Banning books is a tale as old as time: For example, according to legend, in 213 BCE Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi burned many of the books (and records) in his kingdom so his reign couldn’t be compared with those of the past. In 1637, New English Canaan by Thomas Morton was banned by the Puritans (Morton didn’t approve of their lifestyle; they didn’t approve of his writing about how he didn’t approve). More recently, writers like Ovid and Sir Walter Raleigh had to deal with books being banned or burned because they rubbed people the wrong way.
Book banning isn’t a thing of the past, either: In fact, each year the ALA publishes a list of banned and challenged books. The New York Times reports that the United States is ”[m]ore than two years into a sharp rise in book challenges,” including an increasing number of bans in public libraries, and in a recent study, PEN America found that book bans “recorded 3,362 instances of books banned, an increase of 33 percent from the 2021–22 school year.” in K-12 schools.
While some may be banned with good intentions—because the books perpetuate stereotypes or sexism, for example—some are challenged or banned for absurd reasons, like the books below.
1. Harriet the Spy
Published in 1964, this Louise Fitzhugh book is considered a classic. It tells the story of 11-year-old Harriet, who keeps a notebook filled with honest thoughts about the people in her life—but when her notebook is discovered, she has to deal with the backlash.
Seems innocent enough, but in 1983 some parents in Xenia, Ohio, disagreed, challenging the book’s presence at a school board meeting. They felt that the book taught children to lie, spy, and back-talk. Their challenge ultimately failed, but this wasn’t the first time Harriet experienced controversy: According to NPR, when the book was first published, not all critics were fans, and some schools were able to ban the tale.
2. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
There’s something about books depicting authentic young adult experiences that upsets people—which perhaps explains why so many Judy Blume books get challenged or banned. In the ‘90s, five Blume books were on the most frequently banned list: Forever, Blubber, Deenie, Tiger Eyes, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Published in the 1970s, the latter book explores the struggles of growing into yourself as a young girl, and it’s often challenged, mainly because it talks about puberty and teenage sexuality. In 1982, the Fond du Lac school district in Wisconsin challenged the novel for being “sexually offensive and amoral.” In fact, Blume even wrote about how she donated three copies to her children’s school, but “the male principal decided that the book was inappropriate because of the discussion of menstruation”—you know, something many teenage girls deal with. (Although it's arguably better than when it was banned for depicting “disobedience to parents.”)
Published in 1974, this Blume novel deals with bullying and cliques. The main character of the novel learns an important lesson about what it means to be a friend and how popularity isn’t worth being untrue to yourself. The book also shows the dangers of mob mentality. Still, some parents weren’t satisfied with the lessons Blume was attempting to teach children. The same 1983 school board meeting in Xenia, Ohio, that challenged Harriet the Spy also challenged Blubber because a student refers to the teacher as “a b***h.” People in Perry Township, also in Ohio, challenged the book being available in elementary schools because “bad is never punished, good never comes to the fore, evil is triumphant.”
4. Lord of the Flies
William Golding kicked off his long literary career—for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983—with the debut novel Lord of the Flies (1954), an oft-challenged book about a group of boys that become stranded on an island. Without adults to keep them in order, the boys quickly fall into uncivilized and violent behavior, ultimately leading to the deaths of two characters. The book was banned in schools in Norwalk, Connecticut, as early as the 1960s, and attempts to knock it off reading lists haven’t let up since. In fact, in 1981, Owen High School in North Carolina—which did not like the lesson the book was teaching—attempted to ban the book because it was believed to be “demoralizing inasmuch that it implies that man is little more than an animal.” In the ‘80s, a mother of a high school student in the Onida School District in South Dakota even stated that “reading the book will cause depression, revulsion, and sadistic tendencies in children.”
5. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
When it comes to reference books, it's hard to think of one more essential to learning than the dictionary—so it’s likely that everyone was a little confused when some California schools decided to yank the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster from fourth and fifth grade classrooms in 2010. The issue? A parent’s complaint that a child had read the definition of the term oral sex in the dictionary’s pages. A member of the Menifee Union School District said the definition was “sexually graphic” and “just not age appropriate.” (Hopefully they never hear about Urban Dictionary.) The ban was short-lived: According to the Los Angeles Times, the dictionaries were added back to the classrooms the following week, with parents having the option of allowing their children to use it.
6. A Light in the Attic
Some books are banned because they portray kids in dangerous situations; others get banned because they contain a poem about breaking dishes. Such was the case with Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic, which is filled with silly and humorous poems that let kids in on the joke. But parents in Beloit, Wisconsin, apparently missed the memo: They got Attic banned because they said its fifth poem, “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” would “encourage children to break dishes, so they won’t have to dry them.” But that was mere child’s play compared to charges leveled against Attic a year later by another school in Wisconsin, which claimed that Silverstein’s book “glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.” Maybe Silverstein should have written in big, bold letters that the poems were jokes.
7. The Diary of a Young Girl
In 1943, 13-year-old Anne Frank, her family, and another Jewish family hid from the Nazis in a secret room in the back of an attic in Amsterdam, protected only by a bookshelf. Anne had a diary with her that she wrote in faithfully, describing her life over the two years that the Franks were in hiding. In 1944, Anne began to rework parts of the diary, which she wanted to publish after the war; the last entry is just three days before they were discovered by the Gestapo.
Anne died while imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but her wishes were fulfilled by her father—the only one out of eight people hiding in the attic who survived. Diary of a Young Girl was published in 1947.
A diary written during a horrific time in history that no one should ever forget seems like it should be required reading, but some parents don’t think their kids should read Diary of a Young Girl—especially the definitive version, released on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. It includes all the entries, including those Anne rewrote and others removed by her father. In 2010, the Culpeper County School District banned the definitive edition after a parent complained about its “passages detail her emerging sexual desires,” according to the Washington Post. However, the district soon reversed this decision, allowing the definitive version to stay in the library, while having classes read an older edition without the passages. Ridiculous, but still better than the time members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee wanted to ban Diary of a Young Girl because it was, in their opinion, “a real downer.”
8. Charlotte’s Web
This iconic book, written by E.B. White and published in 1952, is beloved by many—yet, according to the Chicago Tribune, the book was challenged in 2006 by parents in a Kansas school district who believed it was unnatural for animals to talk. They went so far as to say that “showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God.”
9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain’s novel about Huck Finn and his adventures with Jim is often banned due to racial insensitivity and language—but the fact that the n-word was used 200 times was not what upset the Brooklyn Public Library in 1905. The library banned Huck Finn because “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.”
10. Where's Waldo?
Waldo (or Wally if you’re British) has been challenging people to find him in complicated and somewhat chaotic scenes since 1987. Spotting a bespectacled man in a striped shirt seems like a fairly innocent game, so it may surprise some to discover that the 1987 edition of Where’s Waldo was banned in 1993 from Springs Public School Library in East Hampton, New York. The reason? A topless sunbather in a beach scene on page 4. According to The New York Times, the bare breast made a mom so upset that she complained to the principal, getting the book pulled off shelves.
It echoed an event that occurred just a few months earlier, when a mother in Nashua, New Hampshire, spotted the illustrated boob after she had bought the book for her children. “How can they say ‘for ages 5 to 12’ and put a naked woman on it?” she asked, noting that she wasn’t upset about the nudity but that the publisher hadn’t mentioned there would be nudity: “What we feel is it should be our choice what our children see, not theirs. They can have an adult Where’s Waldo? if they want to.” The book was pulled from the department store where she had bought it.
11. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
This 1967 children’s book stole so many hearts with its wide range of animals, beautiful illustrations, and joyful repetition. But in 2010, the Texas State Board of Education banned the book from a curriculum when they mixed up the author, Bill Martin Jr., with another man. The person they were trying to ban was Bill Martin, who wrote a book titled Ethical Marxism and is in no way related to Bill Martin Jr. The board banned all of Bill Martin’s books to be safe, apparently not realizing that more than one person can have the same name.
12. The Lorax
Beloved children‘s author Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor Geisel, once said that The Lorax, published in 1971, was “the best thing I’ve ever written”—but that didn’t stop people from trying to ban the environmental tale. In 1989, families of elementary school students in Laytonville, California, tried to get The Lorax pulled from the reading list because they believed it attacked the logging industry. The complaining families worked in that industry. “To teach this book is insensitive to us as pillars of the community,” one man complained. “It’s not justified to have kids come home and tell their parents they’re working in a bad industry, that they’re criminals because they take homes away from little animals.” Said another, “It’s a fictionalized account of perceived devastation by the logging industry. It’s too sophisticated, there’s too much social commentary for a second grader.” The book ultimately stayed on the list, but parents were given the option to choose another book for their children to read. Some in the logging industry were so incensed they even wrote a response book.