The Books They Tried to Ban
So, book banning is HOT right now!
Who would have thought that in 2023 we’d find ourselves in the position of needing to justify the value of books on the shelf – not just in bookstores, but in libraries, schools and our own homes?! But we absolutely do. In Australia, a small, vocal minority are trying to tell us what we should be allowed to read. Some of the same people who were decrying the loss of their individual freedoms during COVID lockdowns are seeking to remove our freedom to read the books we want to read. This is a worrying trend that is gaining serious traction in the U.S., and a culture war that we seem to be engaging in also. It’s becoming more and more important that we pay attention and we stand up for what we believe in. For us it’s freedom of thought, of expression and the freedom to see yourself in the books you’re reading, regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity.
Within these pages are books they’ve tried to ban. In some places and for some time periods they’ve succeeded. Some are banned, or have been ‘removed’, from some schools and libraries right now. But why? Because a small cohort find aspects of these titles offensive. In the case of Gender Queer, a title that is very close to our hearts, it’s because they don’t approve of author Maia Kobabe illustrating the lived experience of their navigation of gender and sexuality. And for Welcome to Sex! it’s because they don’t think that educating young people about their bodies, sex, relationships and consent is a good idea. Go figure…
So have a look. See how many banned books you’ve already read. Add a bunch to your TBR pile, and be ready to bring your passion to the next fight!
In March 2023, this graphic memoir about gender identity was brought to the attention of The Classification Board of Australia by someone who found it offensive. This coming-of-age memoir contains depictions of sex and nudity in the context of exploring sexuality and gender. The Board “called it in” meaning it could not be made available for sale until it had been classified.
As a bookstore, a place of many, varied ideas, Kinokuniya Sydney finds book banning anathema. Gender Queer is an award-winning book, winner of the 2020 ALA Alex Award and a 2020 Stonewall Award Honor Book. The public libraries in the U.S. believe this book has outstanding merit for young adult readers and so do we. We paid for Gender Queer’s classification (we import this from America, so we are considered the publisher) and were elated when we received the Classification decision, stating it could be sold Unrestricted (M – Not recommended for readers under 15 years).
However, in May 2023, we were dismayed to hear that The Classification Board’s decision had been appealed (it appears by the same complainant) and we encouraged the book’s supporters and the book community to put forth their own submissions to the Classification Review Board. The Review Board is an independent body that is able to overturn the Australian Classification Board’s original decision.
In July 2023, after a lengthy delay caused by a flood of over 500 submissions, mostly in support of the memoir, the Classification Review Board upheld the original decision of the Classification Board, finding the memoir “appropriate for its intended audience”.
Our sincerest thanks go to all those who shared our social media posts about Gender Queer’s journey through the Classification system, and to all those who supported it with submissions to the Review Board.
We are so proud to give Gender Queer pride of place on our shelves, and we hope that it can now find the audience it deserves without impediment.
This educational and age-appropriate introduction to sex and sexuality for young people is co-written by adolescent health expert and GP, Dr Melissa Kang. Published to help young people navigate new experiences and spark important discussions in the home and at school, this book was recently removed from the shelves of a discount department store chain after a series of negative online reviews and verbal attacks on staff in store.
Angie Thomas’ award-winning 2017 debut novel was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, exploring racism, police brutality, and the struggle for justice and equality. Told from the perspective of a 16-year-old black girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend by a white police officer, the story could not have been more timely in an already tense social and political environment. These themes, coupled with vulgar language, caused it to be one of the most challenged books in 2017, 2018 and 2020 in America.
Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding following the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses. The novel received immediate and violent backlash from the Muslim community who found the book’s depictions of Islam insulting. A fatwa (bounty) calling for the death of Rushdie and anyone who worked on the book still remains to this day. The book is banned in a number of countries, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Malaysia and Rushdie’s home country, India.
Judy Blume’s novel about a teenager’s first love and sexual relationship was one of 80 books just recently (as in March, 2023) banned in a Florida school district. Its descriptions of sexual intercourse, masturbation and the protagonist’s use of the birth control pill still attracts censorship, 48 years after its release in 1975.
This 2007 award-winning young adult novel was one of the most challenged and banned books of 2017, arising from the popularity of the Netflix adaptation which drew criticism for “glamourising” suicide, showing that some readers really missed the point. The book also delves into drug and alcohol use, bullying and consent, topics deemed “unsuitable” by some for young adults.
This futuristic dystopia about a patriarchal-run society where women are forced into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world has been challenged and banned many times since it was first published in 1985. In 2022, Atwood’s publisher Penguin Random House produced an “unburnable” edition of the book which was auctioned off for US$130,000, with proceeds going to PEN America to support free expression.
While the innocent-looking cover of this children’s picture book depicts a penguin family, offense was taken to the two male chinstrap penguins who adopt an egg together. Based on a true story about two male chinstrap penguins, Silo and Roy, who resided at Central Park Zoo in New York and successfully incubated an egg and raised the chick, it was the most challenged book in America in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Praised for introducing children to diversity of families and to the idea of homosexual couples in an appropriate and accessible way, it has won numerous awards and has been lauded by parents and educators.
While riding the subway home from the pool with his abuela one day, Julián notices three women spectacularly dressed up, their hair billowing in brilliant hues and their dresses ending in fishtails. When Julián gets home, all he can think about is dressing up just like the ladies in his own fabulous mermaid costume. But what will his Abuela think about how Julián sees himself? A story about gender expression in children and the value of acceptance and unconditional love, the picture book won the Stonewall Book Award in 2019, but has been banned in numerous schools and libraries across America for its LGBTQ+ themes and content.
The first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale recounts Art Spiegelman’s investigation and unpacking of his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. This compelling, genre-bending work which represents Jews as mice and other Germans and Poles as cats and pigs was banned by a Tennessee school board in 2022 because of its “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide”. Following this ban, sales reports from American Bookscan showed the books appearing on the US bestseller lists.
Interweaving between childhood memories, college life and present day, Fun Home examines Bechdel’s complex relationship with her father and finds they had more in common than she ever knew. This bestselling memoir from a cult favourite comic artist, marked by gothic twists, a family funeral home, and sexual angst, has won many awards and been the target of multiple banning attempts due to content and in one instance the “promotion of the gay and lesbian lifestyle”.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Printed privately in Florence in 1928, this novel was not commercially available in Great Britain until 1960, well after having scandalised society with its sexually explicit descriptions of lovemaking, its bold use of four-letter words that were considered vulgar, and a storyline in which the lovers were of different social stations. This book was banned, burned, and the subject of a landmark obscenity trial fought and won by publisher Penguin Books. Banned in Australia until 1965, the book describing the British trial, The Trial of Lady Chatterley was also prohibited.
Written in 1970, Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye has repeatly been challenged and banned for its themes of racism, incest and child sexual abuse. Set in 1941, it tells the story of a young African American girl called Pecola who is unlovely and unloved, and prays each night for blue eyes like those of her privileged white schoolfellows, believing that will solve her problems.
John Green’s 2005 debut teen book was the most challenged book in 2015 for its offensive language and sexually explicit content, ahead of EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey! In 2022, a school board candidate in Orange County, Florida, an area which includes the school John Green attended as a student, campaigned for the book to be banned from all school libraries in the district, citing a sex scene between minors may encourage kids “to go and have sex”.
This 2000 autographical graphic novel is a coming-of-age story that follows the author’s childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran to her early adult years in Austria and Paris, grappling with her faith and sexuality. It charts turbulent and eventful times during a fundamentalist regime’s upheaval and not surprisingly, has been banned in Iran. In America, opponents challenged the graphic novel for its depictions of violence, torture and sexual themes.
Inspired by the true story of two boys setting out to break the Guinness World Record for the longest kiss, the cover, title and LGBTQIA+ content have drawn the ire of some and calls for it to be removed from schools and banned. It has even been burned! In 2022 it was one of 52 books in an attempted banning in the largest Utah school district. Those titles remain in a restricted area of the library that parents have to opt-in to on behalf of their children.
Beloved by generations of readers, The Color Purple broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience and bravery. This novel has been the frequent target of censors in the US because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.
In Australia, due to the graphic violence against women it contains, American Pyscho is sold shrink-wrapped and is classified “R18” under national censorship legislation. Those who sell the book to persons under 18 years of age are liable for criminal prosecution. Along with other Category 1 publications, its sale is, in theory, banned in the state of Queensland. In Brisbane, the novel is available to those over 18 from all public libraries and can still be ordered and purchased (shrink-wrapped) from many book stores. At the University of Queensland, the book is only available to students over 18, and is stored where it is not accessible to the public.
Previously published as George, this tells the story of a fourth-grade transgender girl, who the world sees as George, until she plays the part of Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web) in the school play. Backlash against its transgender theme for a middle grade audience saw it become the fifth most banned book between 2010 and 2020.
Vidal’s breakthrough novel about the gay experience was published in 1948 and banned until 1966 in Australia. In America, Vidal was blacklisted to the extent that no major newspaper or magazine would review any of his novels for six years.
This “memoir-manifesto” or series of autobiographical essays, exploring Johnson’s growing up as a black and queer youth in New Jersey, has been challenged across America, being banned in at least 29 school districts. In 2021 the ALA named it as the third most banned and challenged book in the U.S., rising to second most challenged in 2022. The main complaints relate to Johnson’s inclusion of sexual assault by a trusted relative, and descriptions of their first consensual sexual experiences. Johnson has been named one of the top 100 influencers shaping the next generation on the 2022 TIME100 Next list.
Featuring a diverse set of middle-school characters that humorously explores friendship, crushes, and all-around drama, this graphic novel is from the bestselling author of the wonderful graphic memoir, Smile. According to the American Library Association, Drama has been challenged and/ or banned in schools and libraries for reasons including having LGBTQIA+ content and characters, having sexually explicit content, showing an “offensive political viewpoint”, being “confusing”, and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”.
This unnerving tale of an addict unmoored in New York, Tangier, and ultimately a nightmarish wasteland known as Interzone, is an exhilarating ride into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.
The first U.S. edition of Naked Lunch was published by Grove Press in 1962. The book was brought to trial on obscenity charges after a Boston bookseller was arrested for selling copies of it.
Nabokov’s story of a pedophile’s infatuation with a young girl predictably fell foul of censors in the UK, so French publisher Maurice Girodias – a champion for banned works who specialized in erotica – put the first copies into print. English novelist Graham Greene campaigned for the novel’s release in Europe, arguing “Lolita” was a metaphor for the corruption of the old world (Europe) by the new (the United States). Bans in several countries were overturned by the time Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation came out in 1962, and the book became a hit.
Covering relationships, friendships, gender, sexuality, anatomy, body image, safe sex, sexting, jealousy, rejection, sex education, and more, Let’s Talk About It is the go-to handbook for every teen, and the first in graphic novel form. This book is challenged and has been banned in some schools and libraries in America.
According to Kirkus Reviews, this book “Puts the graphic in the graphic-novel format, in the best and most educational way.”
Moore and Campbell’s gripping and hallucinatory graphic novel about Jack the Ripper details the events that led up to the Whitechapel murders and the cover-up that followed. From Hell is a modern masterpiece of crime noir and historical fiction, and the recipient of several Eisner Awards. In 2000, the graphic novel was banned in Australia for several weeks after customs officers seized copies of the seventh issue from a shipment intended for a comic book store.
First published in 1999, Speak has been challenged since 2010 and, as recently as 2020, was named the fourth most banned and challenged book in America. Mind-blowingly, some people found the rape scene to be like soft pornography and believe it encourages sexual promiscuity. In March 2023, Anderson spoke at a school board meeting in Pennsylvania near her home where they are trying to remove any books with ‘sexualised content’, arguing that it can be hard for kids to speak up when bad things happen and access to books like this can really help.
Originally published in 1974, this truly excellent, highly lauded YA novel, continues to draw the ire of book banners. About a secret society, that exists with impunity in a highly religious school, and the punishment they heap on a student who refuses to do their bidding, it was still third on the American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books three decades after publication.