30 Essential Reads for Banned Books Week

It feels like we’ve heard more about banned books over the past year than usual, but it’s not just your imagination. According to PEN America, educational gag orders that prevent teaching about topics like race, gender, and American history have increased by 250% this year compared to 2021 and have been more likely to include punishments, such as fines, loss of state funding, or even criminal charges against teachers. As a result, many books that address politically charged topics have either been banned or challenged in school districts across the country. Books that aim to educate about race and LGBTQ+ identities have been disproportionately impacted.

You may have heard about the bans against Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech and Maus by Art Spiegelman in our home state of Tennessee, but this is far from an isolated incident. In fact, PEN America has put together a comprehensive list of over one thousand titles that have either been banned or challenged in libraries and schools across America in the past year.

This Banned Books Week, we wanted to feature just a few of our favorite banned and challenged books. Some are old, some are new, but all are stories worthy of being told and shared.

“Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” -Laurie Halse Anderson

Recommended by Lindsay

Call Me by Your Name: A Novel By André Aciman Cover ImageCall Me by Your Name: A Novel

This was one of the first books I read as a young adult where the characters’ queerness wasn’t tied to some form of trauma. Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful meditation on art and love–it’s a book I return to year after year.

Recommended by Kathy

To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee Cover ImageTo Kill a Mockingbird

I’ve taught this book probably 25 times to 10th graders. It never fails to open eyes to people’s prejudices and attitudes. It also happens to be my favorite book of all time.

Also loved by Hannah, Patsy, and Cheryl!

Recommended by Jenny

The Kite Runner By Khaled Hosseini Cover ImageThe Kite Runner

I teach The Kite Runner in my AP Lit class every year. It is one of the most important texts I’ve ever read, and it’s always a class favorite. Following the pathway of a young boy thrown out of Afghanistan before 9/11, it is a difficult story, but one that needs to be told and read. It’s a tale of humanity– the tears, the heartbreak, the joy, and the hope that comes with being human. I cannot recommend it enough.

Also loved by Sarah!

Recommended by Hannah

Brave New World By Aldous Huxley Cover ImageBrave New World

An engrossing, scathing critique of an all-powerful regime, consumerism, social hierarchy, technology as a means to control, and more, Brave New World is a must-read dystopian novel. I devoured it back in my AP Lit class, and it remains one of my favorites today.

Recommended by Jenness

The Handmaid's Tale: A Novel By Margaret Atwood Cover ImageThe Handmaid’s Tale: A Novel

There’s a reason why this dystopian novel about a society which views women as reproductive functionaries first and humans second (or last) has been infuriating and terrifying readers for nearly 40 years – the threat feels icily real. As America deals with fallout from the recent SCOTUS right-turn on reproductive rights, this book remains incendiary and vital. Read the book, fight the power.

Recommended by Cheryl

The Color Purple: A Novel By Alice Walker Cover ImageThe Color Purple: A Novel 

Celie, a young black woman in early 20th century Georgia, really didn’t have a voice or control of her abusive situation. Her story is told through letters to God and later her sister, Nettie. Despite the dictates of society, Celie finds a sisterhood of women, her voice, and finally a safe, loving home. Won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Recommended by Chelsea

Middlesex: A Novel By Jeffrey Eugenides Cover ImageMiddlesex: A Novel

I borrowed this while staying at a friend’s house and promptly stayed up until 3 AM reading this. The narrative voice is unlike anything I’ve read, and I believe this should be required reading for all.

Also loved by Jenness and Patsy!

Recommended by Sarah

Fahrenheit 451: A Novel By Ray Bradbury Cover ImageFahrenheit 451: A Novel

This one speaks for itself. If you haven’t read it yet, now is the time.

Recommended by Lindsay

In the Dream House: A Memoir By Carmen Maria Machado Cover ImageIn the Dream House: A Memoir

Not only is In the Dream House one of the most innovative, lyrical memoirs I’ve ever read, it’s also a necessary resource on domestic abuse. I’m so grateful this book exists and hope it can always get in the hands of readers who need it.

Also loved by Jake!

Recommended by Katie

Heavy: An American Memoir By Kiese Laymon Cover ImageHeavy: An American Memoir

Laymon is one of the brightest talents in today’s literary scene and he writes so beautifully and honestly about what it means to live in a fat Black body. It doesn’t surprise me that it was banned, but that only makes me want to push it into the hands of absolutely everyone.

Recommended by Cheryl

A Raisin in the Sun By Lorraine Hansberry Cover ImageA Raisin in the Sun

This play is about a Black family getting the chance to move to a white neighborhood in the 1950s. It deals with the aftermath of slavery, abortion, and differing views of three generations. It’s uncomfortable, daring and necessary. As a little girl, the Black woman who wrote it and her family were the first in an unwelcoming white neighborhood. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court to be able to stay.

Recommended by Jake

Between the World and Me By Ta-Nehisi Coates Cover ImageBetween the World and Me

Structured as a series of letters to his son, Coates’ writing intertwines autobiographical elements with a frank discussion of race in America and the manner in which the history of the United States is built on the backs of minorities. A National Book Award winner and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, this book is among the most illuminating I have ever read.

Recommended by Patsy

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon Graphic Library) By Marjane Satrapi Cover ImagePersepolis: The Story of a Childhood

This moving graphic novel depicts the Iranian Revolution from the eyes of a young girl as she lived through it and tried to understand extremism under Shah. She addresses family life, education, and the systematic torture of dissidents (the reason for which it was banned in some US schools). Like Spielgelman’s Maus, Persepolis is essential reading for a broader understanding of world history.

Recommended by Rae Ann

Saturday By Oge Mora (By (artist)) Cover ImageSaturday

By Oge Mora

Saturday is the best day because Ava and her mom spend the entire day together. One special Saturday, things don’t go as planned. Caldecott honoree Oge Mora’s beautiful story paired with collage art is a delight.

Recommended by Sarah

Prince & Knight By Daniel Haack, Stevie Lewis (Illustrator) Cover ImagePrince & Knight

By Daniel HaackStevie Lewis (Illustrator)

A prince is told that he should find a worthy bride, but he follows his heart instead. I love this sweet story about a prince and his knight in shining armor.

Recommended by Katie

Julián Is a Mermaid By Jessica Love, Jessica Love (Illustrator) Cover ImageJulián Is a Mermaid

I cannot get enough of Jessica Love’s BEAUTIFULLY illustrated books. I want to crawl inside and live out the rest of my days with Julian and their Abuela. And after reading this book, attending the Cony Island Mermaid parade is on my bucket list.

Also loved by Chelsea and RJ!

Recommended by Ann

Brown Girl Dreaming By Jacqueline Woodson Cover ImageBrown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is so big-hearted and open that there’s room for the reader to walk right into the story and experience what it’s like to live and dream alongside the author. I’ve bought a dozen copies of this book and given it to people as young as 10 and as old as 92. Every single person has loved it. I love it.

Also loved by Chelsea and Cheryl!

Recommended by Aly

Walk Two Moons By Sharon Creech Cover ImageWalk Two Moons

A timeless story about growing up and the difficult but beautiful relationships between mothers and daughters. This is a striking story with so much heart.

Recommended by RJ

King and the Dragonflies (Scholastic Gold) By Kacen Callender Cover ImageKing and the Dragonflies (Scholastic Gold)

Devastating and beautiful and devastatingly beautiful, King and the Dragonflies is a story of grief, identity, abuse, love, and friendship that cuts powerfully to the heart of every emotion it tackles.

Recommended by Cheryl

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. By Judy Blume Cover ImageAre You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

This book was an answer for young girls as they were developing into women. All the changes to their bodies, sex, God and their thoughts and fears. This caring book let them feel okay about all of it and that it was normal. As a mother of girls, it made me angry that it could be banned.

Recommended by Aly

Junie B. Jones #1: Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus By Barbara Park, Denise Brunkus (Illustrator) Cover ImageJunie B. Jones #1: Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus

By Barbara ParkDenise Brunkus (Illustrator)

This series will always hold a special place in my heart. Junie B. Jones is precocious and determined and stubborn and everything they try to tell you a little girl shouldn’t be. But she is also endearing and funny and an amazing friend. More of us should aspire to be Junie B.

Recommended by Rae Ann

The Downstairs Girl By Stacey Lee Cover ImageThe Downstairs Girl

The Downstairs Girl tells the story of Jo Kuan, lady’s maid by day and pseudonymous advice columnist by night. In 1890 Atlanta, Jo lives in a secret underground basement with her uncle as they make their way in the margins of society.

Also loved by RJ!

Recommended by Jenny

The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas, Amandla Stenberg (Foreword by) Cover ImageThe Hate U Give

By Angie ThomasAmandla Stenberg (Foreword by)

Told in the perspective of a teenage girl who experiences a traumatic example of police brutality and prejudice firsthand, this story examines the complexities of important racial and social issues in our country. If you are looking to be inspired to make the world a better place, look no further than this teenage girl.

Also loved by Cheryl!

Recommended by RJ

The Black Flamingo By Dean Atta Cover ImageThe Black Flamingo

By Dean Atta

This is a gorgeous and honest coming of age novel in verse about a mixed-race gay teen. This book had me from the first page and never let go.

Recommended by Jake

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Revised Edition) By Jesse Andrews Cover ImageMe and Earl and the Dying Girl

Greg and Earl are lifelong best friends, or rather, co-workers. They both aspire to be filmmakers and spend most of their free time making films together, never daring to show anyone else. But when Greg’ s mom pressures him to reconnect with Rachel, a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia, the duo elect to make a film just for her. A moving story, this is my favorite young adult novel ever written.

Recommended by Rae Ann

Out of the Easy By Ruta Sepetys Cover ImageOut of the Easy

Josie is the daughter of a New Orleans prostitute. She works in a bookshop and wants to escape her mother’s shadow to attend Smith College. When she is caught in a murder investigation, Josie must make a difficult choice. This propulsive novel is my favorite story by Ruta Sepetys.

Also loved by Sarah!

Recommended by Sarah

The Perks of Being a Wallflower By Stephen Chbosky Cover ImageThe Perks of Being a Wallflower

I typically keep my books in nice condition. I try to not dog ear pages, bend the cover back too far and such. When I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a teenager, I couldn’t help but underline and highlight all of my favorite lines and dog ear the pages with my favorite passages. My copy is well worn, and it still occupies a special place on my shelf today.

Recommended by Cat

Speak By Laurie Halse Anderson Cover ImageSpeak

Melinda is beginning high school, but just before school starts something happens at a party and Melinda is the one to call the cops to have the party shut down. As the year progresses, Melinda becomes more and more of an outcast, but somehow must find a way to heal. This story is a classic for a reason and an amazing example of using fiction to discuss very real problems.

Recommended by RJ

Ace of Spades By Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé Cover ImageAce of Spades

Ace of Spades is terrifying and twisty story set at an elite prep school where two teens are being targeted by an anonymous threat seemingly set on destroying their lives. A smart thriller that both keeps readers guessing and engages with the horrifying objectives of racism.

Recommended by Chelsea

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda By Becky Albertalli Cover ImageSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

When an email falls into the wrong hands, Simon is blackmailed into playing wingman for the class clown, lest Simon’s crush (and sexual identity) be exposed to the school. Albertalli has a knack of writing characters that you swear are real people. I adored Simon and his circle of friends.