In honor of Banned Books Week, when we celebrate intellectual freedom, here are 8 signs that a book will be banned – in no particular order. These are our own observations based on reasons we’ve seen for books being banned, both historically and recently.
1. It’s magical.
Many books have been banned because the presence of magic in the story could “promote satanism,” or something like that.In the United States, there was a huge Christian backlash to Harry Potter (though of course, that’s not to say that no Christians liked it; we knew many. But there were definitely people who weaponized “Christian Values” to try to remove the books from schools and libraries). This is an especially puzzling reason to us, since magic and fantasy are such a huge part of so many fairy tales and storytelling traditions.
2. It encourages lifestyles or behaviors that someone has deemed “deviant.”
For example, Shel Silverstien’s A Light in the Attic has been banned because it encouraged children to break dishes instead of washing them. In 2005, there were several states who tried to pass laws restricting books with LGBTQ+ content from schools or to adult-only parts of libraries, but none of these passed. In Arkansas, there was an attempt to ban schools from buying books by homosexual authors, which also failed. In those cases, just the existence of an alternative lifestyle was deemed offensive, the book didn’t even need to promote or encourage specific behaviors.
3. It contains sex or nudity.
“Sexually Explicit Content” is the number one reason why books are challenged, as reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom. Judy Blume has had several of her books challenged, mainly because parents want to control the information their children access about puberty, sexual urges, and related topics. Blume states that since children are going to experience these things anyway, it’d be best for parents to allow them to read what they like and use the books as a starting point for important conversations.
4. It showcases violence.
In many cases, books that are seen to glamorize or glorify violence are challenged or banned. This can be the case even when the book has anti-violence messages, as was the case with Slaughterhouse-Five.
5. It uses offensive language.
This one takes many forms: some parents don’t want their kids exposed to certain curse words or the use of the Lord’s name in vain; others want to eliminate insensitive or hate speech in book content. The Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park were challenged because it showed a young child using the word “stupid.” The character even gets in trouble. But we can’t have kids see other kids misbehaving… (How is Caillou still a thing, again?)
6. It’s too depressing.
The Diary of Anne Frank was actually banned because it was too sad. How were we forced to read Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia, fictional stories of childhood trauma with way too many heart-wrenching deaths, when a real-life tragedy with important historical lessons is deemed “too sad?”
7. It’s written for children or young adults.
Okay, this one obviously has to be combined with at least one other reason on this list. But we’re including it because adults often want to protect children and teens from “inappropriate,” “offensive,” or “controversial” content. Or they just want to avoid complicated topics of conversation. From what we can tell, The Captain Underpants series was challenged mainly because adults found it obnoxious and didn’t want their kids to be obsessed with poop jokes…they may have used the phrase, “encourages children to disobey authority figures,” but we know what they meant.
8. It was a best-seller or recieved a lot of media attention.
Again, this one needs to be combined with other items on this list. But let’s face it – books that don’t have the attention of the masses are rarely banned.
In general, we believe most attempts to ban books are attempts to shut down conversations about topics people are uncomfortable with. Often, “the children” are used as the reason that books are seen as threatening, but kids are more capable of dealing with difficult topics than many adults give them credit for, and banning books is just a counter-productive attempt to control what shapes the minds of children. We say counter-productive, because the publicity that comes with banning a book often drives sales or awareness of the book and kids in particular are more likely to seek out that which has been forbidden. Which, in some ways is great, but people could still find better ways to spend their time rather than trying to control what books others have access to.