These titles have been challenged often, but they're also highly recommended
If you're curious about banned books but don't know where to start, Allison Lee, J92, and Stacy Lieberman, J92, have some suggestions. The former Tufts roommates have devoted their careers to promoting access to books and information—even the sorts of titles that are often banned.
Lee is managing director of PEN America’s Los Angeles office; Lieberman is president and CEO of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Here, they recommend a few of their favorite books that have stirred controversy.
Recommendations from Allison Lee
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Analyzing Morrison’s work—including this title—while an undergraduate at Tufts prepared me for how to engage as an adult in discussions around complex topics like race, privilege, identity, beauty, and self-loathing. Now, quite simply, her work reminds me of the power of storytelling. The fact that it continues to be challenged and banned because of the raw realness of that storytelling is an important reminder to me as to why I’m engaged in this fight.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
This graphic autobiography is often targeted by book banners as “pornography” in large part because it charts the course of Kobabe’s own journey of self-identity. In many ways it’s the continuation of the path first forged in the 1970s by Judy Blume, who wrote frankly about teen sexuality, puberty, and other sensitive subjects—but this book has a 21st-century format and point of view. It is honest and real and an important read for anyone wanting to better understand what gender identity means and how to advocate for all.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
This book has faced censorship of one sort or another since it was published in 1899—largely because of its representation of female sexual identity and independence. I read it for a class at Tufts, and was struck by the fact that Chopin never wrote another novel after The Awakening and had difficulty getting any work published. I recently met YA and children’s book author Elana K. Arnold, whose books have been banned because she tells stories of sexual assault and female sexual coming of age. Many of her new works, including picture books on completely different subjects, are being targeted for bans or removals because she’s been pegged a “problematic author”—the cycle continues.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This 2017 New York Times bestselling novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement, offers a critical look at race and police violence in the United States and was adapted into a film by the same name in 2018. I had the honor of moderating a panel with Thomas at the 2023 LA Times Festival of Books and what struck me the most about her was her optimism. Rather than spending energy or attention on those who seek to restrict access to books, Thomas is focused on the writers, librarians, and students for whom the stakes are highest—and on the generation best positioned to fight back. I carry with me Thomas’s positive message: “The power you have is stronger than the hate anybody could give.”
Recommendations from Stacy Lieberman
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
This groundbreaking, Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel is a deeply affecting and wrenching depiction of the life of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, as told by his son Artie. With Jews depicted as mice and Nazis as cats, the book alternates between Vladek’s harrowing survival of the Holocaust and what continues to haunt him and his family as a tormented survivor living in New York. The book has been banned for nudity and profanity despite its obvious importance as a novel that powerfully shares the painful history of the Holocaust.
Forever by Judy Blume
With the same openness and honesty characteristic of all of Judy Blume’s work, this novel shares the budding romance of high school students Katherine and Michael, and serves as a helpful and relatable guide to teens navigating their way through the confusion of first relationships, love, and sex. Everyone I knew growing up read this book and passed it around, grateful for all the ways it normalized what we were feeling and answered frankly the questions we were embarrassed to ask. The book is banned due to its graphic description of sex and because the main character actively seeks and accesses birth control at Planned Parenthood.
The Narrative and Selected Writings by Frederick Douglass
I read this powerful collection of autobiographical writing by Douglass, a former enslaved person, abolitionist, and human rights activist, in a Tufts class on Black literature that was taught by Clyde Taylor, who was an associate professor in English then. Reading this book emphasized the power of exactly why books need to be so accessible—so you can put yourself in someone else's shoes and read about others’ lived experiences, which engenders empathy and understanding. That knowledge continues to motivate me to advocate for justice, especially when this book is being banned, along with others by authors of color and/or addressing race.
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
This children’s book tells the heartwarming story of two male penguins at New York City’s Central Park Zoo who fall in love and want to start a family like their penguin peers. A zookeeper helps them “adopt” a baby chick. Altogether, their family makes three. My sons’ aunties gifted us this colorful picture book, which is based on a true story, and my boys loved when I read it to them before bed, appreciating that families come in many different forms. The book is banned for celebrating same-sex relationships.