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If you’re ever in the mood for a shock, take a few moments to explore the banned books list on the University of Connecticut’s University Libraries website. The books are divided into categories such as: Historical, International/Spanish, Youth, Children’s, LGBT, Top Ten, and Least Expected. Some of books on the Top Ten list for most-challenged books are current and popular titles such as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (banned for being “anti-family,” and for containing “occult/satanic” elements) and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (for containing elements of witchcraft). These books have been denounced as threatening to their young and impressionable readers, yet they remain some of the most beloved works in modern young adult literature. If these books contain enough despicable content to brand them as unsuitable for the shelves of schools and libraries, why do we willingly and eagerly read them?
While considering this question I ask you to examine a book that is commonly used by middle school teachers to help immerse students in the subject of history: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. In 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee claimed the book was a “real downer” and did not want to include it in the curriculum. Thankfully, opinions such as these have faded away with the passing of time and many people now acknowledge Anne Frank’s diary as much more than just a sad story. Her diary gives an intimate look into the lives of families forced into hiding by the Nazi take-over. In addition a historically significant account of her time in the annex, Anne’s diary serves as a way to connect students with history where they might otherwise feel distanced.
Similarly, other banned books have a lot to offer their readers. They offer education and insight about a number of topics that are often not discussed especially not with middle school and high school age people (who arguably have the most questions about these ‘taboo’ topics).
For example, one well-known young adult fiction novel that has enjoyed a recent surge of popularity due to its transformation into a major motion picture is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (1999). The book has been challenged for its mention of alcohol and drug use, as well as for its sexual content, including themes of sexual abuse and homosexuality. In spite of the admittedly difficult emotional content, many young readers find solace in the book because of the deep connection they are able to create between themselves and the characters. The narrator is sensitive and awkward, surrounded by people who are still trying to figure out how to love one another, as well as themselves. The book battles with how a person can move beyond painful past experiences and current mistakes in order to feel free, a theme that every adolescent can relate to in a unique way.
Readers want books like these on the shelves, because they are comforted by the knowledge that they are not alone; everyone suffers sometimes. The ‘tough stuff’ isn’t pretty, it’s true, but the content of banned literature is often controversial because of its powerful ability to affect its readers. Banned books stand the test of time because they offer a valuable connection with readers through their honesty. Everything is presented as it is. Nothing is sugar-coated. Readers can handle such challenging content because life offers them these challenges every day. Ultimately, banned books remind us that with a good story in our hands, our problems can shrink to the size of print on a page, at least for a little while.