Banned Books Week: Stories That Stirred Controversy in Schools

Banned Books Week is an annual celebration of the freedom to read what you please. The event was started in 1982, when the number of challenges to books assigned in schools or kept on the shelves of public libraries soared. The week brings together the entire community of book lovers—librarians, booksellers, teachers, readers, and publishers—in support of freedom of expression. This year the celebration is happening next week, from Sept. 23 to 29. The theme is “Banning Books Silences Stories” and highlights the importance of making diverse stories available to all.

For 186 years, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been providing stories of all kinds to readers everywhere. During that time, more than a few of our books have been challenged or outright banned in some schools and communities. 

It’s interesting to note that only two of the books mentioned below were actually published in the 21st century, which means overall the books' popularity has remained steady for years despite the many challenges they’ve received. This proves that good storytelling is important and that offering a wide variety of stories to children and teenagers helps them learn and succeed in the world. At HMH, we believe in the power of reading and imagination and that everyone should have the freedom to choose what they read.

The oldest HMH “banned book” is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (pictured below, left), which was published in 1850 and was challenged because it includes scenes of adultery without remorse. The most recent book to be challenged is 2017’s Gutless by Carl Dueker, for scenes portraying bullying.

Several HMH books appear on the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the 21st century. Three of these books are frequently taught in schools and have been challenged in front of school boards: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982), which has been challenged for many reasons, usually sexually explicit scenes but sometimes for racial issues; The Giver by Lois Lowry (1992), which takes place in a world where most books have been banned; and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990), which has been challenged for its use of profanity, as well as violence and drug use.

Other books have been challenged as inappropriate to have for free reading in classrooms, schools, or even public libraries. All sorts of books for every age group fall into this category. There are fiction books, including the James Marshall and Harry Allard series The Stupids (1974), which has been challenged for encouraging the use of the word "stupid," as well as for making fun of less intelligent people. There are nonfiction books, including The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter (2005) about a librarian who saves books from destruction during the bombing of Basra by the U.S.; and memoirs, including Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006) for its depiction of homosexuality.

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Learn more about HMH’s new K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.