The fact that classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye were banned when they were first released is now as commonly taught in schools as the books themselves. But that was the 1960s, a time when racial segregation was still legal and sex education was barred from schools—we wouldn’t think of banning books for progressive content today, right? Wrong.
Each year, hundreds of formal challenges asking for the removal of “inappropriate” books from shelves and syllabi are filed with schools and libraries across the country. And more often than not, the books in question are contemporary novels that top the bestseller lists even as their worth is questioned. To promote awareness of this attempted censorship, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the most commonly challenged books each year. Here are 10 wildly popular 21st-century books that people have tried to ban—and the surprising reasons they were deemed unsuitable material.
1. THE CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS SERIES
Captain Underpants, Dav Pilkey’s popular series for beginning readers, frequently tops the ALA’s list of most challenged books. What’s so upsetting about two fourth-grade best friends and their homegrown comic-books-come-to-life? Offensive language, violence, and material unsuitable to the age group. School districts in California and Connecticut tried to ban the series in 2001 because it was allegedly causing unruly behavior among the children. Apparently, (literal) toilet talk is seen as unsuitable for the under-10 set.
2. THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie's story of a Native American boy who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007. It has also been challenged for drugs, alcohol, smoking, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit content (in places including Stockton, Missouri; Richland, Washington; Idaho's Meridian district—the list goes on and on) every year since 2010.
3. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel, has been so popular amongst teens since its 1999 release that it was made into a feature film starring Percy Jackson’s Logan Lerman and Harry Potter’s Emma Watson in 2012. During his freshman year of high school, introvert Charlie, the novel’s protagonist, is faced with questions of friendship, sexuality, and substance abuse, while he struggles to repress memories of his own sexual abuse. Challengers were angered by the book’s depictions of all of the above, particularly homosexuality and bestiality, and deemed the book “unsuited to age group.” If teenagers can’t read about the issues that teens face, who can?
4. AND TANGO MAKES THREE
And Tango Makes Three is a 2005 picture book written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. It tells the true story of two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who became a couple when they were given an egg to raise. This heartwarming tale of an untraditional family has regularly landed on the ALA’s list of top 10 challenged books since its publication, as challengers felt it was unsuitable for its age group due to its depiction of homosexuality.
5. THE INTERNET GIRLS SERIES
ttyl, ttfn, and l8r, g8r comprise a trilogy of books written for teenagers entirely as instant messages. While Lauren Myracle’s books racked up the usual complaints of sexually explicit content and offensive language (they do feature three 16-year-old girls, after all), they also received challenges based on religious viewpoint, as they feature harsh views of Christianity and a religious character guilty of sexual assault. Myracle wrote a response to the "honor" of topping the ALA's list for the Huffington Post in 2012. "Being an author of banned books is cool, I've decided," she wrote. "I'm writing books that evoke a reaction, books that, if dropped in a lake, go down not with a whimper but a splash."
6. THE ALICE SERIES
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the author of such beloved young adult books as Shiloh (which won the Newbery Medal in 1992) and Night Cry, helped a generation of girls deal with weighty themes such as loss, acceptance, faith, and sexuality with her prolific Alice series. Beginning with The Agony of Alice, published in 1985, and ending with Now I’ll Tell You Everything (2013), Naylor’s titular heroine—who begins as a 6th grader—copes with growing up after her mother dies of leukemia. Parents took issue with the series’s depiction of nudity, sexually explicit content, homosexuality, drug use, religious viewpoint, and offensive language. One mom in Phoenix, Arizona, asked that the books be pulled from elementary school shelves after discovering that Lovingly Alice "described sex in detail and used the words penis and vagina."
7. WHAT MY MOTHER DOESN'T KNOW
Following in the grand tradition of novels with teen female protagonists in all their questioning, experimenting, discovering glory being deemed inappropriate (from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Judy Blume’s novels to the aforementioned ttyl and Alice series), Sonya Sones’s 2001 novel has held a regular place on the ALA’s yearly challenged books. Once again, Sones’s tale of young love (written entirely in verse) was considered too sexually explicit and full of offensive language for its intended audience. Ironically, What My Mother Doesn’t Know was chosen as one of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults in 2002.
8. THE KITE RUNNER
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, which remained in the top spot on The New York Times Bestseller List for two years after its 2003 release, selling over 70,000 hardback and 1,250,000 paperback copies, was challenged in 2008 and 2012 for homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, and sexually explicit material. That these are used to portray tumultuous political and familial relationships—and show how themes of redemption, guilt, and faith permeate both personal and global spheres—are, apparently, irrelevant.
9. THE HUNGER GAMES
The surprising thing about Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy’s inclusion on these lists is not its presence itself, but the reason for its presence. One can maybe understand parents and teachers who feel the novel is too violent for young readers, such as a New Hampshire mother who called for the book's ban after it gave her 11-year-old daughter nightmares. However, in addition to violent content, The Hunger Games has been regularly challenged for its religious viewpoint, anti-ethnic and anti-family sentiments, and occult or satanic imagery. Rebellious kids, it seems, are a big no-no for anxious parents and authority figures.
10. THE HARRY POTTER SERIES
It probably comes as no surprise that the No. 1 Banned or Challenged Books from 2000-2009 are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rowling’s allegory for good vs. evil, starring a boy wizard and his magical friends, has been vilified by conservative Christians for its alleged satanic themes. Never mind the fact that the novels, published between 1997 and 2007, take a progressive stance on discrimination and sexism. Or that there are over 450 million Harry Potter books in print worldwide, the books have been translated into 73 different languages, and the Harry Potter brand is now worth an estimated $15 billion.
An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.