The 35th annual Banned Books Week is winding down, and this year, countless readers have enjoyed the myriad of books that have faced challenges and suffered bans in the United States. Founded in 1982 by the Banned Books Week Coalition, Banned Books week aims to document and raise awareness of book censorship in America. The Coalition also wants to start and sustain a dialogue within communities, between concerned parents, libraries, and publishers to address book censorship.
After revisiting my favorite challenged children’s series , I wanted to document the scary books that have touched children’s lives and garnered challenges in the U.S. I’m a firm believer that scary, age-appropriate stories do a lot of good for young children by making their fears and anxieties manageable and recognizable. I also believe that it’s a “tragic mistake to deprive a child of a book that will allow them to face and discuss the things that make them afraid. Repressing those fears only makes them more afraid.”
It’s important to note that the vast majority of such books are challenged at the local level and that the national and state governments do not usually tread into book censorship waters. Nevertheless, book censorship in America occurs in the form of requests to ban books from certain classes of readers, censor portions of the relevant book, or remove books from school and public libraries altogether.
While no reasonable person would argue that a parent cannot limit his or her minor child’s access to certain books, no parent has the right to limit anyone else’s access to books. Using governmental or public resources to limit access or censor books goes against our society’s most revered ideals. Censorship stifles creative and independent thought. Additionally, it can lead to voluntary restriction of expression, which is essential in our democracy. As the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Texas v. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Again, it’s up to the parents to make choices regarding their children, but unless a book is the actual Necronomicon, it shouldn’t be banned or censored in this country.
On to the list!
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, illustrations by Stephen Gammell
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#1)
Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009 (#7)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is, without a doubt, the most famous (or infamous) book on this list. It is my hands-down favorite scary kids’ book, and a lot of you all out there feel the same way. The Scary Stories series is dark, scary magic, combining Schwartz’s work to catalog and share old folktales and urban legends with Gammell’s vibrant and disturbing art. This pair shocked and delighted an entire generation of children and scandalized their parents.
Scary Stories was challenged all over the place, from Seattle, WA to West Hartford, Connecticut to Gilbert, Arizona. One parent accused the books of glorifying gore, violence, the occult, Satanism, necrophilia, and cannibalism, going so far as to invoke serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer when describing the short story “Wonderful Sausage.” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is no better than an R-Rated movie, claimed a parent, pointing to the “graphic violence” in the books. Another parent accused the series of depicting “the dark side of religion through the occult, the devil, and Satanism.”
The good news is that countless other parents, schools, and libraries didn’t face these same challenges and kept Scary Stories on the shelves for children all over to enjoy.
The Goosebumps Series by R.L. Stine (1992-1997)
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#15)
Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009 (#94)
Goosebumps is another hallmark of childhood in the 90s, and did those books deliver! Almost every kid I knew growing up had read at least one of these books, eagerly snatching up the new books as R.L. Stine churned them out every few months. Even better than those creepy covers, not every book ended with a happy ending.
But some parents hated the series, seizing upon what they claimed were satanic symbols, disrespect for adults, and inappropriately violent and gross content. By the end of the series in 1997, the ALA had cataloged 46 challenges, the vast majority of which originated in school libraries. Things got so intense that C-SPAN broadcasted a 1997 hearing on banning the series. The Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota was all set to ban the books; however, many in attendance spoke out against the challenge and voiced their support for allowing the book to stay at the library. Eventually, the school district decided to retain the Goosebumps series in the library, where future readers could enjoy those traumatizing covers and stories forever.
The Witches by Roald Dahl (1983)
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#22)
The Witches is a perfect and easy target for challenges because it’s about, well, witchcraft. Specifically, witches that kill children.
The depiction of witchcraft isn’t the only reason people have challenged The Witches—many parents were concerned about the realistic depiction of violence, the macabre sense of humor throughout, and the disturbing plot points. Parents complained that the book would negatively affect their children by promoting rebellion against adults and other authority figures, and that “Presenting adolescents with such a view of adults, at an age when they are experiencing conflicting emotions about adults already, could adversely affect their relationships with older people.”
Others objected to a latent misogyny in the book, since only women were witches and all women were evil. I’m not sure if I agree with that interpretation since, in the book, witches are not human women. Certainly, open dialogue rather than an outright ban would better address such concerns.
Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam and illustrated by Lane Smith (1987)
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#31)
Recommended for ages five and up, Halloween ABC seems relatively harmless. It might look like a fun, Halloween-themed ABC book illustrated by the same guy who gave us The Stinky Cheese Man and the True Story of the Three Little Pigs, but a bunch of concerned parents saw it for the evil book it is. In fact, it’s been challenged as recently as 2009 in Wellsville, New York.
Take the parents of Marysville, Michigan, who campaigned for the book to be removed from the Marysville Public Library. They claimed it was frightening, violent, and contained allegedly anti-Christian themes. The innocence of the children had to be protected, and as such, banning the book was “a necessary step toward increasing the awareness in our community of the need to protect our children from harmful materials in our public libraries…the public library should be a place where they are protected from such dangers.”
But others thought the book was “great” and “amusingly irreverent, rather than terrifying.” Reason won out in the end, and the book remained on the shelves in Marysville.
Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard, illustrations by James Marshall (1979)
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#56)
Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009 (#93)
Despite being a fun, light book about ghosts, some parents could not handle this book being available to their children. While it’s moral is to teach kids to find solutions to their problems and conquer their fears, some parents couldn’t get past the supposed references and endorsements of the occult and the supernatural. Not surprisingly, the séance scene was a frequent point of contention. Other challenges focused on the alleged “Descriptions of families in a derogatory manner” and the book’s encouragement of, “Disrespectful language and disobedience to parents.”
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#68)
Lord of the Flies may not be an obvious choice, but its intention to shock and horrify its audience with the juxtaposition of children and the violent destruction of innocence puts it squarely into the horrific. Although this is done with a distinct literary purpose, that didn’t stop parents from challenging the book all over the country and regularly throughout the years. The usual reasons center around violence, obscene language, general offensiveness, and “inappropriateness.”
However, my favorite challenge to Lord of the Flies came from a 1981 challenge at an Owen, North Carolina high school. More than the violence or unpleasantness, the parent objected to the book because it was “demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal.”
Despite their astute grasp of the novel, I think that person may have missed the point.
Curses, Hexes, and Spells by Daniel Cohen (1977)
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999 (#71)
This book is a throwback! I never read it, but after reading the details about why it was challenged, I want to now!
Most of the challenges to this book addressed the supernatural and occult content. Despite author Daniel Cohen’s assurances that the book was not a “Satanic bible” and that he did not “curses or spells,” parents kept challenging the book.
At the Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland, parents complained that the book encouraged friendship with the devil as well as encouraging children to perform the spells discussed in the book. One parent called it a “horrifying book for a child” after catching her son trying to replicate a spell. The principle, after insisting that he wasn’t a “book burner,” went on to explain how the book infuriated” him with its pictures of Satan and explanations of ritualistic circles, hex signs, Hebrew and old Christian curses.”
Never mind that Mr. Cohen explained that his goal for the book was, “a look at magical thinking and…a primitive way of thinking.” He never set out to write a spell book
Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (1997)
Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009 (#57)
Top Ten Banned/Challenged Books for 2001
Don’t judge me, I read this book in junior high and loved every melodramatic moment. It wasn’t very scary, but it did have girl werewolves and hot guys with all the trappings of a perfectly cheesy YA novel. But the racy bits were too much.
While violence and the supernatural elements were frequent subjects of challenges to Blood and Chocolate, they weren’t what most objections focused on. In her interview with MTV News, author Annette Curtis Klause explained that sex was what parents were really upset about. “Werewolves fighting to the death wasn’t the problem. My great sin? I had allowed a teenaged girl to accept and even revel in her own sexuality. Heaven forbid!
“But they didn’t even have sex!” you might exclaim, outing yourself as someone who also read this book. And you’re right. No one had sex in this book, as if that matters to some people.
Daughters of Eve – Lois Duncan (1979)
For a book published almost 40 years ago, Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer) still riles up parents. That’s not surprising for a book that deals with sex, profanity, violence, and abortion while examining themes like feminism, anti-feminism, and familial abuse. It is, after all, about a group of young women who become convinced to punish their fathers by a charismatic teacher.
In 1997, Daughters of Eve was removed from all Jackson County, West Virginia school libraries. In 2000, the novel was banned from all Fairfax County, Virginia middle schools because it promoted “violence, risky behaviors,” and sought to “prejudice young vulnerable minds on several issues.” And in 2005, parents at Lowell Middle School in Indiana unsuccessfully challenged the book for its profanity and sexual content.
The House of Night Series by Kristin Cast
After some basic research, I’ve concluded that House of Night is basically Twilight plus Harry Potter. With those…um…inspirations, House of Night was going to always attract challengers.
In particular, sexy teen vampires will always attract challengers. In 2009, the Henderson Junior High School in Stephenville, Texas banned the entire The House of Night series as part of a larger crackdown on sexy teen vampires. Obviously, the sexual content was the focus of the ban. The school district even banned the books hadn’t been published yet! I didn’t even know you could do that, but Stephenville, Texas sure seems to think so. In 2011, book 2 of the series, Betrayed, was challenged at a high school in the North Star Borough School District of Fairbanks, Alaska because “It simply causes kids to think even more of things sexual.” As if high school kids aren’t going to find a way to make everything about sex. And in 2014, The House of Night series was challenged at the Austin Memorial Library in Cleveland, Tex. The challenger, a local minister, demanded that the “occultic (sic) and demonic…books be purged from the shelves, and that public funds would no longer be used to purchase such material, or at least require parents to check them out for their children.”
The Vampire Academy Series by Richelle Mead
Here come those sexy teen vampires again in this Mean Girls plus Twilight plus Harry Potter mash-up. While Vampire Academy has created an unholy Trinity of influences that I cannot support as a fan of both Mean Girls and Harry Potter, I still don’t want books to be banned.
In 2009, the very same Henderson Junior High School in Stephenville, Texas gave these books the House of Night treatment and banned the entire Vampire Academy series, even the books that hadn’t been published yet. Once again, sexual content was the issue, because Stephenville, Texas just cannot with teen vampires making out and having “Off-camera” sexual relations. (I wonder how they’d react to Anne Rice.)
Which leads me to Twilight.
Top Ten Banned/Challenged Books for 2009 (#5)
Top Ten Banned/Challenged Books for 2010 (#10)
You knew this was coming. Despite the fact that the Twilight series is a less-fabulous, less-disturbing, not-as-good version of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, I knew I had to include it. And despite my opinion of the purple prose writing and very questionable themes, even I couldn’t ignore that Twilight brought a lot of joy and excitement to young readers everywhere.
Twilight is, of course, usually challenged and or banned for sexual content and anti-religious or anti-Christian themes (which is…ironic). In 2008, the Capistrano, California Unified School district removed all Twilight books from the junior high libraries, though the books were later reinstated. In 2009, Twilight was challenged at the Brockbank Junior High in Magna, Utah specifically for the sexual content in Breaking Dawn, the fourth installment of the series. And in 2014, the same pastor who tried to get House of Night and Vampire Academy banned from Texas libraries (among 75 other titles!) also demanded that Twilight be removed from the Austin Memorial Library. He claimed that Twilight series does not “bend a child’s character in a positive way,” and that it was inappropriate for children to be exposed to “demons” and the “occult.” Thankfully, the Austin City Council refused to give in to his demands, and the books remained available to the public.
How do you feel about these banned or challenged books? Have you read any? Leave me your comments below!