The best books open our eyes and allow us to see the world in a whole new way—and that's exactly what each and every book on this list does. All of these novels are classics in their own right. All are written by award-winning authors. All have been turned into films (with “The Giver” out on Friday, Aug. 15). And all, at some point in time, have been deemed controversial enough to be banned from schools and libraries. Chances are, you’ll not only enjoy the story in each of these books, but they’ll also make you think a bit differently about the world we live in.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
Published in 1960 during the Civil Rights movement, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Harper Lee’s only published novel. While Lee’s story is a fictional one, some critics have theorized that it’s inspired by the true story of the Scottsboro Case in which a black man was falsely accused of raping a white woman in the South. It’s also thought to be based on the town where Lee grew up, Monroeville, Alabama. But Lee is tired of people trying to surmise the story’s origins and has refused interviews for years; rather, she wants the story to stand for itself.
Lee’s tale is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl named Scout, whose father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer defending the accused rapist, Tom Robinson, during the Great Depression. But the courtroom drama is only half the story; Scout, along with her brother Jem and friend Dill, are fascinated with their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. With storylines revolving around racial inequality and rape, many classrooms banned the book. But over the years it has become not only a favorite book to so many, but recommended time and time again as a book everyone should read. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
With Maya Angelou’s death this past May, get to know the inspirational woman by reading her debut autobiography, published in 1969, that details her life from the age of three, when she was sent to live with her grandmother, to 17, when she becomes a mother. The powerful book touches on issues like bigotry, racism, and being a women in a male-dominated society, but it’s the rape—particularly the scene depicting the abuse Maya suffered at the age of eight—that’s often cited as the reason for banning the book. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” isn’t Angelou’s only controversial book. In fact, she’s been named one of the most banned authors ever, even as she’s won a number of accolades for her writing, including the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000.
Lois Lowry’s acclaimed sci-fi novel “The Giver” may be considered a children’s book, but the story of a utopia turned dystopia has appealed to children and adults alike for over two decades. The story centers on Jonas, who has been given the task of receiving all the world’s memories so his community can live a life without pain, poverty, and homelessness. But, as Jonas discovers color and learns about the old world, he realizes that everyone in life should be able to make their own choices. With controversial scenes that feature infanticide, euthanasia, and Jonas bathing a naked elderly woman, “The Giver” was frequently banned from libraries and classrooms in the 1990s. Even so, it won the Newbery Medal in 1994.
“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding
What happens when a bunch of English schoolboys are stranded on an island? That’s the premise of William Golding’s 1954 classic and the answer isn’t a happy one: Civilization breaks down and chaos ensues. It’s also the exact opposite of what happens in “The Coral Island” by R. M. Ballantyne (where the boys become missionaries and turn the islanders into Christians), a book that Golding is responding to with “Lord of the Flies.”
In Golding’s classic novel, Ralph becomes the leader as they build fires and make shelters, but his authority is soon questioned and put to the test when another boy, Jack, breaks away and forms his own group, one intent on hunting pigs -- and later Ralph and his friend Piggy. The violence in the book is the top reason for why this book was long challenged and banned in so many schools, but it’s also become one of the most popular books taught in classrooms throughout the country.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
Published 75 years ago, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck is historic in more ways than one. His acclaimed, and controversial, novel takes place during the Dust Bowl migration, and focuses on the tale of the displaced Joad family, who make their way from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s. Once in California, where they think they’re starting a new, and better, life, they’re exploited by California farmers. Since it’s publication, the novel has left a strong impression on millions of people. To some, it’s a powerful story about poverty and social injustice deserving of a National Book award as well as a Pulitzer prize. To those who burned the book and banned it from libraries all over the country, it was a threat to American individualism and seen as Communist propaganda.
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