Many of the most beloved classic novels of our time were originally mired in controversy. And some remain so to this day. But authors like Richard Wright, Alice Walker, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley exhibited thought-leadership with their powerful storytelling, bravery, and analysis of life. Where would our society be if it weren’t for the conversation-starting prose and life lessons of J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, or Ernest Hemingway? Luckily, we don’t have to find out.
Though great works of art, parents, educators, and critics alike find issues with the books on this list for their depictions of sex, violence, profanity, and social disparity. Fortunately for the development of our society, teachers still assign many of them in classrooms today, and copies are easily accessible to those out of school. But that wasn’t always the case. Read on to learn more about 25 novels that ran (and still run) the risk of banishment.
Harper Lee penned this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a white lawyer who defends a black man falsely charged with the sexual assault of a white woman. Since its publication in 1960, many schools have challenged and banned it from curriculums for its language, discussion of sexuality and sexual assault, and use of racial epithets.
In 1966, a Hanover County, Virginia school board decided to remove the book from county schools. Many critics wrote to local papers in disfavor of this decision. Lee wrote, “Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.”
My personal favorite, this book follows three days in the life of a 16-year-old Holden Caulfield. J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel became No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list yet still faced challenges and bans. One library banned it for violating codes on “excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence and anything dealing with the occult.”
Others disliked how the book felt aimless and plotless. Salinger said, “Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all my best friends are children. It’s almost unbearable for me to realize that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach.”
Mark Twain’s 1885 classic novel follows Huckleberry Finn as he escapes from an alcoholic and abusive father and travels down the Mississippi River with Jim. Originally, the book struck a chord with the Concord Public Library in Massachusettes for its slang. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, said if Mark Twain “cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”
Today, many schools and parents have trouble with the book’s liberal use of racial epithets, particularly the n-word, as it appears 219 times. One scholar planned to clean up the book and re-release it to be taught in schools.
Released in 1962, Ken Kesey’s book follows a man who acts insane to escape a prison sentence and ends up having a very, very hard time in an Oregon asylum. Schools removed the novel because it “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.”
One theater company recently discontinued production for the stories’ racist and misogynistic tendencies and the depiction of mental health care workers. The book sparked debate on shock therapy and may have even evolved it all together.
This book, released in 1962, follows a relentless teenaged gang leader. Anthony Burgess wrote about this teen’s journey becoming increasingly violent, being imprisoned, and then changing due to an experimental treatment that made him ill at the thought of violence.
Not only did schools ban this book, whole states did as well, particularly for its depiction of sexual violence. In 1973, police arrested a Utah bookseller for carrying the book. Though they eventually dropped the charges, the bookseller had to close her store and leave the city of Orem.
Schools challenged George Orwell’s 1949 novel repeatedly for its social and political themes and sexual content. In this dystopian novel, “Big brother is watching you,” and citizens have no free will, privacy, and truth. Critics saw it as an attack against Joseph Stalin.
Others saw it differently. In 1981, parents in Jackson County, Florida called it “pro-communist” and wanted it removed from schools. Regardless, this thrilling novel caused controversy and attempted to give a glimpse into the harmful ways of technology.
William Golding’s 1954 novel is the eighth-most frequently banned and challenged book in the nation, according to the American Library Association. In the book, a plane crash leaves a group of middle school boys deserted on an island. Eventually, they begin fighting amongst themselves, savagely hunting and killing each other.
Parents and schools criticize the bullying depicted in the book and its violence, language, and racial slurs. Administrators at Owen High School in North Carolina challenged the book because it’s “demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal.”
Toni Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for this work. The book is based on the true story of an enslaved woman who kills her child to spare them the life of slavery. After becoming free, she believes her child’s spirit is haunting her and her home.
Commentators challenge the story for its scenes of violence and sexual material. The American Library Association listed it on “Top Ten Most Challenged Books.”
Another Toni Morrison book, this National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel earned the author the Nobel Prize. The 1977 novel follows Macon “Milkman” Dead III from birth to adulthood. Milkman is on a journey to uncover his family’s history.
In 2010, administrators at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, Indiana stopped a class in the middle of reading the book. They banned it for its “descriptive sex scenes, profanity, and demeaning language.” Administrators later reinstated it.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel earned a bestseller spot for sixteen weeks and won the National Book Award for fiction. It follows a nameless narrator, a black man, as he moves through life, once making a name for himself but eventually recognizing himself as the Invisible Man.
Ellison wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” In 2013, a North Carolina county banned this book from school libraries after a parent complained it was “too much for teenagers.” Eventually, administrators reversed the decision.
John Steinbeck wrote this 1937 novella, which follows two friends and migrant farmworkers in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It gives a lens into the lives of working-class America and their pursuit of the American Dream.
The book touches on many controversial topics, including euthanasia. It’s been banned and described as offensive and vulgar due to its language, violence, and characterization.
Another George Orwell piece, this 1945 novella follows a group of farm animals who plot against their human farmer to have a more peaceful life. Instead of reaching success, a pig betrays the group’s efforts and becomes a dictator.
Critics claim the novella is communist propaganda and inspires the overthrow of organized states. The CIA purchased film rights and altered the ending to its animated film to “combat the culture of communism.”
Often assigned in classrooms alongside 1984, this is another book that follows a controlled society. In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Henry Ford is the new God, and humans reproduce like the mass production of cars. Chewing gum is infused with sex hormones and subdues adults.
Critics find it problematic for its talk of sexuality, drugs, and suicide. In 1993, parents in Corona-Norco, California wanted the book banned because it “centered around negativity.”
Joseph Heller’s 1961 war novel follows Captain John Yossarian during World War II in Italy, and depicts him growing increasingly frustrated with the war. The enemy itself is bad enough, but he’s also upset with his own army, which continues to extend its missions. Yossarian just wants to go home.
In 2020, an Alaskan school board removed the book from its classrooms for “a handful of racial slurs, the characters speak with typical ‘military men’ misogyny and racist attitudes of the time. There are scenes of violence both hand to hand and with guns, and violence against women.”
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel is acclaimed as a Harlem Renaissance classic. It tells the love story of Janie Crawford as she goes from teenager to woman and endures three marriages. The independent Crawford “learns what love is, experiences life’s joys and sorrows, and comes home to herself in peace.”
For nearly thirty years, the book went of out print. In 1997, critics at a high school in Brentsville, Virginia challenged the book for language and sexual explicitness. It ultimately stayed on the advanced reading list.
James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical 1953 novel was his first major work. It follows a 14-year-old boy in 1930s Harlem on a journey of self-discovery. Baldwin said, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.”
Challengers across America reprimanded the book for its “recurring themes of sexual assault, masturbation, violence, and degrading treatment of women.” It’s also loaded with profanity and sexually explicit scenes.
Written by James Joyce, this 1922 stream-of-consciousness epic novel is paralleled to Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. It follows Leopold Bloom as he goes about a day in Dublin in 1904. Fans of the book embrace Joyce’s unique writing style and dub it as one of the greatest literary works.
Joyce originally published Ulysses periodically in The Little Review, an American journal. The printing of episode 13 led to a prosecution for obscenity. At the time, it was illegal to send explicit material through the post office. In 1922, New York post office workers seized and burned 500 copies.
Another book authored by John Steinbeck, this 1939 novel won a Pulitzer Prize. It follows the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family, on its Dust Bowl migration during the Great Depression and discusses the disparities between social classes.
Many communities banned and burned the novel for its language and general themes. The Joad family ends up in Kern County, California. In real life, Kern County banned the book because residents deemed it libelous.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book follows an extramarital affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan during the Jazz Age in the Roaring ’20s. Gatsby is a wealthy millionaire and hosts many soirees full of party favors and excitement. Although Gatsby has achieved the so-called American Dream, he still longs, and capitalists do not favor this idea.
According to the American Library Association, it is the top book that has been challenged and potentially banned. Many people – particularly religious groups – wanted the book banned for its depiction of infidelity and partying.
Alice Walker’s 1982 novel follows Celie, a young Black girl struggling with poverty, segregation, and sexual assault. At 14, Celie has two kids by her father, who regularly abuses her, so she writes letters to God. The book depicts sexual assault, racism, violence against women, and sex.
Schools have banned the book since 1984 for its depictions of such. Specifically, parents wanted the book banned for a lesbian relationship that develops. Many parents thought it was too much for high schoolers to read about.
Published in 1930, William Faulkner’s novel tells the story of the Bundren family and their journey across Mississippi to bury their matriarch. The book has been challenged and banned time and again for being offensive, obscene, and taking the Lord’s name in vain.
According to the Kentucky Library Association, critics challenged the book for profane language and the character’s “contemplation of masturbation.”
Ernest Hemingway’s first bestseller, this 1929 novel is about a love affair between an Italian lieutenant and an English nurse during World War I. Creatives adapted the story for the stage, film, and television miniseries.
In 1980, the Vernon-Verona-Sherill, New York School District challenged the book as a “sex novel.” Italy also banned it for its depiction of the Italian retreat from Caporetto.
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel follows 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black youth, committing crimes and going on trial in Chicago’s south side. Wright’s thought-provoking story about systemic racism quickly became a best seller.
Critics challenged and banned the book in several cities across America. Most complaints describe it as profane, vulgar, and sexually explicit.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr wrote this 1969 novel that is now one of Modern Library’s 100 best novels of all time. It’s an anti-war book, following the infamous firebombing of Dresden.
Faultfinders burned the book in Drake, North Dakota, and banned and challenged it all over America. Critics said the book had insensitive religious material and found the sexual scenes, violence, and language inappropriate.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850s romance novel is set in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, during the 1640s. Hester Prynne has a child out of wedlock, and her community punishes her. Prynne must wear a scarlet “A” for the rest of her life.
When it originally came out, the book caused outrage and controversy. Critics challenged it to be “pornographic and obscene” in 1977. Like many others on this list, it is still a book assigned in high schools today.