Begun in 1982, Banned Books Week is a US event celebrating the freedom to read. It came about after a massive increase in “challenges” to (that is, attempts to ban) books in schools and libraries. On discovering this event last year, I found that it increased interest in books and reading in my upper primary class.
I told my class that to celebrate Banned Books Week, I would be reading them a banned book – imagine the children’s excitement when they thought I was about to break the law. Of course, I explained that these are books that you can legally buy but they are often banned from schools and libraries. I then read them a list of some “banned” books from the past few years and heard the gasps as they recognised many books that they knew of or had read.
Here are some excellent books which frequent the most-banned lists every year.
1. The Harry Potter series
A staple in any children’s library, this beloved tale of a boy who goes to wizarding school is frequently challenged. However, this is not usually as a result some of the views expressed by author JK Rowling on Twitter but because of depictions of witchcraft, which clash with some religious ideologies. This makes for valuable discussion points. Can you disagree with an author and maintain love for their books? Why should witchcraft stories be banned when it is an increasingly popular spiritual practice? One of my pupils said: “I think it’s silly to ban Harry Potter. Just because you read a story about witchcraft, it doesn’t mean you will start doing it.”
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2. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
I had read my class some extracts of this book while we learned about the Second World War. The children assumed the book was banned because of the themes of antisemitism and genocide. In actual fact, Anne had some crushes on girls and wrote about them in her diary; like a significant number of other banned books, it was challenged on the grounds of LGBTQ content or characters.
3. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Suitable for ages 14 and over, The Hate U Give commonly frequents banned and challenged book lists. This is not because of the reclaimed racial slurs used by some of the book’s black characters but because the book is seen by some as anti-police.
This book is excellent for contextualising the Black Lives Matter movement and helping students to understand the difference between systemic racism and prejudice.
The protagonist, Starr, a black teenage girl, has a white boyfriend. Starr’s father is unhappy when he finds out his daughter has a white boyfriend. The book begins with Starr’s childhood friend being shot dead by a white police officer. He is labelled a “thug” by the media rather than as the victim of racially motivated murder.
There are many opportunities for discussion about racism as something much more serious (and often deadly) than the prejudice sometimes experienced by white people. The parallels to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 are painfully obvious.
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
This cute children’s picture book is a regular in lists of most-banned books. It is the true story of two boy penguins in a zoo that cared for an abandoned egg together and raised the chick as their own. My P6-7 class (the last two years of primary school in Scotland) remembered this book from their early primary years and found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to ban it. The penguin chick, who is named Tango, is the first penguin in the zoo to have two daddies.
5. George, by Alex Gino
Gino's novel has repeatedly topped most-banned-book lists since it was published in 2015. George is about a transgender girl and her experiences of school, family and confiding in her best friend. My class was gripped from the start. When we finished the book a few weeks later, the class consensus was that they could see no reason for this book to be banned. Some children said that, after finishing the book, they think they could now be a more supportive friend to someone who is transgender.
Sometimes schools take the decision to ban books for good reason. But it is well worth investigating the common denominators in banned books (which is disproportionately because books feature LGBTQ characters). There are many reasons why children should understand the importance of having freedom to read, from the Nazi practice of book burning to girls in Afghanistan today, who risk losing their right to an education.
And, very importantly, Banned Books Week portrays reading as an act of rebellion, which makes it very appealing to children and young people. After our discussions, I noticed copies of “banned books” appearing on desks and that children were investigating other books that they could read. Exploring banned books was more than worth the effort.
Gemma Clark is a primary teacher and a master’s student based in Scotland. She tweets @Gemma_clark14
This year, Banned Books Week is celebrated from 26 September to 2 October. For more details click here.