To critics and lovers of literature, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a masterpiece that captures the grim realities of racial discrimination in 20th-century America. But thanks to a ban passed by the local board of education, school kids in Randolph County, N.C, won't be able find that novel in their library.
Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953, was brought before the board by an angry parent who filed a 12-page complaint. She disliked the fact the book was written in the first person — which, she said, put too much emphasis on the author's "individual experiences and his feelings" — and grumbled about its sexual content and lack of innocence. The school board agreed, voting 5-2 to ban the book, with one board member, Gary Mason, stating, "I didn't find any literary value."
Ellison's masterwork now joins a long and illustrious list of books that have been banned from American school and libraries. The American Library Association recorded 464 challenges to books in 2012, and says more than 17,700 challenges have been filed since 1990. Not every contested book gets banned, and not all banned books remain on the list for long. Here, a look at 13 of the more surprising banned or challenged reads.
1. 1961: Tarzan series, Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic series about a man living in the jungle was pulled from the shelves of a public library in the appropriately named town of Tarzana, Calif. Authorities thought the adventure stories unsuitable for youngsters, since there was no evidence that Tarzan and Jane had married before they started cohabiting in the treetops. Ralph Rothmund, who ran Burroughs' estate, protested that the couple had taken marital vows in the jungle with Jane's father serving as minister. "The father may not have been an ordained minister," said Rothmund, "but after all things were primitive in those days in the jungle."
2. 1969: The Dictionary
You might assume the dictionary is the least likely place a teen would search for illicit content, but school administrators in Alaska believed otherwise. Both American Heritage and Merriam Webster have been banned in various libraries and schools. In 1987, for example, the Anchorage School Board banned the American Heritage Dictionary for its "objectionable" entries — particularly slang words, including "bed," "knocker," and "balls."
3. 1977: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, William Steig
William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, about an unassuming donkey transformed into a rock after finding a magic pebble, portrays a sweet-natured character wishing for the impossible. But the anthropomorphic animals in the award-winning children's book did not sit well with all audiences. In 1977, police associations in 12 states urged the libraries to remove the book, because it portrays police as pigs.
4. 1983: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, chronicles the tragic experience of a Jewish family in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, where the 13-year-old and her family hid until they were caught and sent to concentration camps in August 1944. The book has been challenged numerous times for sexually explicit passages, and, in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for rejecting the book because it was "a real downer."
5. 1989: The Lorax, Dr. Seuss
Beloved children's author Dr. Seuss took a stand for the environment in 1971 with The Lorax, which describes the destruction of an imagined forest of woolly Truffula trees. The narrator chops down the trees to use their foliage to knit clothing. While some readers may have been offended by the book's use of the word "stupid," it was the logging industry that was insulted by the anti-deforesting plot line.
6. 1990: Little Red Riding Hood, Trina Schart Hyman
When kids read Little Red Riding Hood, they take away the message that they shouldn't talk to strangers — especially those with big, shiny teeth. But when school officials in Culver City, Calif., looked at an illustrated version of the tale by Trina Schart Hyman, they saw a different message: Alcohol is yummy. They were outraged that young Ms. Hood is pictured with a bottle of wine in her basket, which granny later glugs down. "Showing the grandmother who has consumed half a bottle of wine with a red nose is not a lesson we want to teach," said an official.
7. 1992: Hansel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm
The Brothers Grimm infamously pushed children's fairy tales to the limits — sometimes landing the 19th-century authors on the banned list. Hansel and Gretel, the tale of two siblings who get into trouble for eating sweets reserved for a witch, has been rejected before, but, in 1992, it was challenged again, this time by two self-proclaimed witches who said the tale gives witches a bad name.
8. Mid-1990s: Where's Waldo?, Martin Hanford
Where's Waldo? rose to popularity in the mid-1990s, challenging young readers to find the lanky, bespectacled Waldo in various crowded scenes. The problem wasn't the perpetually lost protagonist; it was a sunbathing woman suffering a wardrobe malfunction the size of a pinhead in a corner of one of Martin Hanford's drawings. The exposed breast got the book banned in Michigan and New York.
9. 1996: Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
School authorities in Merrimack, N.H. found nothing amusing about Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which a girl washes ashore after a shipwreck, disguises herself as a page, and falls in love with her male master. That jolly cross-dressing and fake-same-sex romance was deemed in violation of the district's "prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction," and copies of the play were pulled from schools.
10. 2006: Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
Even arachnophobes love Charlotte's Web, a heart-warming tale about the friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a wordy barn spider called Charlotte. But a parents group in Kansas decided that any book featuring two talking animals must be the work of the devil, and so had E.B. White's 1952 work barred from classrooms. The group's central complaint was that humans are the highest level of God's creation, as shown by, they said, the fact we're "the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God."
11. 2007: Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
While pretty much every child was devouring the final book in the Harry Potter series in 2007, one school was pulling all seven Potter books from its library shelves. The pastor of St. Joseph School in Wakefield, Mass., deemed their sorcery-heavy storylines inappropriate for a Catholic school. Parents said the pastor thought most children were "strong enough to resist the temptation," but his job was to "protect the weak and the strong."
12. 2010: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Bill Martin
The children's picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? made a surprise appearance on the banned books list in January 2010 thanks to the Texas Board of Education. Author Bill Martin Jr. happens to have the same name as an obscure Marxist theorist, and no one "bothered" to see if they were the same person.
13. 2010: What's Happening To My Body?, Lynda Madaras
What's Happening To My Body?, a classic guide to those awkward puberty years, was deemed inappropriate and banned by 21 school libraries in Texas. The father who brought the complaint in December 2010 was shocked that the book would be available to his 8-year-old. The ALA says the book has been one of the top banned and challenged titles by parents in the last decade.
Editor's note: Parts of this article were originally published on September 29, 2011. It was last updated on September 19, 2013.