If you look down the list of frequently challenged books, meaning books people have attempted to either restrict or remove from public libraries and schools, one of the reasons most often cited is “unsuitable for age group.” If I were a book, I’d have been banned from my own school. My thoughts were usually objectionable and I never felt suited to my age group. Perhaps that is why the banned and frequently challenged books list is like a tour of my childhood and adolescence. I see so many beloved titles on it that I’ve read cover to cover: Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Bridge To Terebithia, Charlotte’s Web.
According to the American Library Association, “Books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information.” The good news is that most challenges are unsuccessful. Teachers, librarians, parents, students, and common sense mostly prevail.
When we look at which books are challenged and why, we have a better understanding of what parents, who are by far the most frequent challengers, want to prevent their children from reading. Stories containing references to witchcraft and the supernatural seem to frighten parents more than the children who enjoy them. Also, topics like death, racism, sexuality, violence, and conflict. These adults seem to fear that reading about these subjects will open a door to unwanted behaviors and attitudes, rather than allow children to safely explore and process these ideas.
Below are a few frequently challenged books you really ought to read with your kids. I’ve certainly enjoyed doing so with mine.
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Story: Young Max is sent to bed without supper for misbehaving, but instead he ends up going on a wondrous adventure. “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through the night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.”
Why people are mad: The book has been challenged for containing elements of the supernatural and witchcraft (which aren’t actually illegal, FYI). One child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, felt that the depiction of a child being sent to bed without his supper would frighten children.
Read it with your kids because: Children are complex little beings and sometimes they have dark thoughts big imaginations. They will identify with Max and his kingdom of creatures, and they will love Sendak’s illustrations.
Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Story: Laura and her family travel by covered wagon across the Midwest in order to settle the new frontier. It is the second book in the Little House series, which begins with Little House In The Big Woods.
Why people are mad: It is offensive to Native Americans. In 1993, the book was challenged in LaFourche Parish, Louisiana for its depictions of Indians as savages (the challenge was denied by the school board). In 1994, it was successfully banned in Sturgis, South Dakota for those same reasons.
Read it with your kids because: It is a fascinating account of pioneer living. And the attitudes toward Native Americans depicted in the books are a great opportunity for family discussion about racial prejudice and cultural differences. These historical fiction novels are not just entertaining but also full of delightful detail and insights about family relationships.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Story: Young Harriet is a misfit who carries around a notebook in which she jots her uncensored observations about the people and world around her. When the other kids at school discover and read her notebook, it causes an uproar.
People are mad because: In the 80s, the book was banned from public schools in Ohio for allegedly encouraging children to lie, spy, backtalk, and curse.
Read it with your kids because: Harriet is every kid who feels like an outsider and her thoughts are by turns incisive and hilarious. This book shows children that feeling weird and “other” is okay and it’s a good discussion starter on the topics of privacy, empathy, and boundaries.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Story: A young woman named Kit travels from her grandfather’s plantation in Barbados to Saybrook, Massachusetts to live with family there. Her free spirit clashes with the conservative Puritan way of life in the colony and she struggles to fit in.
Why people are mad: The book was challenged in Cromwell, Connecticut on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft and violence.
Read it with your kids because: It’s a great way to get them talking about different ways of living, independent thought, peer pressure, human rights, kindness, compassion – you name it. Also, the compelling story will paint a picture for them of early colonial life in New England that they won’t get from textbooks.
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Story: Teenage Meg travels through time and space with her brother and a friend to rescue her father who is held prisoner by a mysterious computer.
Why people are mad: This book has been challenged for containing too many biblical references (there are a lot of Christian theological images) and for being too “New Age-y” with all its science and magic. Parents from one school in Alabama objected to the way L’Engle mentioned Jesus in the same breath as the great artists, philosophers, scientists and other religious leaders when referring to those who fought against evil.
Read it with your kids because: It’s a fantasy novel that makes math and science and learning cool. It shows the dangers of conformity and the overwhelming power of the human spirit and love. The book won the Newberry Award in 1963.
Other challenged books to love include the Harry Potter series, the Lemony Snicket series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and pretty much anything by Judy Blume. The message for our children should be that books and ideas are not to be feared, but those who try to restrict them should be fought, just like Meg fought the IT or Harry fought Voldemort. Courage and happy reading!