Literary censorship may seem like a thing of the past, but as Banned Books Week continues, we’re looking at a slew of new releases that have caused controversy. Published in the past decade, these books have been criticized for explicit content, false claims, and so much more. Check out our list of some of the most controversial books of the last decade below, complete with publishers’ descriptions.
2005: And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
And Tango Makes Three is the bestselling, heartwarming true story of two penguins who create a nontraditional family.
At the penguin house at the Central Park Zoo, two penguins named Roy and Silo were a little bit different from the others. But their desire for a family was the same. And with the help of a kindly zookeeper, Roy and Silo get the chance to welcome a baby penguin of their very own.
What makes it controversial: The fact that a same-sex couple — even in the animal kingdom — was presented in a children’s book made this one controversial. According to the American Library Association, And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book from 2006 to 2008 and again in 2010.
2006: In the Line of Fire by Pervez Musharraf
According to Time magazine, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf holds “the world’s most dangerous job.” He has twice come within inches of assassination. His forces have caught more than 670 members of al Qaeda in the mountains and cities, yet many others remain at large and active, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri. Long locked in a deadly embrace with its nuclear neighbor India, Pakistan has come close to full-scale war on two occasions since it first exploded a nuclear bomb in 1998. As President Musharraf struggles for the security and political future of his nation, the stakes could not be higher for the world at large.
It is unprecedented for a sitting head of state to write a memoir as revelatory, detailed, and gripping as In the Line of Fire. Here, for the first time, readers can get a firsthand view of the war on terror in its central theater. President Musharraf details the manhunts for Osama and Zawahiri and their top lieutenants, complete with harrowing cat-and-mouse games, informants, interceptions, and bloody firefights.
What makes it controversial: The claims made in this memoir were disputed worldwide by journalists, military personnel, and politicians. The book was heavily criticized not only for reportedly dubious claims, but also because Musharraf failed to mention the deaths of Pakistanis in certain wars and conflicts. Other media figures said the book portrayed Pakistan in a negative light while Musharraf simultaneously glorified himself as a savior figure.
2007: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
What makes it controversial: Depictions of drug use, sex, violence, profanity, attempted suicide, and racism in a book geared toward teen readers made it a prime candidate for censorship attempts. Multiple school districts attempted to have the book pulled from high school shelves after parents complained about its content.
2008: Wetlands by Charlotte Roche
Wetlands — an international sensation with more than a million copies sold worldwide — has been at the center of a heated debate about feminism and sexuality since its publication last spring. Charlotte Roche’s controversial debut novel is the story of Helen Memel, an outspoken, sexually precocious 18-year-old lying in a hospital bed as she recovers from an operation. To distract herself, she ruminates on her past sexual and physical adventures in increasingly uncomfortable detail. The result is a funny, shocking, and fearlessly intimate manifesto on sex, hygiene, and the compulsion to obliterate the covenant that keeps girls clean, quiet, and nice.
What makes it controversial: In 2008, this book, originally published in German, was the world’s bestselling novel. And for good reason: The subject matter was loaded with taboos that made it extremely scandalous. Incest, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and provocative sexual acts made this semi-autobiographical book a gripping and sordid read.
2009: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The wildly popular New York Times bestseller and reading group favorite Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, who’s always taken orders quietly, but lately she’s unable to hold her bitterness back. Her friend Minny has never held her tongue but now must somehow keep secrets about her employer that leave her speechless. White socialite Skeeter just graduated college. She’s full of ambition, but without a husband, she’s considered a failure. Together, these seemingly different women join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South, that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town.
What makes it controversial: In 2011, a housekeeper named Ablene Cooper who used to work for Stockett’s brother sued the author, claiming that she based the character of Aibileen on her likeness. Due to statute of limitations, however, the lawsuit was thrown out. Additionally, both the novel and its film adaptation have been criticized for watering down racial segregation to make a feel-good story.
2010: Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
“Do you remember the hospital, Colton?” Sonja said. “Yes, mommy, I remember,” he said. “That’s where the angels sang to me.” When Colton Burpo made it through an emergency appendectomy, his family was overjoyed at his miraculous survival. What they weren’t expecting, though, was the story that emerged in the months that followed — a story as beautiful as it was extraordinary, detailing their little boy’s trip to heaven and back. Colton, not yet four years old, told his parents he left his body during the surgery — and authenticated that claim by describing exactly what his parents were doing in another part of the hospital while he was being operated on. He talked of visiting heaven and relayed stories told to him by people he met there whom he had never met in life, sharing events that happened even before he was born. He also astonished his parents with descriptions and obscure details about heaven that matched the Bible exactly, though he had not yet learned to read.
With disarming innocence and the plainspoken boldness of a child, Colton tells of meeting long-departed family members. He describes Jesus, the angels, how “really, really big” God is, and how much God loves us. Retold by his father, but using Colton’s uniquely simple words, Heaven Is for Real offers a glimpse of the world that awaits us, where as Colton says, “Nobody is old and nobody wears glasses.” Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity, offering the chance to see, and believe, like a child.
What makes it controversial: Many critics, including Christian publishers, expressed doubts about the claims made in the book, arguing there was no proof that Colton was clinically dead. Others suspected the child was likely coached by his father to exploit the large profits associated with the “heaven tourism” market.
2011: Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too — but on his own terms. Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success — his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family — Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires. Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.
What makes it controversial: In addition to the R-rated sex scenes, some critics argued that Fifty Shades of Grey portrayed an abusive relationship, and others lambasted James’s writing skills. Regardless, the book became an instant bestseller.
2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media — as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents — the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter — but is he really a killer?
What makes it controversial: After the major plot twist was revealed, critics argued that Amy’s portrayal was anti-feminist, and that the novel as a whole reinforced common gender stereotypes. Others were simply unsatisfied with Flynn’s extremely controversial ending.
2013: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Bono met his wife in high school, Park says. So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers. I’m not kidding, he says. You should be, she says, we’re 16. What about Romeo and Juliet? Shallow, confused, then dead. I love you, Park says. Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers. I’m not kidding, he says. You should be. Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits — smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love — and just how hard it pulled you under.
What makes it controversial: During the 2013 Banned Books Week, Rowell was invited to speak about Eleanor & Park at a Minnesota high school. However, after a group of parents demanded her book be removed from school library shelves due to excessive cursing and sexual content, Rowell’s invitation was revoked, sparking a national debate that drew support from the National Coalition Against Censorship.
2014: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
For readers of Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, and David Sedaris, this hilarious, wise, and fiercely candid collection of personal essays establishes Lena Dunham — the acclaimed creator, producer, and star of HBO’s Girls — as one of the most original young talents writing today. In Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham illuminates the experiences that are part of making one’s way in the world: falling in love, feeling alone, being ten pounds overweight despite eating only health food, having to prove yourself in a room full of men twice your age, finding true love, and most of all, having the guts to believe that your story is one that deserves to be told.
What makes it controversial: In the memoir, Dunham reveals that she was sexually assault in college, using “Barry” as a fake name for her assailant. However, the details about “Barry” closely resembled a real-life man named Barry who also attended her university, and his lawyers asked Dunham to change the name in the memoir. Additionally, passages about Dunham playing “doctor” with her sister led to accusations that Dunham had sexually abused her.
2015: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch — “Scout” — returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past — a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.
Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor, and effortless precision — a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic.
What makes it controversial: Promoted as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel raises controversy beyond its content. For decades, Lee had promised never to write another book, and the sudden, seemingly out-of-character publication of Watchman prompted arguments that Lee’s caretakers were taking advantage of her elderly state. In addition, Watchman’s depiction of a racist Atticus Finch — once considered a civil rights hero — broke the hearts of readers worldwide.
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