Written by Jenna Bossert, Ally Magerr, & Elijah Turner
“When we ban books, we're closing off readers to people, places, and perspectives. But when we stand up for stories, we unleash the power that lies inside every book. We liberate the array of voices that need to be heard and the scenes that need to be seen. Let freedom read!” (1)
The theme for Banned Books Week 2023 was “Let Freedom Read”. Please read here to learn more about Banned Books Week, frequently challenged or banned books, advocacy, and related events.
This Banned Books Week (October 1-7, 2023), WCU Special Collections featured some historically challenged and/or banned books from our collections. The term “challenged book” refers to an attempt to remove or restrict it, whereas a “banned book” refers to the removal of it from a collection. Special Collections staff member, Jenna Bossert, and their student workers, Ally Magerr and Elijah Turner, examined The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family, who are tenant farmers in Oklahoma. The Joad family, along with other Oklahomans, are faced with economic and environmental challenges that force them to leave for better opportunities. They set out for California, where jobs and land are aplenty and there is the promise of the American Dream. Along their journey, the Joad family faces a variety of challenges and losses.
Once they are in California, they find things are not as they believed them to be. There is an oversupply of labor, low wages, and horrendous working conditions. The Joads move from farm to farm after some incidents and become involved in labor unionization to help their migrant farming community survive. This book has been challenged and banned due to Steinbeck espousing “communist propaganda” and cries from the agricultural industry that the author sensationalized the poor working conditions of migrant farmers, among other reasons.
From America to the Shire… student worker Ally examines The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the most influential fantasy books of all time. Many stories have subsequently modeled themselves after Tolkien’s and his use of elves, dwarfs, and dark lords. It was first published in 1954 as a sequel to The Hobbit, which had been released 17 years prior. The story follows Frodo Baggins in his quest to destroy the evil and corrupting One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron, who is trying to subjugate all of Middle-Earth. Frodo, along with humans, elves, dwarfs, and fellow hobbits journey to Mordor and the fires of Mt. Doom, the only place the Ring truly can be destroyed.
It may come as a surprise that the Lord of the Rings has been banned by various groups over the years. Some reasons behind these bans are concerns that it promotes witchcraft, paganism, and even Satanism. Ally emphasizes that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, would certainly be surprised at these claims, as he wove Christian concepts and themes throughout the work. Some other concerns about the book include violence, lack of female characters, and depictions of smoking.
Student worker Elijah focused on Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. One of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies, this book focuses on the range of tragedies, discoveries, and questions that occur during her childhood years between ages 3 to 16, as well as the impact of several of these events. After suffering sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend and the fallout from the discovery of this, Maya becomes nonverbal for many months.
Her mother sends her to live with her grandmother in Alabama in the 1940s, where Maya confronts continual exposure to racism. Through her schooling, however, Maya has many positive experiences. As a teenager, she receives a scholarship to attend school in California to study drama and dance, where she discovers her love of writing. She delves into her queer thoughts towards women and explores her sexuality and sexual orientation, which leads to pregnancy. With the support of her family, Maya finishes her education and has a son named Guy, which is where this book ends.
Angelou has historically been one of the most banned authors in the United States, as this book remained in the American Library Association’s list of top banned book in the United States for 20 years (1990 to 2010) (2). Some of the top reasons this book has been challenged and/or banned in schools include the accounts of her sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend, the occurrence of teen pregnancy, and Maya questioning her sexual orientation and feeling towards women. Angelou has raw discussions about race and racism throughout the book as well.
Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is a story about a Puritan woman named Hester Prynne, who is convicted of adultery and having a child out of wedlock. For this supposed sin, she is forced to wear a scarlet A on her clothing. Her husband, whom she thought was dead, arrives and tries to discover the man she had the affair with. Her lover is revealed as the local minister Dimmesdale, who confesses just before he dies in Hester’s arms. Though initially branded as an outcast, Hester proves through quiet action to be virtuous woman, and by the end of the story, the shame attached to her scarlet letter is gone.
The novel faced immediate scrutiny as soon as it was published for featuring adultery with some religious leaders saying that it promoted bad morals and others saying that it was pornographic and obscene, despite there being no actual sexual content in the book. Despite these objections, The Scarlet Letter is still frequently taught in classrooms across the country.
To view these challenged or banned books or other items and collections of ours, please schedule a visit to WCU Special Collections, 6th floor of Francis Harvey Green Libraries at Room 615, University Libraries, by emailing us at email@example.com.
This post was written by Special Collection staff member Jenna Bossert and student workers, Ally Magerr and Elijah Turner.