8 Banned Books Every College Student Should Read
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Today's writing world aims to promote a variety of voices, including those of women, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. But recent allegations that schools continue to "push a liberal agenda" by requiring reading on topics like critical race theory have led to widespread book banning in the U.S. at the state level.
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How does a piece of writing get put on a banned-books list? According to the American Library Association (ALA), when a person or group attempts to remove or restrict a book, it becomes "challenged." The book is considered banned if they succeed in pressuring institutions to remove the work.
There are many reasons why college students should read banned books. Often, banned books address contemporary, socially important topics that resonate with modern readers. Banned books can bring to life the silenced experiences of marginalized peoples and teach you about overlooked moments in history.
Ultimately, it should be you, the reader, who determines what's appropriate for your eyes. Here are eight banned books to start reading today.
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1. The Bluest Eye
By Toni Morrison
The first novel by award-winning author Toni Morrison, "The Bluest Eye" (1970), centers on the experiences of Black Americans in the 1940s. Eleven-year-old Pecola, a Black girl from Ohio, must deal with people calling her ugly due to her dark skin and because she doesn't behave as they expect her to.
According to the ALA, two sources of contention in this novel are a rape scene and content some deem too sexually explicit. Others have cited "disturbing" language as a reason to ban the book.
Despite these objections, students should read "The Bluest Eye" to gain a deeper understanding of the poverty, misogyny, and racism that existed in 1940s America — and persists today.
2. The Hate U Give
By Angie Thomas
In Angie Thomas' acclaimed 2017 novel "The Hate U Give," teenager Starr Carter straddles two worlds: the elite preparatory school she attends in the suburbs and her daily life in an impoverished neighborhood. After witnessing the fatal shooting of her best friend by police, Starr begins to question everything she knows about society.
The novel deals with racism, police brutality, and activism. According to the ALA, it was banned for profanity, violence, and allegations of promoting an "anti-police" message. This book will give you a more nuanced perspective on topics like violence and Black safety.
3. Lawn Boy
By Jonathan Evison
"Lawn Boy" (2018) is a semiautobiographical novel and coming-of-age story dealing with themes of sexual identity and racism. In this compelling read, Mike Muñoz, a Mexican American, questions whether the American dream is truly attainable for someone like him.
Because of its exploration of race and LGBTQ+ themes, the book has been challenged and banned, specifically amid accusations that it contains graphic language about sexual acts and "generally offensive language."
Initially intended for an adult audience, the book rose to fame in the world of young adult literature when it received the Alex Award — an honor given to works that appeal to readers ages 12-18 — from the ALA in 2019.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird
By Harper Lee
This American classic written by Harper Lee in 1960 has had the dubious distinction of being one of the most frequently challenged books in the U.S.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" follows the lives of Scout and Jem Finch, who live in a small Alabama town, while their father, Atticus, defends a Black man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman.
The book has been challenged and banned throughout the years for its strong language and discussions of rape and racism. College students should read it as it addresses race relations in terms of justice, a subject that continues to be highly relevant today.
5. The Handmaid's Tale
By Margaret Atwood
Made even more popular by the Hulu TV series of the same name, Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985) is a classic dystopian novel that explores the subjugation of women in a futuristic place called Gilead.
The novel follows protagonist Offred as women like her fight a patriarchal society that privileges maleness, reduces women to their childbearing role, and supports a theocratic state.
This book has been challenged and banned due to its overtly feminist message; anti-religious themes; and descriptions of sexual activity, profanity, and vulgarity. Atwood herself recently auctioned off a fire-resistant edition of "The Handmaid's Tale" to combat book censorship.
Students should pick up this novel because it explores the contemporary themes of sexism and religiosity and how that, coupled with power wielded unfairly, can stifle both equality and progress. Its themes are also especially relevant today with the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (2007) focuses on a teenager named Junior who attends a mostly white high school off the Spokane Indian Reservation where he lives. There, he must navigate the reality of being the only Native American at his high school — with the exception of his school's mascot.
The book has been challenged and banned due to its brutally honest depictions of Native American life and mentions of drinking, bullying, violence, and sexual behavior. The novel's celebration of perseverance and grit, even in the most challenging circumstances, is sure to appeal to students of all backgrounds.
7. The 1619 Project
By Nikole Hannah-Jones
Launched to commemorate the 400th year of the arrival of enslaved Africans to the colonies, "The 1619 Project" (2021), whose origin stemmed from shorter works published in The New York Times, has garnered great controversy.
The work challenges the U.S. to reckon with its past and refutes our country's genesis story of the Mayflower. Instead, Hannah-Jones argues that America truly began with a ship called the White Lion and its human cargo.
Those who support banning this book claim it's a revisionist account of U.S. history — part of critical race theory — and is thus "racially divisive." Students should read this book because it uses an impressive collection of essays, photos, and research to illuminate the harsh realities of slavery and its role in the founding of the U.S.
8. Gender Queer: A Memoir
By Maia Kobabe
An autobiographical comic, "Gender Queer" (2019), tells of Maia Kobabe's journey of self-discovery. It also boasts the distinction of being the most challenged book in the U.S. in 2021.
This work takes readers step-by-step through Kobabe's life as someone who identifies as nonbinary — from confusion around adolescent crushes, to coming out to friends and family, to dealing with traumatic events that are less than gender-affirming.
Critics want the book banned due to its exploration of gender and LGBTQ+ themes — deemed as "graphic sexual nature" — with some critics even calling it pornographic. By picking up this book, students can dig into the topic of gender identity and learn more about what it means to be asexual and nonbinary.