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What to Read During Banned Books Week

Read our take on some of the most commonly banned books.

October 1-7 is Banned Books Week, a week dedicated to bringing together readers, educators, and authors to celebrate freedom of expression and to fight unchecked censorship. This year, amid a wave of challenges to library book and curricular materials, the NYCLU is celebrating Banned Books Week by reading some of the most frequently banned books of the last few years – the American Library Association maintains the list.

Very often, when people demand the removal of library books, they haven’t read the books and are basing their objections on information published by ideological groups like Moms for Liberty. This was true of the school board members in the leading Supreme Court case on school library censorship, the NYCLU’s Island Trees v. Pico.

That case was decided in 1982, after board members of a school district in Long Island received a list of objectionable books from a group called Parents of New York United. The group itself was not based in the district, and no local parents or students had objected to the books, which included Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes.

Nevertheless, the Board disregarded the recommendation of its own book review committee and removed the books, calling them “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.”

In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts cannot ban books with the intent of imposing a narrow orthodoxy of viewpoints and values.

Today, ideological groups seeking to ban books often rely on a litmus test for content rather than considering the context and educational value of the materials themselves. These groups almost always target books written by and about Black and Brown people or those in the LGBTQ community. These rampant attempts at censorship are attacks on our right to learn and to be exposed to a diverse set of ideas and viewpoints.

So, in honor of Banned Books Week, we dug into some of our favorite banned books this year to consider their civil rights themes, and we’re glad to share our reviews with you.


Gender Queer

by Maia Kobabe


“Gender Queer” is a beautifully illustrated memoir by Maia Kobabe. It’s about Kobabe’s journey from eir earliest memories of grappling with eir gender and sexuality to eventually identifying as non-binary and asexual.


With thoughtfulness and humor, Kobabe explores what it’s like to navigate a world that often sees gender as strictly male or female. While gender and sexuality are different, “Gender Queer” shows how they can be connected. Kobabe doesn’t shy away from this complexity; Ey talks about it openly and carefully.


Reading eir story should make us all think about how we understand gender and sexuality in our own lives and encourages us to create a more inclusive world where transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people are accepted without having to explain themselves or justify their existence.


Camara Hudson
Education Counsel, The NYCLU


The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison


“The Bluest Eye” is a powerful story by Toni Morrison that follows Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl, and her longing for blue eyes, a symbol she believes is synonymous with whiteness. Pecola grapples with colorism, internalized racism, societal beauty standards, religion, gender, femininity, and the traumas of sexual violence.


Tugging at all my emotions at once, Morrison allowed me to deeply empathize with characters in a way I never imagined I could and caused me to deeply reflect on my own memories of being a younger Black girl. Just as importantly, Morrison forced me to sit with the discomforting forms of internalized racism and colorism that manifest in my own communities. “The Bluest Eye” provides a way for young Black girls to reflect on their own girlhood, and to unlearn white internalized beauty standards.


Sara Ismail
Teen Activist Project (TAP) Student Leader, The NYCLU


To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee


Relayed through the heart, mind, and eyes of a child, the story of “To Kill a Mockingbird” explores systemic issues as deeply human ones. Through a series of events unfolding in their small Alabama town, six-year-old Scout Finch and her brother Jem are made aware of issues previously unknown to them – racism, discrimination, and the marginalization of people on the fringes of accepted society. The novel forces readers to question who has a vested interest in controlling the stories we hear and tell.


Having first read this book as an impressionable high school student, I learned how to begin untangling and addressing injustice in my worlds. I figured out how to stand on my values and navigate the discomfort that tags along, and to be a neighbor that my community can count on.


Amanda Waggoner
Administrative Assistant, The NYCLU



By Art Spiegelman


In the final years of his father Vladek’s life, cartoonist Art Spiegelman sat down to record his memories of the Holocaust. The harrowing result chronicles not only the family’s decimation at the hands of the Nazis but also how the trauma informs their lives and relationships decades later.


Spiegelman famously portrays Jewish people as mice and Germans as cats, subtly satirizing the racial ideologies that led to the “Final Solution,” but he refuses to reduce the characters to caricature, painting vivid portraits of the people Vladek met both in and out of the camps. “Maus” pulls no punches in detailing the atrocities inflicted on victims.


I still vividly remember reading the book for the first time as a 7th Grader as part of a unit on the Holocaust. Re-reading the book as an adult was just as moving, as many of the stories resonate with accounts I have heard from survivors in my husband’s family. As a parent to a young child, Vladek’s memories of his firstborn son, who did not survive, were particularly poignant.


Emma Hulse
Skadden Fellow, The NYCLU


Looking for Alaska

By John Green


“Looking for Alaska” follows a young boy named Miles Halter as he comes of age at a boarding school in Alabama. As the story unfolds, you get a glimpse into the lives of young kids who are on their own and trying to find themselves. You can easily identify with the characters as they pull pranks, fall in love, and experience loss and grief.


Reading this book as an adult takes you back to when you tried new things with the older crew. You learn as you go and stumble along your path.


Cassandra Minerd
Education Strategist, The NYCLU

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