In 213 BC, the great Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang buried 460 scholars alive before burning all the books in his kingdom so he could control how history would remember his reign. Of course, since there were no books or scholars left to record the event, the exact details of this episode remain contested. But the point is, as long as books have existed there have been people trying to stop other people reading them.

Indeed, by 1982, so many books were being challenged in the United States that several free-speech organisations banded together to start Banned Books Week, which runs from 22-28 September. Forty years on and we're seeing new limitations on the vitality of provocative stories and the words they contain.  

Here, we’ve rounded up a list of the books that have been targeted for censorship in recent years.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Margaret Atwood's fable about women's power, fertility and the patriarchy may be so well-known that people dress up as its titular Handmaids for Halloween, but that hasn't stopped it from being repeatedly banned over the past four decades. The Handmaid's Tale has been criticised for a long list of reasons - for being anti-Christian and anti-Islamic and for its portrayal of sex and violence, among others. It remains the seventh-most challenged book on the American Library Association's list of frequently challenged books. 

But, if The Handmaid's Tale – and its author – teach us anything, it's that resistance is power. And as book banning and gag orders have become so numerous in Republican-led school districts in the US, extreme measures have been taken by Penguin Random House: the creation of a flame-proof copy of the novel. Watch the clip below for more.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2007)

Ever since its publication in 2007, Asher’s bestselling book has divided opinion. The young adult novel tells the story of a high-school student’s suicide through a series of cassette tapes which she leaves behind for 13 of her fellow students. As the mystery untangles, each must work out how they fit into the puzzle of her death.

Despite being hailed as a "valuable tool in igniting conversations about suicide, bullying, and consent", schools in Canada and Colorado hauled the book from their library shelves after concerned parents complained. The controversy was reignited in 2017 with the release of a controversial Netflix adaptation, and by 2018 it had become one of the most banned, challenged and restricted books in America.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2009)

This bestseller, which tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who leaves his Spokane Reservation to attend an all-white high school, upset a lot of people for a lot of reasons. The multiple award-winning coming-of-age novel was lauded upon its 2008 publication for tackling such touchpoint issues as racial identity, bullying, poverty, disability and more and as a result, many schools across America incorporated it into their curriculums.

Then came the complaints. They ranged from its use of "filthy words" to "reference to masturbation" to themes viewed by many as "anti-Christian". At least 17 schools across the US crossed it off their reading lists sparking student protests and petitions. Most were in vain.

Soon, free speech organisations jumped in to defend the book before the author himself slammed education authorities for wanting to "control debate and limit the imagination." It remains one of the most banned books in circulation. 

China Dream by Ma Jian (2018)

All seven of Ma Jian’s novels are banned in China, and so is he. The political exile is now a British citizen, but the 5,000 miles between him and his homeland have not blunted the ire he has for the regime that shut him out.

The title of his latest novel, China Dream, is a phrase lifted directly from president Xi Jinping, who uses it to describe China’s “great rejuvenation” into the world’s sovereign superpower. It’s set in real-world China and follows a pompous and corrupt government official charged with replacing people’s dreams with government propaganda via brain implants.

It is a fearless critique of a regime that condemned his first book (about the impact of the nation’s one-child policy) as ‘spiritual pollution’. But then, in Jian’s words, "I have never allowed myself to not write something for fear of consequences; that would be the death of literature in my mind".

Beartown by Fredrik Backman (2016)

Last October, a cold gust of fear swept through North Carolina’s Rockingham County School District. A book, parents said, was having a terrifying effect on their 16-year-old children.

The outcry erupted after it was discovered that Beartown, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman, had inveigled itself into the McMichael High School’s curriculum without pre-approval.

Published in 2017, it tells the story of a rusting forest community that pins its hopes of glory and economic revival on its junior hockey team as it competes in the national championships. But the expectation on the young boys’ shoulders weighs heavy, culminating in a violent act that will leave one girl traumatised and the town in disarray.

Parents complained about its "vulgar", "graphic" and "just unnecessary" subject matter and the school board leapt into action, voting swiftly to pull the book from the honours class’ required reading list. One pastor reportedly fumed: “Whose job is it to make sure the books that are being taught are on an approved list? How many other books are being taught that are not on an approved list?” The imbroglio was put down to the inexperience of a teacher unfamiliar with the school’s book approval process.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)

When US State Representative Amy Arata picked up her 17-year-old son’s school copy of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, she did not like what greeted her eyes. The Republican lawmaker, of New Gloucester, MA, was so shocked by what she read that she felt compelled to introduce a bill to criminalise educators who teach it.

"It's really sending the wrong message to kids about what's appropriate." Arata told a local news station in January 2019, citing the book’s "obscene" and "very vivid descriptions" of sex. "I opened up to a page that made me go 'Wow, this isn't normal.'"

The novel is a surreal and hallucinatory tale of a young runaway on an Oedipal quest to find his mother and an ageing simpleton who searches for lost cats. There’s also a murder and mackerel that fall from the sky, intrigue and sex with a ghost and everything else you’d expect from Murakami’s magical realist style. American novelist John Updike called it a "real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender." In the end, for Arata, the bill was rejected by Maine’s legislative committee.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885)

Ever since it was published in 1885, people have tried to ban Twain’s classic tale of two runaways – one escaping an abusive father, and the other escaping slavery. Racism has been the main criticism, while others would say Huck Finn simply "conflicted with the values of the community".

In 2019, Two New Jersey lawmakers introduced a non-binding resolution calling on school districts in the state to remove novel – considered to be one of the greatest in American literature – from their curricula.

“The novel’s use of a racial slur and its depictions of racist attitudes can cause students to feel upset, marginalized or humiliated and can create an uncomfortable atmosphere in the classroom," reads the resolution by Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Jamel Holley. It also notes that school districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota and Mississippi have removed the book from their curricula. The debate over whether new publishers should sanitise future editions by replacing the n-word with "slave" continues. 

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Another classic of American literature that has a long and complex relationship with censorship. In 2017, it held seventh place in the American Library Association’s top ten most challenged and banned books, and appeared on the 2009 and 2011 lists, too.

And last October, debate over Pulitzer-Prize winning novel reared its head again, as a school board in Ontario, Canada told teachers in Peel, a region near Toronto, to stop teaching it because it is "violent and oppressive": to Black students and its trope of a "white saviour" makes its black characters seem "less than human".

Lee’s novel – about a white lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in America’s segregated South – has been regularly expelled from school curriculums across America since its publication in 1960. Its defenders claim it presents an unvarnished depiction of a racist past where what’s right and wrong is irrelevant when the system is built to oppress you. Its critics consider its liberal use of the n-word and portrayal of Black characters an affront to modern attitudes towards race and diversity.  

Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991)

Art Spiegelman’s comics masterpiece – a non-fiction memoir that tells the story about his father Vladek’s experience in the concentration camps during the Holocaust – remains the only graphic novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize, but that wasn’t enough to convince a Tennessee schoolboard to keep it on their curriculum. In January 2022, the McMinn County Board of Education voted 10-0 in favour of removing the book over concerns of “rough, objectionable language” and a drawing of a nude woman.

The book has long been a used to teach schoolchildren in America about the Second World War and the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism, but that wasn’t enough merit, apparently, to keep it in the school system – schoolboard doubled down on their decision the following month. In an interview with CNN about the decision, Spiegelman said “They’re totally focused on some bad words that are in the book. I can't believe the word 'damn' would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own” and that he tries “to be tolerant of people who may possibly not be Nazis… maybe.”

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (2021)

In a recent LGBTQ+ reading list, when we wrote about George M. Johnson’s incredible memoir-manifesto about growing up queer and Black – about being bullied as a child, about their strong connection to their grandmother, and about navigating the often rigid confines of gender, masculinity, and race – we noted that “as queer communities have moved online, younger writers are finding and expressing themselves earlier.” As a result, visibility has never been more important; to help understand themselves, it’s crucial that young people see themselves represented in books.

It's sad, then, that All Boys Aren't Blue has found itself a target of censorship in no fewer than 14 American states – including a school board in Flagler County, Florida, that deemed the book “pornography” and filed a criminal complaint against it for depictions of oral sex and sexual assault.

At the very least, students in the country are organising to protest the ban: as 17-year-old student Jack Petocz told the New York Times, “Books are so critical for youth, for feeling there are resources for them.”

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (1997)

JK Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft And Wizardry has long been of genuine concern to black-magic believers across the world, stoking fears it could incite children to pursue the Left-Hand Path. The hit series of books – about a bespectacled boy-wizard and pals – has been compared by Christian groups to "rat poison mixed with orange soda" and a "doorway that will put untold millions of kids into hell". They have been the subject to at least six book burnings in the US.

Then, in September 2019, St Edward Catholic School in Nashville banished the book from its library after its pastor took exception to its portrayal of magic. In an email to parents, he described the books as "a clever deception", adding, apparently in all seriousness: "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".

The Catholic Church has taken no official position on the books, though, in 2003, a Vatican spokesperson stood up for them, saying they are consistent with Christian morals.

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