The Banned Books We Love
Every year during Banned Books Week, libraries around the country take the opportunity to acknowledge that censorship is still a problem in the United States.
From the American Library Association:
By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.... While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.
What better way to celebrate that hard-won freedom than to read a few banned and challenged books? Our NYPL librarians and staff members compiled a list of our favorites.
Children & Young Adults
One of my favorite banned books is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's about a 14-year-old American Indian boy who leaves his reservation to attend a "better" all-white high school. It's filled with heartache and out-loud laughs in equal measure. As soon as I finished it, I gave it to my then-12-year-old son, who declared it one of the funniest and sweetest books he had ever read. Next, I suggested it to my adult book club. It's the only time we ever read a YA novel and the only time we all agreed—we loved it! Why would anyone want to ban a thoughtful and honest look at the confusing emotions and experiences of a young boy? —Maura Muller, Volunteer Office
I tend to like books for the same reason that others want to ban them. On the mass-market list, my favorites remain the last three Harry Potter books. From Order of the Phoenix on, they do a wonderful job of teaching YA readers how to plan and implement an underground movement. —Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Exhibitions
One of my favorite banned/challenged books is What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones. It's a poem-format novel told from the point of view of a teenage girl named Sophie who writes about her home, her school, and her first, second, and third loves. I always read the poem "During French Class" when I share this book during school visits because that poem is so hilarious and so gross that it always gets a reaction from the kids! I think that the writing in this book is very authentic and realistically captures the experience of what it's like to be a teenager. —Andrea Lipinski, Kingsbridge Library
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor is one of my favorites from the banned books list. It's told from the viewpoint of Cassie, a 9-year-old black girl growing up in the Depression-era South. I was only 11 when I read this book and remember my disbelief at the daily life for African-Americans in this time period. Mr. Morrison singing the titular spiritual really sticks out in my mind as well. —Joshua Soule, Spuyten Duyvil
And Tango Makes Three—the sweet story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who raise a chick together—has been banned in libraries and schools across the country. It's hard for me to understand why some adults don't want children hear the message of this book: Tenderness and acceptance rule the day, and love makes a family. (And what makes banning this book even more inexplicable is that it's based on a true story...) —Gwen Glazer, Readers Services
I picked up The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron after hearing that some school libraries banned it because of the word "scrotum." It turns out the scrotum mentioned is a dog's scrotum. Lucky is a precocious young girl trying to secure her future while tending to other responsibilities. Some of her choices might not be the best, but she's just trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances, and I couldn't help but to root for her. —Melissa Scheurer, Mid-Manhattan
My favorite banned book is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Just love it. It's the only book I have read several times and can read it all over again. —Jean Harripersaud, Bronx Library Center
The Catcher in the Rye is special to me because I've read (and reread) and enjoyed it at different stages of my life. As a teenage reader, I was struck by Holden's struggles and perspective about the world, but as an adult reader, I found myself seeing Holden as more of a child who's been terribly affected by the death of his young sister. I love this quote: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." It's true! —Susie Heimbach, Mulberry Street
If we're talkin' banned books, then my favorite might be The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I think it's still one of the most important personal narratives in print and find it especially iffy that folks refused to teach the text based on its "promotion of crime" or "anti-white sentiments." Alex Haley did a such brilliant job organizing the story; X's life is one that we all deserve to know. —Miles Hodges, Youth Engagement
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. The book's main character is a girl named Stephen because her father desperately wanted a boy. Throughout the book, we read how Stephen is not like other girls of the time, and she has fantasies about seeing herself as someone named Nelson. As she grows into womanhood, it'sapparent that she loves women, and she falls in love with one. —Alison Williams, Macomb’s Bridge
The Well of Loneliness has one of my favorite lines—at the very end of this passage:
Could Stephen have met men on equal terms, she would always have chosen them as her companions; she preferred them because of their blunt, open outlook, and with men she had much in common—sport for instance. But men found her too clever if she ventured to expand, and too dull if she suddenly subsided into shyness. In addition to this there was something about her that antagonized slightly, an unconscious presumption. Shy though she might be, they sensed this presumption; it annoyed them, it made them feel on the defensive. She was handsome but much too large and unyielding both in body and mind, and they liked clinging women. They were oak-trees, preferring the feminine ivy. It might cling rather close, it might finally strangle, it frequently did, and yet they preferred it, and this being so, they resented Stephen, suspecting something of the acorn about her.
"Suspecting something of the acorn about her!" —Gretchen Kolderup, Young Adult Programming
Reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as a teenager was a revelation to me. I had read books that were "beautifully written" before, but none with the sense of playfulness that Nabokov brought to his work. I can honestly say that my love of the English language is a direct result of having read that (banned) masterpiece. —Wayne Roylance, Selection Team
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Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your picks, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend.