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Ana Maria Cornea / Gavel Media

Ten Must-Read Banned Books

During the 2022–23 school year, PEN America recorded 3,362 instances of book banning, affecting 1,557 unique titles. Of these isolated book-banning sprees, Florida, Texas, Missouri, and Utah take the cake for states with the highest number of banned books in their school districts. Unsurprisingly, the majority of book bans in America take place in states and school districts with some of the most vitriolic legislators in the country: those who are leading a campaign to silence certain perspectives on race, gender, and sexual orientation in classrooms nationwide.

In the spring of 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed into law 'The Parental Rights in Education Act', commonly referred to as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. This bill effectively banned "discussion" about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools up until the 3rd grade. Due to the law’s vague language, individual districts can prohibit mention of gender and sexual identity in classrooms up to the 12th grade.

Earlier this year, Governor DeSantis announced that the state would bar public schools from administering the new Advanced Placement (AP) course on African American studies, denouncing the new course’s curriculum as “woke,”, “contrary to Florida law,” and an exercise in “indoctrination.” In June 2023, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that bans any office and program that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Texas public universities and colleges beginning in January 2024, or they will lose state funding.

As younger generations have mobilized to the polls and expressed their desire for a socially just world, it comes as no surprise that the target of Conservative foolishness has become literature. One of the most accessible forms of knowledge, books allow individuals a window into someone else’s life experience. They educate, inform, and challenge readers, which is exactly what conservatives are out to destroy. It is important to note that the books being banned are not random; they include themes of race, gender, feminism, queer rights, mental health, and any other topic that challenges the conservative status quo.

Book banning has become a cultural phenomenon that threatens the attempt to right the wrongs of history. For children, reading a book that mirrors their marginalized identity could be lifesaving. For others, seeing their story told on paper and mass-consumed can be liberating. Yet, conservatives continue to foam at the mouth whenever they see a book that is not written explicitly for their white, rich, cis-gender, straight children. In honor of Banned Books Week this week, hoping to combat the efforts that seek to ban some of the most notable works in literature, we have compiled a list of banned books that are sure to make conservatives shiver.

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A dystopian novel set in a near-future patriarchal, theomic society, this novel has been widely banned due to its depictions of sexual activity and violence. In an article for the Atlantic, Margaret Atwood condemned the banning of her award-winning novel, calling into question who decides what is and is not taught in public schools. “In many states, if [students are] over 16, they can be married,” Atwood writes, “if of reproductive age, which might be 10, they can give birth, and may be forced to. So why should they, too, not be allowed an opinion?”

2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The first of seven autobiographical works by writer Maya Angelou, this book recounts the author's earliest years: the trauma, racism, bigotry, and sexual violence she endured in mid-1900s America. Angelou’s profound illustration of black resilience and strength, depicting her harrowing path from childhood to motherhood, has left her most famed book placed “at the top of the American Library Association's list of most banned books.”

3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A Harlem Renaissance classic, this novel is the best-known work of American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Taking significant inspiration from her own life, Neale challenges traditional understandings of race and gender norms through her main character, Janie. The intense focus on liberation and freedom makes the novel one of the most enduring works of the 20th century. A haunting account of identity and selfhood, Hurston’s novel pushes the bounds of what it means to experience the spectrum of life.

4. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

On the banning of his novel, author Ibram X. Kendi shared that "I still feel like we're facing up against Jim Crow segregationists who are seeking to ban books.” Stamped explores the history of racism in the United States, providing an accessible narrative that unearths the development of racist ideas in America from the colonial period to the present day. Kendi and Reynolds’s work facilitates dialogue about anti-racism and the ongoing struggle for racial equity and justice. 

5. Maus by Art Spiegelman

A graphic novel, Maus recounts the harrowing experiences of the author’s father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. After a school board voted to ban this book in 2022, the title soared to the top of the best-seller list for the first time since the book was first published 30 years ago. “[W]e don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff,” said a board member on the banning of the book for the school’s eighth-grade English curriculum—the “stuff” in question being Holocaust education.

6. Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

A stellar coming-of-age novel about exploring your queer identity, Albertalli gives hope to kids looking to find their place in a world that is not always ready to welcome them. While only a starting point for queer YA literature, this novel broke barriers when it comes to LGBTQ+ character representation. Despite receiving some criticism for its simplification of the queer youth experience, the novel is widely accepted and can open the hearts and minds of those not yet understanding of the community.

7. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe  

This book has been gifted the title of the most banned book of 2022-2023. A graphic novel focusing on the gender journey of author Maia Kobabe, the story centers on themes of exploration, sexuality, and identity. Though not originally marketed to younger audiences, its increasing appearance in middle and high school libraries made it a target of conservative opposition. Equally encouraging, inspiring, and a beacon of positive representation, Kobabe’s novel is continually worth reading.

8. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

utopian novel with a transgender protagonist, this novel pushes beyond stereotypical tropes and decenters to explore the character’s queer identity. The book has come under scrutiny for tropes of child abuse and having radical ideas. The ideas in question involve magical realism, Black protagonists, and a social justice frame. This book is often placed on influential and worth-reading banned book lists.

9. Melissa by Alex Gino

A children’s novel about a young transgender girl, Melissa, has appeared on the American Library Association's Top Ten Most Challenged Books list every year since 2016, the year after its publication. The book has been repeatedly banned and challenged due to its inclusion of LGBTQ+ content, especially in a way that is digestible for younger readers. This conservative-fueled fear campaign to censor literature that seeks to include and give a platform to diverse identities and backgrounds is quite literally life-threatening. It is life-saving, however, when children, even teenagers, are able to grow up reading and hearing from perspectives that mirror what they are experiencing. 

10. I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings

I Am Jazz is a children’s book based on the real-life experiences of Jazz Jennings, a transgender internet personality and human rights youth activist. From the age of two, Jennings shares that she knew she was born with “a girl’s brain and a boy’s body.” Laverne Cox, another transgender activist and actress, said, “I wish I had had a book like this when I was a kid struggling with gender identity questions,” calling the book an “essential tool for parents and teachers” too. Books like I Am Jazz allow teachers and parents to introduce and expand their students’ and children’s knowledge of gender identity and expression from a youth lens. 

While we have seen a major conservative-led campaign of book banning in the United States in recent years, this censorship tool has been present in history for centuries. From medieval times, when the Roman Catholic Church banned any teachings they deemed to be “heretical” or threats to authority, to the book burnings in Nazi Germany, flagrant censorship techniques such as these reflect a longstanding struggle between the desire to control public opinion and the ideals of freedom of expression. Literature is one of the most principal forms of expression and intellectual thought; it reflects, in an accessible way, the complexities of the human condition, allowing readers a chance to relate to and connect with the characters, themes, and settings of the book. We recommend these banned books as both a way to expand your palette of literature and a way to take a stand against the institutions and officials that are leading these mass censorship efforts.