While we may have missed the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week (September 26-October 2, 2021), the theme really stood out: “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” Books have always been a source of controversy. Some are classics, like Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and Of Mice and Men. Others are modern and address current social and political issues. Regardless of the subject matter or content of a book, the true issue is censorship. Should controversial books be banned from our schools?

Banning contentious books only encourages the divides we see every day. Listening to opposing viewpoints and exposing students to various ideas, historical events, and even offensive content teaches them empathy and critical thinking skills. Instead of parroting accusatory language seen in social media, students can learn to create conversations about why these books are upsetting or how they can frame conversations around these issues.

Often, books that are challenged are classics—books that contain outdated language, offensive descriptions, and racial disparity. While this type of content is disturbing, it’s important to understand our past mistakes, so we are not doomed to repeat them. Additionally, these works can be valued for addressing universal themes. By introducing students to these texts, we are providing them opportunities to unite rather than divide.

The following books have been challenged, but by including them in your curriculum and school library, you give your students the chance to explore their world and discuss their viewpoints in class discussions.

1. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Why it’s challenged: According to the ALA, this novel has been challenged or banned because, in some schools, its content seemed too biased against male students. In addition, the novel's inclusion of vulgarity and rape can be disturbing and triggering to some students.

Why you should read it: The weight of silence after an assault is an important issue in our society. This book models empowerment to speak out and find help after an assault and confronts classic misconceptions about sexual assault.

Teaching Tip: After particularly heavy passages, have students journal for five minutes before class starts. This will encourage students to think through their ideas prior to discussions and consider the importance of speaking up.

2. All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Why it’s challenged: This book has been challenged for its inclusion of profanity, drug use, and alcoholism. Many schools think it contains divisive topics, promoting an anti-police position, which could be a sensitive issue in today’s political climate.

Why you should read it: In light of the protests on police brutality in the past few years, it’s important to foster conversations with your students. This story is told from the perspectives of two teenage boys, one black and one white, examining the emotions of both the black victim of brutality and the white witness to the crime. This book will encourage students to share their perspectives about current events, if they feel comfortable doing so.

Teaching Tip: Use this book to teach perspective­­—that there can be several sides to a story. Listen to students who want to share their own experiences, and respect those who may not. Open discussion and journaling can be effective outlets for students’ thoughts and feelings on the topic.

3. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Why it’s challenged: Many schools ban this book because it contains racial slurs and racist stereotypes. In addition, its violence toward a character with a developmental disability can be a trigger for students.

Why you should read it: The themes presented in this novel are universal and worth discussing. Of Mice and Men clearly addresses the effects of the Great Depression on people in the 1930s. It is deceptively simple in its presentation of serious issues about society. Steinbeck’s writing style is straightforward and packed with meaning. He is able to take a simple moment and convey so much more about the human condition. This novel also provides an opportunity to enhance critical thinking, asking students how they would resolve current social issues by looking at examples from our past. How do we treat people who are different from ourselves and create meaningful connections with one another?

Teaching Tip: Have your students research the Great Depression to provide context for the events in the story.

4. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Why it’s challenged: This book has been challenged for its profanity and is thought to promote an anti-police message. It has strong references to drugs, gangs, and sex.

Why you should read it: The engaging and relatable narrator draws students into her story. They will be able to consider their own opinions about current social dialogues. The story gives students the opportunity to learn how to discuss sensitive topics, stereotypes, discrimination, and opinions that differ from their own. This novel also creates awareness about critical topics that impact many Americans today.

Teaching Tip: Listen to online interviews and news stories associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Discuss with your students the various perspectives and relate the events in the story to what you hear in the interviews.

5. 1984, by George Orwell

Why it’s challenged: When 1984 first came out, its social and political themes made it problematic for some schools and districts. In addition, its sexual content might make students uncomfortable.

Why you should read it: In a modern world filled with social media, targeted advertisements, and fake news, students need to be aware that making choices for themselves is crucial. Freedom of expression is important, and so is showing students what having that freedom taken away could look like.

Teaching Tip: Have students research how freedom of expression has been suppressed in places around the world or in history. Also, you can have them draw comparisons between events in 1984 and current events.

6. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

Why it’s challenged: Some schools and districts struggle with this book because it contains graphic depictions of child sexual abuse.

Why you should read it: It’s important not to shy away from difficult conversations about the cruelty humans can inflict on one another. It isn’t easy to discuss, but this book is worth reading if it can open up the conversation about how to be empathetic toward traumatic experiences. If we cannot have these difficult conversations, how can we possibly expect society to change?

Teaching Tip: Observe your students’ emotions after each reading assignment and let them lead some of the conversations. Monitor these discussions to make sure students are sensitive in their phrasing and that they refrain from personal accusations.

Guiding the Conversation

When introducing these works, be aware that the ideas and stories within them will profoundly impact your students. Creating a comfortable, safe setting for the students in your classroom is crucial to holding the difficult but valuable conversations these books inspire. The following are some tips to help get students engaged when studying a controversial book:

  • Consider your own biases. It is essential to make all of your students feel supported and free to express their opinions, so try to remain a neutral voice to create a safe space for all voices.
  • Foster productive conversation. Emotions can run high when discussing controversial topics, but it is essential to frame differing opinions in a way that encourages students to listen to opposing viewpoints.
  • Listen to your students. It can be hard to take criticism from your students, but it’s important to honor their thoughts and feelings. For example, if they feel overwhelmed or emotional, or feel a topic is not being addressed with sensitivity, etc.
  • Provide alternative works for students deeply affected by these topics. Some of these topics and stories may be too much for students to handle. Be sure to provide alternatives to those who need it.

What are some challenged books that you enjoy teaching in your classroom, and what tips and techniques for teaching them do you find most effective?