africa, and India. The book incited riots in Pakistan wherein five people died. The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie that resulted in several assassination attempts. The author was in hiding to protect his safety for nearly a decade. In the mood for more controversy? Here are 15 movies that were banned in the United States.
1980s: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Published in 1984, Milan Kundera’s philosophical novel concerns the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and sets amid artists caught up in the events of the time period. Kundera was known there as an “instigator of the counter-revolution.” The Unbearable Lightness of Being, despite being acclaimed, was highly restricted in Kundera’s home country, but became a bestseller when it was newly-released there in 2006.
1980s: The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dreamy tragedy about wealth and love is considered one of the emblematic great American novels. The story follows Jay Gatsby, a rags-to-riches titan, who falls for the married socialite Daisy Buchanan, but their love can’t overcome the chasm that separates them. The American Library Association reports that the book, a staple in high school English classrooms, was challenged by a college in Charleston, South Carolina in 1987 for “language and sexual references.” The Jazz Age really was awesome. Don’t miss the 1920s slang that needs a comeback for the 2020s.
1980s: The Grapes of Wrath
Set in the Great Depression during the Dust Bowl, John Steinbeck’s masterpiece has incited readers since it was first published in 1939. However, in the 1980s the novel saw an upsurge in challenges and bans in schools across the country. Controversies included such reasons as profanity, taking the Lord’s name in vain, a negative portrayal of a minister, and sexual references. The novel is better known for its critical examination of greed in its stark portrayal of the migrant worker experience and extreme poverty.
1980s: The Color Purple
Alice Walker’s popular, award-winning novel was a frequent target of censorship and controversy when it was published in 1983. The acclaimed novel was adapted into a celebrated film (with Oscar-nominated performances from Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey,) as well as a Broadway musical. So, what’s the issue with this story about black women in 1930s Georgia? Throughout the 1980s, school districts challenged the novel due to profanity, sexual explicitness, and violence. In an interview with Guernica, Walker describes the censorship controversies as coming from people who hadn’t read the book, yet sought to silence the voice of the 14-year-old black girl at its center. These 10 other books also have strong female protagonists.
1980s: Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novel depicts two migrant workers, George and Lennie, whose humble goals for success, a shack of their own, get thwarted after an accident that has dire consequences for them both. The book appears on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged classics. The ALA reports that In 1989, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the novel was criticized for Steinbeck’s anti-business attitude and lack of patriotism. It was also referred to as “filthy” by another school board in Tennessee. Additional criticisms refer to its use of profanity and generalized vulgarity.
1980s: A Separate Peace
The American Library Association reports that in 1980 a New York School District challenged John Knowles’ poignant book as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Other challenges from school districts in the 1980s included claims that the book used offensive language. The story follows two prep school friends who meet during the summer of 1942 and have enormous influence on one another’s lives before and after a tragedy. The novel provides an intimate look at friendship and rivalry between teenage boys. (Spoiler alert! Don’t read it without tissues close by!) If you’re in the mood for a tearjerker, here are 10 movies that will make you sob.
1990s: American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel introduced the insane, murderous, and toxic Patrick Bateman to the world—a character who epitomizes 1980s greed and its horrors. Bateman is a wealthy stockbroker and also a serial killer in this book that’s considered an acerbic and satirical cultural critique despite its explicit and gruesome violence. The novel incited boycotts before its publication due to what was regarded as its gratuitous, indefensible violence against, specifically, women. Check out these 13 signs you might be dealing with a psychopath.
1990s: Heather Has Two Mommies
This charming picture book follows a young girl with two moms and features heartwarming illustrations of a same-sex parental unit and their kid. In a profile of the author, Leslea Newman, Carolyn Kellogg reports how in the early 1990s the picture book “was banned and challenged, the subject of public debate and railed against in Congress.” The book was used as a “lightning rod” for religious groups clamoring about family values. The book was one of the most challenged and banned in the 1990s, but remains a classic that has never gone out of print.
1990s: The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s searing novel takes place in a dystopian future world called “Gilead,” formerly New England, where women are totally subjugated to their authoritarian male masters in ways that are terrifying. The novel was recently adapted into an acclaimed TV series illustrating the book’s enduring cultural popularity despite being published in 1985. The novel was frequently banned and challenged throughout the 1990s on charges of offensive language and graphic sexuality. However, in Newsweek, Joan Bertin, executive director at the National Coalition Against Censorship, reports that the language protests may be a “ruse” for challenging themes about a totalitarian government. Learn about more bestselling books behind TV shows.
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was challenged throughout the 1990s, becoming one of the decade’s most banned books. Patricia Mastricolo describes the eloquence of the late author, especially when examining censorship. Morrison wrote in Burn this Book (a collection on censorship) these inspiring words: “The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare.”
1990s: Daddy’s Roommate
This children’s book became one of the most banned books of the 1990s. The book presents everyday family life between a gay father, his new partner, and his son through engaging and delightful illustrations. The book caused a stir in school districts across the nation and various demands to ban it due to its subject. These 1990s bans received renewed attention in 2008 when the book was reported as one that future vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tried to have removed from the Wasilla, Alaska library when she was mayor there.
1990s: The Chocolate War
Though it was published in 1974, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War was still frequently banned decades later, appearing in the number four spot on the American Library Association’s List of most banned books in the 1990s. The book takes place in an all-male boarding school (with an abusive secret sect,) and follows one student’s refusal to participate in a candy fundraiser. Pen America explains that the beloved and popular young adult novel is most often challenged for “language, sexual content, violence, and bleak message.”
1990s: In the Night Kitchen
Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book was one of the most frequently banned books of the 1990s because, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship, “it features a young boy who, in his dream world, falls out of his clothes and into a bowl of cake batter.” The sweet story that depicts dreams about, basically, breakfast or “morning cake,” drew frequent protestations over illustrations of nudity. The child in the book falls out of his pajamas, but creates a dough suit that also falls away when he submerges in milk.
2000s: The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown’s bestseller shows the adventures of Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon as he decodes Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings to find clues about Jesus Christ’s real-life as a married father. Christian leaders across the world took issues with the book’s depictions even though they were fictional and it was banned in several countries. The book spawned a popular film franchise starring Tom Hanks. One Cardinal at the Vatican said “the book and film are a potpourri of nonsense, a phantasmagorical cocktail of inventions.” The book’s sequels were some of the best-selling of the last decade.
2000s: The Harry Potter Series
The first books in the Harry Potter series weren’t published in the U.S. until 1999, and since they’ve topped the lists of most frequently banned and challenged books of the 2000s. The series is one of the most popular ever, selling more than 500 million copies worldwide. The books follow the adventures of a young wizard and his cohorts at a wizarding school. The most frequent charge against the series accuses it of harboring actual occult themes due to its interest in magic. Don’t miss these 14 “magical” things in Harry Potter that are actually real.
2000s: The Lord of the Rings
According to the American Library Association, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and his other books were burned in 2001 outside a church in New Mexico due to “satanic” content. Despite Tolkien’s interest in Christian themes his popular fantasy novels are often met with charges that they are “generally anti-religious.” Are you a fan of Frodo? If so, you’ll love these 13 hidden messages in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy that you’ve probably never noticed.
2000s: The Adventures of Captain Underpants
Dav Pilkey’s silly yet hilarious novels track rascals George and Harold on a series of prank-filled, jocular adventures. Early readers find the bestselling books addictive. The ongoing series has topped banned books lists since they first appeared due to claims that they encourage things like misbehavior and partial nudity. Despite their playful style, the novels help kids deal with serious subjects like bullying.
2000s: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This young adult novel was challenged in Montgomery County, Texas for having “gay-positive” themes, according to the American Library Association. Additional challenges took place throughout the aughts by schools in Portage, Indiana and Wyoming, Ohio. The popular coming-of-age story offers a touching look at young people with outsider status, or “wallflowers.” It follows three friends as it explores teenage life that includes “sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Find out the 100 books everyone should read before they die.
2000s: Bridge to Terabithia
Katherine Paterson’s Newberry Medal-winning novel was first published in 1977, but continues to be a popular novel for young readers. The book has also remained controversial, topping banned lists in the 1990s and 2000s. The story follows two fifth-graders who create an imaginary kingdom in the woods as a respite from difficulties at home and in school. In 2002, along with another novel, Bridge to Terabithia was challenged in a petition that claimed it contained satanic material, evil spells, and witchcraft. Paterson told BTW that bans have occurred because “there was the feeling that I was promoting the religion of secular humanism, and then New Age religion.”
2000s: And Tango Makes Three
This sweet children’s picture book, published in 2005, tells the true story of male penguins at a zoo who jointly parent a baby penguin. PBS’s American Experience reported on the book’s frequent challenges due to “homosexual overtones.” The book was objected to throughout the aughts because it actually challenged conservative ideas about what makes a family.
2010s: I am Jazz
This children’s picture book recounts the true story of Jazz who has a “girl’s brain in a boy’s body” and was co-authored by Jazz Jennings, giving voice to her transgender experience growing up. Parents in Rocklin, California complained to the local school board, claiming they felt betrayed and blindsided when they learned the book was read to a kindergarten class. The book’s themes include acceptance and anti-bullying, but the book still showed up on the American Library Association’s censorship list frequently in the 2010s.
2010s: Thirteen Reasons Why
According to the American Library Association’s 2017 field report on banned books, Jay Asher’s novel was removed from a school library in Colorado due to its depiction of suicide–the district had recently experienced teen suicides within the community. When the popular novel was made into a Netflix series, both the novel and the TV show drew claims that they romanticized suicide. Critics feel that the representations in each didn’t treat the serious subject with enough sensitivity.
2010s: The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller has been frequently challenged since it’s publication in 2003. The novel tells the story of two friends growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan whose lives take separate paths. The book continued to be banned or challenged throughout the 2010s due to offensive language and religious viewpoints. It’s also been challenged on grounds of sexual violence, Islamophobia, and claims it inspires terrorism. Read more about The Kite Runner and 9 more novels that will positively tug your heartstrings.
This graphic memoir presents Marjane Satrapi’s experience growing up during the Islamic revolution in Iran. Satrapi’s images are poetic, striking and original. It was considered one of the best books published during 2003, but was controversial in the Middle East. In 2013, it became one of the most challenged books of the year when school administrators in Chicago objected to its graphic language and images, some depicting torture. Subsequently, more challenges popped up in high schools in 2014 and 2015.
2010s: Fifty Shades of Grey
This runaway bestseller follows recent college grad Anastasia as she embarks on a BDSM-inspired affair with billionaire Christian Grey. The novel is filled with explicitly erotic details about the couple’s exploits. A library in Brevard County, Florida banned the book in 2012 because they “don’t collect porn.” The book was also banned by libraries in Georgia for both sexual and “poorly-written” content. Want some more romance? Here are the 60 best romance novels of all time.
2010s: The Hunger Games
The dystopian trilogy that starts with The Hunger Games became one of the most frequently banned books of all time due to its portrayal of children fighting to the death. The young adult novel is banned for reasons ranging from its extreme violence to what has been perceived as its anti-family and anti-religious bent. In 2010, it was challenged in New Hampshire by a parent concerned that it gave her child nightmares. Despite the novel’s violent premise, it also has a reputation for being an un-put-down-able page-turner.
Alex Gino’s book, written for elementary age children, appears on the American Library Association’s “Frequently Challenged Books” list. Published in 2015, the book is challenged because it focuses on a transgender fourth grader. The book has won a Lambda Literary Award, but was still removed from libraries in Wichita, Kansas due to what was considered “language and references that are not appropriate for young children.” George offers an empowering story that uplifts trans and nonbinary experience for both children and adult readers.