What one person reads as vivid, poignant and moving, another sees as violent, perverse or politically dubious. Thus, book banning has existed from the beginning of time and a quick flick through any well-stocked bookshelf will reveal titles that, at one point or another, have been subject to censorship.
And some books are banned for the most extraordinary of reasons. A Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee, has just removed JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series from its library. The Tennessean published extracts of an email from Reverend Dan Reehil, a pastor at the school, in which he said the series was banned because “the curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text”.
It’s not the first time Harry Potter has been banned since its publication, and the series sits proudly alongside books including Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give on the list of books deemed so dangerous they shouldn’t be read. Of course, those doing the banning never stop to consider that prohibiting something only makes it more attractive…
Here, we take a look at 50 books that have been banned at some point.
A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
This semi-autobiographical novel set during World War I in Italy was published in 1929 and courted immediate controversy: it was banned from Boston newsstands for its sexual, "vulgar" content and in Italy for its depiction of the army’s retreat in the battle of Caporetto.
"When a man stays with a girl when does she say how much it costs?"
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
An unusual candidate for banning perhaps, but Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was barred in China in 1931 as the governor of Hunan province ruled that animals should never use the human language and that it was disastrous to put animals and humans on the same level.
"'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked. 'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'"
All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
A gripping and unforgiving portrayal of life on the German front in World War I, All Quiet On The Western Front is seen by many critics as a key anti-war film. It was banned and burned under the Nazi regime in Germany from 1933 - 1945.
"The war has ruined us for everything."
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
With extreme scenes of graphic violence throughout, American Psycho is a clear target for censorship. It is theoretically banned in the Australian state of Queensland. It is shrink-wrapped and classified "R18" in the rest of Australia and New Zealand, and sales of it were severely restricted in Germany in the 1990s as well.
"I'm coming back from Central Park where, near the children's zoo, close to the spot I murdered the McCaffrey boy, I fed portions of Ursula's brain to passing dogs."
And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Based on the true life story of gay penguins in a New York zoo, this innocent-looking children's book has attracted the wrath of multiple organisations, libraries and individuals across the US. It often features on most banned lists, with reasons for its censorship varying from it being "anti-ethnic" and "anti-family" to "unsuited to age group."
"Tango was the very first penguin in the zoo to have two daddies."
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, is the real-life diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager who, along with her family, hid from the Nazis during World War II. She died in a concentration camp and her diary was publised posthumously. It has been challenged by various organisations in the US, including members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee who contended it was a"real downer."
"I've reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, I can't do anything to change events anyway."
Animal Farm by George Orwell
George Orwell's allegorical tale of the corruption in Soviet Russia - as told through the eyes of farmyard animals - was banned in the USSR until the 1980s. It was also banned from schools in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 for its depiction of a talking pig, which was felt to oppose Islamic values.
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
A Study In Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study In Scarlet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first book, has been banned from reading lists by at least one school board in Virginia because of its perceived negative portrayal of Mormons.
"The invisibility and the mystery which was attached to it (Mormon religion), made this organization doubly terrible."
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved is a heart-breaking story of slavery and racism in nineteenth century America. It has been challenged by numerous school boards and parents groups in the US, because of graphic violence and sexual references.
"All the time, I'm afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don't know what it is, I don't know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again."
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
This touching story of a horse's adventures in 19th century England was banned by South Africa's apartheid regime at one point simply because it had the words "black" and "beauty" in the title.
"My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my friends under the apple trees."
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
This epic wartime love story, set during the Russian revolution, was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988 for its implicit criticism of the Bolshevik party. When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 the outrage from his fellow countrymen was so huge, he refused the honour.
"Man is born to live, not to prepare for life."
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ironically, this 1953 novel about book-banning in a futuristic and consumer-led society has itself been banned on several occasions: it was refused from a school district in the US for using the word "goddamn" in the 1990s and has also been challenged on the basis of "questionable themes" (censorship, repression and religion, to name a few) in the past.
"We know all the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we'll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them."
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
James’ bestseller – the first in a trilogy which has since spawned a companion series – is about the relationship between naïve student Ana and rich businessman Christian, who has a fondness for bondage. It was removed from shelves in Brevard County, Florida, because it was too pornographic. The library system later reversed its decision, due to requests by residents for the book.
“Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.”
Forever by Judy Blume
Since its publication in 1975, Forever - the candid tale of a sexual relationship between two teenagers - has become one of the most frequently challenged books ever, drawing opposition from religious and sexual abstinence groups in the US for its frank prose and the fact that one of the main characters goes on the pill.
"That's not a bad word, hate and war are bad words, f**k isn't."
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
A war novel set during the Spanish civil conflict in the 1930s, For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the compelling story of a young American volunteer attached to an antifascist guerilla unit. It was banned under Franco rule in Spain and in a number of other countries for being pro-Communist and pro-Republican.
"I believe firmly in the Republic and I have faith. I believe in it with fervor as those who have religious faith believe in mysteries."
Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the fantasy world of Hogworts may seem fairly innocuous, but this hugely popular series has faced opposition from parents and school boards on both sides of the Atlantic. Portrayal of death, evil and hatred - as well as promotion of belief in witchcraft - are among reasons cited for objections.
"It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more." - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Truman Capote's chilling 1966 account of the true life murder of a farm family in Kansas was banned at a high school in Georgia, on the grounds of sex, violence, and profanity. It was later reinstated.
"I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat."
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Based around an erotic affair between an upper class married woman and her game keeper, Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in the UK on the grounds of obscenity for over thirty years. It was finally granted publication rights in 1968 after Penguin won a landmark court case, and immediately sold out.
"He laid his hand on her shoulder, and softly, gently, it began to travel down the curve of her back, blindly, with a blind stroking motion, to the curve of her crouching loins."
Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi
A collection of short chapters depicting daily life in Burma - with all the baggage of political and human rights abuses - this vignette is penned by Burmese opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. It is banned in her native Burma, despite being freely available and widely read elsewhere around the globe.
"To view the opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault the very foundation of democracy."
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov's controversial tale of a middle-aged scholar's obsession with a 12-year-old "nymphet" was a cause of both celebration and alarm when it was first published in 1955: it was banned outright in the UK until 1959, along with a number of other countries - including France, Belgium, and Argentina.
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul."
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
A 1954 novel about the rapid decline of civilization among a group of schoolboys stranded on a desert island, Lord Of The Flies has been challenged on numerous occasions in the US for its use of profanity, extreme violence and even statements defamatory to women.
"'Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!'"
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Long established as one of the greatest novels ever written, Madame Bovary nevertheless created moral outrage upon publication in 1857. Flaubert and his publishers were put on trial for obscenity but later acquitted for the story, which is based around the affairs of a bored married woman.
"She repeated to herself, 'I have a lover! I have a lover!' and the thought gave her a delicious thrill, as though she were beginning a second puberty."
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Hitler's notorious autobiography/ manifesto Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") sold millions of copies under the Nazi regime but has since been banned in Germany "out of a responsibility and respect for the victims of the Holocaust." Its resale is closely regulated, but some commentators argue that it should be de-banned - so as to absolve it of any symbol of power it might hold.
"Due to his own original special nature, the Jew cannot possess a religious institution, if for no other reason because he lacks idealism in any form, and hence belief in a hereafter is absolutely foreign to him."
Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody
An autobiographical account of Mahmoody's attempt to escape her husband after he keeps her and her daughter captivity in Iran, this book is banned in the country for its depiction of a harsh, patriarchal society where men rule without question.
"I remember the ordeal of labour and the intense pain that accompanies the onset of life. Perhaps it is a warning of what may come in the years."
Operation Dark Heart by Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer
In 2010, Pentagon staffers brought and destroyed thousands of copies of this 2010 memoir by US Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer, detailing his stint as an officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Afghanistan. However, their attempts to stop the leak of sensitive information was thwarted by social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit.
"At DIA, in 1999 and 2000, I was director of Task Force Stratus Ivy. One of my elements was the first undercover cyber unit, where we put officers undercover posing as hackers on the Internet."
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
This 1960 novel about a former high school basketball player deals with themes of prostitution, alcoholism and abortion, to name but a few. As such, it had a mixed reaction - it was banned in Ireland until 1967 because of "indecency" and was censored in several US high schools for sexual references and profanity.
"When it was over he was hurt to learn, from the creases of completion at the sides of her and the hard way she wouldn’t keep lying beside him but got up and sat on the edge of the metal-frame bed"
Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman
Abbie Hoffman's iconic alternative guide to life was published in 1971 and includes details of how to shoplift, grow marijuana and start up a guerilla radio station. It was banned in Canada for "advocating criminal offences" and also barred from many stores in the US, over fears it encouraged shoplifting.
"Avoid all needle drugs—the only dope worth shooting is Richard Nixon."
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
Starring a donkey named Sylvester who likes to collect stones, this children's book was banned in some parts of the US after publication in 1969, because of its anthropomorphic portrayal of police as pigs (alongside some other animal embodiments).
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Widely acknowledged as one of the best American novels ever written, this 1884 novel nevertheless provokes ongoing debate over whether it reinforces racial stereotypes. The N-word is used 242 times in the entire novel, leading one administrator to brand it the “most grotesque example of racism I’ve ever seen in my life”. It is frequently banned and challenged.
“That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.”
The Blue Lotus by Herge
Herge's 1936 comic strip features its hero Tintin fighting a drugs gang in Shanghai. It was initially greeted with enthusiasm in China but following the Communist takeover there, was banned for being pro-Kuomintang (the political party defeated by the Communists). The ban remained in place until 1984.
"Farewell, noble Tintin. May other friendships lighten your days in your country in the West and accompany you along the way!"
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Despite being authored at the end of the 14th Century The Canterbury Tales - a series of tales from journeying pilgrims - was still considered risque in terms of its obscene langauge and rich sexual innuendos into the late 20th Century. Under the Comstock Law (1873), it was prohibited for sale in the US and even now abridged versions are commonplace.
"For certeyn, olde dotard, by your leave/You shall have queynte right enough at eve ... What aileth you to grouche thus and groan?/Is it for ye would have my queynte alone?"
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Famed for being one of the most banned, censored and challenged books ever following its publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of teenage anti-hero Holden Caulfield as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery in the US. It attracted criticism in the 60s and 70s for "excess of vulgar language, sexual scenes, and things concerning moral issues."
"In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw."
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel focuses on the grim realities of life for black women living in America's Deep South in the 1930s. It has been banned by school boards on numerous occasions for graphic scenes of violence, descriptions of sexual assault, plus "troubling ideas about race relations, man's relationship to God, African history and human sexuality."
"I see Sofia and I don’t know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot."
The Complete Fairy Tales Of The Brothers Grimm by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel - these were just a few tales to come out of the The Complete Fairy Tales Of The Brothers Grimm in 1812. Over the years, the tales have raised objections over sexism, violence and the gruesome nature of punishments metered out to villians. The Allies banned the tales in Germany after the fall of the Nazis, who glorified Little Red Riding Hood into a symbol of the German people saved from the Jewish wolf.
"The wolf said, 'You know, my dear, it isn't safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.'"
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Dan Brown's 2003 best-seller was banned in Lebanon over its "insulting" - though fictional - suggestion that Christ had sexual relations with Mary Magdalene resulting in a child. Shop owners in the country were ordered to take copies off the shelves after complaints it was offensive to Christianity. The book, which has sold millions of copies worldwide, also portrays Catholic Church leaders as demonising women.
"Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."
The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
It's hard to believe the jolly japes of Dick and the gang might be in any way sinister, but Enid Blyton's books were banned for 30 years by the BBC for being produced by a "second rater" and lacking "literary value." The Noddy series has also come under fire for its "racist" portroyal of Golliwogs, while Blyton's adventure books have been criticised as sexist, with the boys routinely protecting the girls from danger.
"You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of." (Five Go On A Hike Together)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Detailing the devastating effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath faced opposition in the US for depicting "communist sympathies" and "exaggerating" poor conditions in migrant labour camps. It was banned in Kern County, California, where part of the novel was set, for two years - despite selling thousands of copies daily elsewhere.
"There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat."
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Kate, a handmaid who lives a life of sexual servitude, stars in this dystopian novel set in a futuristic and facist American state. A school board in Texas banned the book after complaints it was sexually explicit and offensive to Christians. Other complaints levied towards the story include that it is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women."
"Give me children, or else I die."
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Thomas’ novel is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and tells the story of Starr, a 16-year-old who witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend by police. School officials in Katy, Texas, banned the book in 2017 for “inappropriate language”. Although a petition started by a teenager saw the book reinstated in schools, youngsters still have to get parental permission to check it out.
“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini's best-selling debut novel charting the friendship of two young boys in Afghanistan has been banned in parts of the US for sexual content (the book features a rape scene) and offensive language. The film adaptation of it was also banned in Afghanistan for depicting the country's ethnic groups "in a bad light."
"He knew I'd seen everything in that alley, that I'd stood there and done nothing. He knew that I'd betrayed him"
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie was infamously issued with a fatwa - or death sentence - by Iran for "blasphemous references" in 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which is inspired in part by the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The book sparked riots across the world upon publication and is banned in many Muslim majority countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
"O my vanity I am an arrogant man, is this weakness, is it just a dream of power? Must I betray myself for a seat on the council? Is this sensible and wise or is it hollow and self-loving?"
The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
This landmark lesbian novel by Radclyffe Hall prompted obscenity trials in both the UK and US after its publication in 1928. It was greeted with outrage in the UK, with one newspaper editor noting, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel." The book was eventually sold without objection in Britain in 1949, triggering widespread debates on homosexuality.
"You're neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you're as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you're unexplained as yet"
The Witches by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl's chilling tale of witches abounding has been frequently challenged in US libraries and schools due to its focus on witchcraft and the way in which it "devalues the lives of children." It has also been criticised by feminist groups for its negative portrayal of women.
"I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one."
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum's legendary tale comprising the scarecrow, the Wicked Witch of the East and many other fantastical characters has come under fire since 1900. Reasons for banning it in classrooms and libraries include its promotion of "benevolent" witchcraft, support of "negativism," and portrayal of human skills as "individually developed rather than God given."
"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Set in Alabama in the 1930s, Harper Lee’s classic novel tells the story of a white lawyer defending a black man accused of rape. It has been subject to many challenges and temporary bans in US, on charges of racism and the accusation that it “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.”
“She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young Negro man.”
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Stephenie Meyer's racy novels about the romance between a teenager and a vampire are as controversial as they are popular. Last year, her hugely year Twilight series joined the ranks of those most frequently requested to be banned in US libraries and schools, with complaints over their sexual explicitness and "contradiction" of religious beliefs.
"Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips. My breath came in a wild gasp. My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me. My lips parted as I breathed in his heady scent."
Ulysses by James Joyce
Published in Paris in 1922, this account of a day in the life of protagonist Leopold Bloom has been lauded and criticised in equal measure. It was banned in the UK until the 1930s and in the US for eleven years after being branded radical and obscene.
"Mr. Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt. O Lord that little limping devil. Begins to feel cold and clammy. Aftereffect not pleasant. Still you have to get rid of it someway."
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Long regarded as one of the greatest anti-slavery novels ever written, Harriet Beecher Stowe's tale of slavery in the Deep South was greeted with outrage by many in 1852. A southern novelist declared it "utterly false" and Stowe received threatening letters, including one containing the severed ear of a slave. Even after the US Civil War and abolishment of slavery, the book continued to be challenged for its apparent racist portrayal of African Americans.
"We don't own your laws; we don't own your country; we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty till we die."
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Jung Chang's epic autobiography documenting three generations of women growing up in China amid political turmoil is banned in her native country due to its negative portrayal of the Mao regime. Chang said the move to bar it made her "frustrated and very unhappy."
"But I did not resent Mao. On the contrary, I hated myself for feeling miserable. By then I'd grown into the habit of 'self-criticism' and automatically blamed myself for any instincts that went against Mao's instructions."
Where's Waldo? by Martin Handford
This fun spot Waldo/Wally game ushered in a huge amount of objections in America when it was first published in the 90s. The reason? One of the "spotting" scenes includes a crowd of sunbathers, of whom one appears to be topless. This made it one of the American Library Association's most banned books of 1990-2000.