21 of America's most unexpectedly banned books

From "Harriet the Spy" to "Little Red Riding Hood," these books have all fallen afoul of censors

"Harry Potter"
(Image credit: Andrew Fox / Corbis)

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In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year alone, book censorship challenges in schools and libraries increased 28% from the previous six months, from 1,269 to 1,477, per a report from PEN America. And a surprising number of those were picture books meant for younger readers.

Debates over what books should be allowed on library shelves have caused tensions on school boards and within communities in recent years, "amplified by social media and political campaigns," The New York Times previously explained. Indeed, "books have become a proxy in a broader culture war over issues like LGBTQ rights, gender identity and racial inequality." And in many instances, conservative parent group networks like Moms for Liberty are the ones behind the serial complaints, against which students, authors, publishers, and states have begun fighting back. Illinois, for example, recently became the first state to pass a law that penalizes libraries for banning books.

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But even with this increase in complaints, which the ALA says is due in part to the use of book lists created by censorship groups, America has long had a history of book banning, one that stretches back to at least the 1960s. Here is a look at some of the country's most surprisingly embargoed works through the years:

1961: The "Tarzan" series by Edgar Rice Burrough

Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic series about a man living in the jungle was pulled from the shelves of a public library in the appropriately named town of Tarzana, California. Authorities thought the adventure stories unsuitable for youngsters since there was no evidence that Tarzan and Jane had married before they started cohabiting in the treetops. Ralph Rothmund, who ran Burroughs' estate, protested that the couple had taken marital vows in the jungle with Jane's father serving as minister. "The father may not have been an ordained minister," said Rothmund, "but after all things were primitive in those days in the jungle."

Mid-1960s: "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak

Author Maurice Sendak had a hard time getting his classic children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" published, as many editors feared that troublemaker Max's imaginary adventure into a fantasy land was too dark and frightening. When the book was finally published in 1963, it was banned because adults found it problematic that Max was punished by being sent to bed without dinner and also bristled at the book's supernatural themes. A 1969 column in Ladies Home Journal deemed the book "psychologically damaging for 3- and 4-year-olds."

Mid-1960s: "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh

"Harriet the Spy" was banned from shelves because its titular character is, well, a spy. Some schools blocked Louise Fitzhugh's book from shelves when it came out in the 1960s because of concerns that the 11-year-old child's penchant for peeping on her neighbors, jotting down her brutally honest observations, and being generally disagreeable could negatively influence kids by setting a bad example. Early critics argued that Harriet "didn't spy, but rather gossiped, slandered and hurt other people without feeling sorry about her actions," Thought Co. said.

1969: The dictionary

You might assume that the dictionary is the least likely place a teen would search for illicit content, but school administrators in Alaska believed otherwise — both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster have been banned in various libraries and schools. In 1987, for example, the Anchorage School Board banned the American Heritage Dictionary for its "objectionable" entries — particularly slang words, including "bed," "knocker" and "balls."

1977: "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" by William Steig

William Steig's "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble," about an unassuming donkey transformed into a rock after finding a magic pebble, portrays a sweet-natured character wishing for the impossible. But the anthropomorphic animals in the award-winning children's book did not sit well with all audiences — in 1977, police associations in 12 states urged the libraries to remove the book, because it portrays police as pigs.

1983: "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank

"The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank chronicles the tragic experience of a Jewish family in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, where the 13-year-old and her family hid until they were caught and sent to concentration camps in August 1944. The book has been challenged numerous times for sexually explicit passages, and in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for rejecting the book because it was "a real downer."

1989: "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss

Beloved children's author Dr. Seuss took a stand for the environment in 1971 with "The Lorax," which describes the destruction of an imagined forest of woolly Truffula trees. The narrator chops down the trees to use their foliage to knit clothing. While some readers may have been offended by the book's use of the word "stupid," it was the logging industry that was insulted by the anti-deforesting plot line.

1990: "Little Red Riding Hood" by Trina Schart Hyman

When kids read "Little Red Riding Hood," they take away the message that they shouldn't talk to strangers — especially those with big, shiny teeth. But when school officials in Culver City, California, looked at an illustrated version of the tale by Trina Schart Hyman, they saw a different message: Alcohol is yummy. They were outraged that young Ms. Hood is pictured with a bottle of wine in her basket, which Granny later glugs down. "Showing the grandmother who has consumed half a bottle of wine with a red nose is not a lesson we want to teach," said an official.

1992: "Hansel and Gretel" by The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm infamously pushed children's fairy tales to the limits — sometimes landing the 19th-century authors on the banned list. "Hansel and Gretel," the tale of two siblings who get into trouble for eating sweets reserved for a witch, has been rejected before, but, in 1992, it was challenged again, this time by two self-proclaimed witches who said the tale gives witches a bad name.

1993: "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

Since Lois Lowry's "The Giver" was published in 1993, it's been "one of the most controversial books in American schools," Slate reports. The dystopian young adult novel, about a 12-year-old boy's discovery of the truths behind the seemingly perfect society in which he resides, is most commonly banned for being "unsuited to age group," for "violence," or for being "sexually explicit" because of the tough themes it grapples with, including euthanasia and drug use.

Mid-1990s: "Where's Waldo?" by Martin Hanford

"Where's Waldo?" rose to popularity in the mid-1990s, challenging young readers to find the lanky, bespectacled Waldo in various crowded scenes. The problem wasn't the perpetually lost protagonist; it was a sunbathing woman suffering a wardrobe malfunction the size of a pinhead in a corner of one of Martin Hanford's drawings. The exposed breast got the book banned in Michigan and New York.

1996: "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare

School authorities in Merrimack, New Hampshire, found nothing amusing about Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," in which a girl washes ashore after a shipwreck, disguises herself as a page, and falls in love with her male master. That jolly cross-dressing and fake-same-sex romance was deemed in violation of the district's "prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction," and copies of the play were pulled from schools.

1999: "James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl's fantastical novel about a boy escaping his miserable life with his aunts by entering a magical, house-sized peach has repeatedly been banned because it contains the word "ass." Other schools bristled at the fact that "James and the Giant Peach" mentions snuff, tobacco and whiskey. The book was banned in Wisconsin in 1999 because of concerns the spider licking its lips could be interpreted as sexual.

2006: "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White

Even arachnophobes love "Charlotte's Web," a heartwarming tale about the friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a wordy barn spider called Charlotte. But a parents group in Kansas decided that any book featuring two talking animals must be the work of the devil, and had E.B. White's 1952 work barred from classrooms. The group's central complaint was that humans are the highest level of God's creation, as shown by the fact we're "the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God," the parents said.

2007: The "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling

While pretty much every child was devouring the final book in the "Harry Potter" series in 2007, one school was pulling all seven "Potter" books from its library shelves. The pastor of St. Joseph School in Wakefield, Massachusetts, deemed the novels' sorcery-heavy storylines inappropriate for a Catholic school. Parents said the pastor thought most children were "strong enough to resist the temptation," but his job was to "protect the weak and the strong."

2010: "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" by Bill Martin Jr.

The children's picture book "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" made a surprise appearance on the banned books list in January 2010 thanks to the Texas Board of Education. Author Bill Martin Jr. happens to have the same name as an obscure Marxist theorist, and no one "bothered" to see if they were the same person.

2010: "What's Happening to My Body?" by Lynda Madaras

"What's Happening To My Body?," a classic guide to those awkward puberty years, was deemed inappropriate and banned by 21 school libraries in Texas. The father who brought the complaint in December 2010 was shocked that the book would be available to his 8-year-old. The ALA says the book has been one of the top banned and challenged titles by parents in the last decade.

2022: "Maus" by Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman's 1991 comic memoir tells the story of his father's experience in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. The book has been used in classrooms for years to teach about World War II and the dangers of antisemitism. While it is the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer prize, one Tennesee school board still decided to remove the book from its curriculum. The McMinn County Board of Education voted unanimously in January 2022 to ban the book over concerns of "rough, objectionable language" and a drawing of a naked woman. "They're totally focused on some bad words that are in the book. I can't believe the word 'damn' would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own," Spiegelman told CNN in an interview, noting that he tries "to be tolerant of people who may possibly not be Nazis ... maybe."

2023: "The Storyteller" by Jodi Picoult

One Florida school district has added a slew of Jodi Picoult's works to a long list of books they would like banned, but the author was most taken aback by the inclusion of "The Storyteller," her novel about a Holocaust survivor's granddaughter that meets an elderly former SS officer. The story features depictions of violence in war flashbacks as well as mentions of assisted suicide. "Banning 'The Storyteller' is shocking, as it is about the Holocaust and has never been banned before," Picoult told The Washington Post in an email. "Martin County is the first to ban twenty of my books at once," Picoult said, lambasting such censorship as "a shocking breach of freedom of speech and freedom of information."

2023: "Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation" by Ari Folmon, illustrated by David Polonsky

An illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank's diary was removed from the library shelves of a Florida high school after a local leader from Moms for Liberty filed a complaint against it. The principal agreed with the complaint and removed the book from the library, though other versions are still available. One scene in the illustrated version shows "the protagonist walking in a park, enchanted by female nude statues, and later proposing to a friend that they show each other their breasts," The Associated Press described. Moms for Liberty leader Jennifer Pippin told the AP that the graphic novel violated state standards on Holocaust education. Even the original diary "featured the editing out of the entries about sex," Pippin said, claiming that the illustrated adaptation chose "to offer a different view on the subject."

2023: "The Hill We Climb" by Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman has criticized a Miami-Dade county school for what she described as an elementary school ban on a book version of the poem she read for President Biden's inauguration. "The Hill We Climb" was one of four books moved to the middle school section of the school's library after a parent filed a complaint against five separate titles. In their complaint form, the parent described Gorman's book as "not educational," and claimed that it contained indirect "hate messages." The form also listed Oprah Winfrey as the author. "Unnecessary #bookbans like these are on the rise, and we must fight back," Gorman said in a post on Facebook. Miami-Dade County Public Schools countered that the book had not been banned but simply moved to the middle school section of the school's "media center," as it is "better suited" for middle school students, a spokesperson told Axios. "The book remains available in the media center."

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Sept. 29, 2011, and last updated on July 27, 2023.

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