Read Banned Books

As a college student and, more importantly, as a citizen of the world, you should be a rebellious reader. Here are ten old and new banned books you should pick up and read.

By Jessica Dickenson — September 18, 2023

Read Banned Books

Reading is a big part of college — but it is not something we should take for granted. From August to December 2022, PEN America's Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 individual books banned. That means thousands of students will be denied access to valuable reading materials.

According to Britannica, book banning is the practice of prohibiting or restricting the reading of certain books by the general public or members of a community. The first noted instance of a book burning was in 213 BC by the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang and is still in practice into the 21st century. While it is up to parents, librarians, and school administrators to determine what books are appropriate for young children, book bans try to make generalizations about the world and community as a whole when it should be an individual decision.

Unfortunately, many banned books talk about topics and perspectives that aren't in the limelight. In 2022, 30% of the unique titles banned were books about race, racism, or featured characters of color.

As a college student and, more importantly, as a citizen of the world, you should be a rebellious reader. Here are ten old and new banned books you should pick up and read!

The Bluest Eye

Since its publication in 1970, Toni Morrison's first book, The Bluest Eye, has caused a stir. The book tells the story of an eleven-year-old African-American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who believes that if she only had lighter skin and blue eyes, her life would be better. It is no small wonder why Pecola dreams of a better life. She lives in a violent household and becomes pregnant after being raped by her alcoholic father.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), The book has consistently been challenged and banned for its depiction of sexual abuse, equality diversity, and inclusion content, and sexually explicit content. Reading a synopsis of the book shows that some of these arguments are valid, but it only emphasizes why we should read it. Morrison said she wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read it. It gives a voice to thousands of men and women like Pecola, who have been silenced for generations.

The Hate U Give

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give addresses issues of racism and police violence through the eyes of Starr Williams, a 16-year-old black girl. Starr exists in two separate worlds: the black community where she lives with her family and the predominately white prep school where she is a student. These two worlds collide when Starr is the sole witness to the police shooting of her best friend Kahlil, who was unarmed.

Unsurprisingly, The Hate U Give has received a lot of pushback. Some people have criticized the book's use of profanity, while others wrongfully say it is critical race theory propaganda or anti-police writ. What the 2017 book by Angie Thomas is about is what happens when carefully constructed and compartmented realities come crashing down over questions of justice, identity, and equality.

Gender Queer

Unique to many books on this list is Gender Queer, a graphic memoir written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe (who uses Spivak pronouns). This cathartic autobiography follows a journey of self-identity that is at once familiar to all of us and unique to the experiences of being nonbinary and asexual. It is a deeply personal non-binary coming-of-age story and coming into oneself for a demographic that doesn't usually get their story told.

Unfortunately, some people think the word graphic extends further than the illustrations. Since it is a memoir that deals with puberty and sexual identity, it includes a few drawings of nude characters and sexual scenarios. The book explores traditional gender roles and features depictions of masturbation, period blood, and confusing sexual experiences. While these topics may make some people uncomfortable, they are real issues and questions that some people may be asking themselves.

"When you remove those books from the shelf or you challenge them publicly in a community, what you're saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, 'We don't want your story here'," Kobabe said.

The Hill We Climb

Amanda Gorman's book, "The Hill We Climb," is a mesmerizing collection of poems that illuminates her unique perspective on themes such as identity, social justice, and the power of resilience. In 2023, Florida conservatives banned the poem without providing a reason. On her Instagram Gorman wrote, "And let's be clear: most of the forbidden works are by authors who have struggled for generations to get on the bookshelves. The majority of these censored works are by queer and non-white voices."

Published in 2021, Gorman's book showcases her extraordinary talent for combining vivid imagery with profound insights, capturing the essence of her renowned performance at the 2021 presidential inauguration, where she captivated the world with her poem of the same title. Through her eloquent and thought-provoking verses, Gorman invites readers on a journey of introspection and hope, encouraging them to confront the challenges of our time with courage and grace. Her words serve as a beacon of inspiration, reminding us of the transformative potential found within the art of poetry.


Another graphic novel has caused a stir although for a different reason than Gender Queer. Maus by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman was serialized from 1980 to 1991 before it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It shifted how people talk about history, trauma, and ethnic and racial persecution.

Simplistically, the novel is a story about the Holocaust, but it goes much deeper than that. Spiegelman depicts the years leading up to World War II to his parents' liberation from the Nazi concentration camps. Much of the story revolves around Spiegelman's troubled relationship with his father, feelings of self-pity and worthlessness, and lamenting the death of his mother.

The book has been subjected to bans from the time of its publication to the present day. Some of the bans state they don't like the book's depictions of Nazis, Polish gentiles, and genocide. Recently, it has come under fire for its use of profanity, nudity, and suicide. While perhaps these images are not ideal for young audiences, the story bears witness to the horrifying reality of genocide.

Out of Darkness

Out of Darkness is a historical young adult novel by Ashley Hope P-rez, published in September 2015. It is a love story between two teenagers, Wash Fuller, an African American, and Naomi Vargas, a Mexican American, and their experience around the very real 1937 New London School Explosion. On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak led to a deadly explosion and collapse of an all-white school in East Texas.

Pérez stated, "As I researched the novel, I imagined the explosion as its most devastating event. But to engage honestly with the realities of the time and of my characters' lives, I had to grapple with systemic racism, personal prejudice, sexual abuse, and domestic violence." While this ultimately leads to an extraordinarily powerful novel, it also comes subject to scrutiny and bans.

All Boys Aren't Blue

All Boys Aren't Blue was written by George M. Johnson about their experience growing up Black and queer. It covers topics such as gender identity, toxic masculinity, family, marginalization, and consent.

Like many books that deal with real-life stories, the book contains racism, physical and sexual abuse, injury and death, bullying and harassment, and anti-LGBTQ+ language and sentiments. Although the book only came out in 2020, it is already #2 on the ALA's list of most banned books.

George M. Johnson says that they want to reinforce teens with the knowledge and tools since students are already dealing with things like racism, anti-Blackness, homophobia, and rape culture. The book's "be yourself" message remains a radical stance for doubly marginalized individuals.


Crank by Ellen Hopkins, was published in 2004 and is loosely based on the real-life addictions of Hopkins' daughter. Kristina Snow is a smart young teenager who over the course of a summer, becomes addicted to crystal meth. The story follows Kristina as she falls deeper into her addiction and suffers numerous consequences because of her association with the drug.

While the novel doesn't advocate for drug use and instead attempts to expose the horrors of addiction, the book has frequently been banned and challenged in the United States because of drugs, offensive language, and being sexually explicit.


Crank isn't the only controversial book that Ellen Hopkins has written. Her 2009 novel Tricks was also featured on the ALA's banned books list.

The novel is about five troubled teenagers from around the United States who fall into prostitution or are sex trafficked. In the midst of their plight, they search for freedom, safety, community, and love. The novel is heartbreaking by showing how making the mistake of trusting the wrong person or being at the wrong place at the wrong time can truly have horrifying consequences.

"I worked with Las Vegas vice," Hopkins said. "I was talking to kids on the street in Las Vegas. They're trafficking kids... To say this stuff won't happen if they don't read about it, I mean, I just don't even know where the logic is."

Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye has been banned and challenged since it was first published by J. D. Salinger in 1951. It is one of the earliest works of fiction exploring male teenage consciousness through the first-person narrator Holden Caulfield. Holden escapes from his preparatory school and flees to New York City to discover himself where he has a frantic search for some sort of meaning in life.

This coming-of-age novel has been banned numerous times for a variety of reasons including its depictions of mental illness and adolescent rebellion. Other reasons for it being banned include frequent use of vulgar language, sexual references, and promotion of drinking, smoking, and promiscuity. Many of the reasons it is banned are the same reasons why teenagers are so drawn to the novel. Holden in many ways is the pinnacle of teenage rebellion.

This list is by no means complete, nor should it be the only guide that you should reference to discover new books. Banned books are a window into sometimes a darker and more unfamiliar world that we are used to, but it is good for college students to foray into its uncharted territory.

As one teacher stated, "In my classroom, the novels are not the be-all to end all. The novels are what we use to examine the culture that we currently find ourselves in." Pick up a banned book and discover the world around you!

Jessica Dickenson

Jessica Dickenson

Jessica Dickenson graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran College with degrees in English and communication. She has applied her abilities working as a young marketing professional for a local university but works as a freelance writer and photographer in her spare time. She currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband.
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