It's Banned Books Week! But people are trying to keep great books out of libraries and schools every hour of every day, year round. And often, people's reasons for challenging these titles are really, really... outlandish. Here are 12 SF and fantasy books that people have given incomprehensible reasons for banning.
Top image: Neverwhere, art by Glenn Fabry
1. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Reason: Brief scene of "jumper-fumbling."
In Neverwhere, a man named Richard Mayhew discovers an invisible society called London Below. This book was on the supplemental reading list at a school in Alamagordo, NM for nearly 10 years with no complaints — until one mother noticed a brief scene where Mayhew is on a park bench and sees two young lovers, one of whom puts his hand inside the other one's jumper and moves it around enthusiastically. The "F" word is spoken briefly. The point of the scene is not titillation, but to show that Richard Mayhew has become invisible to those from London Above. A teacher commented on this issue: "We simply cannot stand for banning a book for hundreds of students this year and in the years to come because a single parent objected over one brief passage on one page. [...] Our students have enjoyed Gaiman's novel for almost ten years, and it saddens us to think that our future students will not have the same opportunity."
2. Bone by Jeff Smith
This year, the acclaimed adventure comic Bone by Jeff Smith appears prominently in the top 10 list of frequently banned and challenged books. And along with "political viewpoint" and "violence," the book was apparently challenged for being racist. Smith responds: "I have no idea what book these people read. After fielding these and other charges for a while now, I'm starting to think such outrageous accusations (really, racism?) say more about the people who make them than about the books themselves."
3. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Reason: Might lead to the use of pornography.
Sections of In the Night Kitchen, a picture book about a toddler's dream adventures in a surreal baker's kitchen, feature the young protagonist totally in the buff (he has to go swimming in big vats of milk). The nudity didn't sit well with some parents and librarians when it came out, with some libraries rejecting it outright and others drawing shorts on the boy. Nor has the controversy died down: in 1992 parents in Elk River, Minnesota claimed that the book could "lay the foundation for future use of pornography." The book continues to appear on the American Library Associations "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books" list, ranking 24th on the 2000-2010 list.
4. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Reasons: Promoting masturbation, talking animals, that smoking caterpillar.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has the distinction of being banned in multiple countries. It was banned in the US in the 1960's because of all the hookahs and mushrooms; and then again in the '90's, in New Hampshire, because the novel was supposed to promote "sexual fantasies and masturbation."
It wasn't drugs or sex that got this book in trouble in China in the 1930's though—that was all the fault of the talking animals. The Governor of Hunan Province banned the book, arguing that it was "disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level."
5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Reason: Swearing, "questionable themes"
And yes, the irony of a book about burning books getting targeted for banning is not lost on anyone. Another frequent flyer on the banned-book lists, Fahrenheit 451 still faces frequent banning attempts. It was removed from a high school reading list in Mississippi because it contains the words "God damn," and has also been criticized for "portraying "questionable themes" that aren't suitable for young readers."
6. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Reasons: Sex, profanity, mysticism, racism, Communism... what hasn't it been banned for?
This book gets banned a lot, but the best incident is this one: "In 1986 a small Wisconsin town banned the book because of a scene featuring the spider licking her lips. Religious groups in the town argued that this scene could be "taken in two ways, including sexual." (Google question: Do spiders have tongues? Google answer: No.)
7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Reason: "religious viewpoint"
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins takes place in a future dystopia where the wealthy Capitol forces the formerly rebellious Districts to send their children to fight in a high-tech arena. And it's a perennial item on the list of the year's most frequently banned and challenged books, because of its violence and anti-authority messages. But this year, for some reason, Hunger Games is singled out for its "religious viewpoint." What viewpoint is that? Well, someone says the word "Hell" once in the entire book, and Katniss' mother is good at healing people with herbs. In previous years, one of the reasons for challenging Hunger Games was that it was "occult/Satanic."
8. 1984 by George Orwell
Reason: Too Communist... or not Communist enough?
Banned in the USSR for implicitly criticizing Stalin's regime, the book was later challenged by parents in Florida for being "pro-communist."
9. The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
Reasons: Too many strong women, negative, theologically impossible.
The Wizard of Oz, the story of a tornado that takes Dorothy from Kansas to a magical realm, has a good century of banning under its belt. It was widely banned in 1928 for "depicting women in strong leadership roles," an argument that held on for several decades, and in 1957 the Detroit Public Library banned the series for supporting "negativism and [bringing] children's minds to a cowardly level."
One prominent case, initiated in Tennessee by several Christian Fundamentalist families, concerned the book's theology. Arguing that all witches were evil, the group claimed that the presence of Glinda the Good Witch was a "theological impossibility." Parents also publically worried that their children would be seduced by "godless supernaturalism."
10. Little Red Riding Hood
Reason: Sending the wrong message…about alcohol.
The stories contained within The Brothers Grimm are graphic, violent, sexually disturbing, and lots of other upsetting things, that have been the cause of many banning campaigns over the years.
Those were not, however, the reasons why a California school district decided to ban Little Red Riding Hood, one of the stories contained in the collection, from its elementary schools. That time it was because of all the booze.
You might need a moment to remember the alcohol in Little Red Riding Hood, which takes the form of a single bottle of wine in the basket Red is carrying to grandmother's house. It was one bottle of wine too many for the school district though, which "banned the book in order to protect its readers from the adverse effects of alcohol."
11. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: Sex (too much of it), negativity
This book about a false utopia full of empty, unfulfilling sexuality was removed from a Missouri classroom "because it made promiscuous sex 'look like fun.'" The book was also challenged in a California school district because it "centered around negative activity."
12. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Reasons: Magic fingers, depictions of women
This book about a man unstuck in time has been targeted many times over the years, for various reasons including the use of profanity. And sexuality: in 2007, the book was challenged in the Howell, MI high school by the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, which asked the police to investigate whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit material to minors had been violated. But the weirdest reasons for banning Slaughterhouse-Five include a mention of "magic fingers" in the protagonist's motel bed. (Dean Winchester would be shocked.) Also, the book was challenged in 1986 for "negative portrayals of women." (And if you have a moment, Vonnegut's letter about the banning of this novel is very much worth reading.)