ShortList is now ad free and supported by you, the users. When you buy through the links on our site we may earn a commission. Learn more

12 books that were so controversial they were banned

The most infamously outlawed novels

12 books that were so controversial they were banned
06 December 2016

Throughout history, fiction has always rattled the cages of the censors. Whether it be themes of politics, religion, or it just has a lot of sex in it, people the world over have shook their fists at an author at one time or another. But, in today's book friendly society we can now read about complex themes of heavy handed governments, racism, violence, and drugs without the fear of being tapped on the shoulder by "the man".

Except in Virginia, where a school district has just removed two of the greatest pieces of American literature from the curriculum, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because a parent complained about the racist language used in them.

Censorship in today’s education system seems pretty pointless what with the internet, but it’s not the first time formative works have been banned. We've collected our twelve favourite books, that have been hauled off the shelves in favour of something more wholesome.


1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

The gist: This Pulitzer winning masterpiece based in 1960 deals with the difficult but common place situations of rape and racial inequality in southern America. Based loosely on what the author saw and experienced as a child and written from that perspective, the books sees children and adults question justice, fight for civil rights and the loss of innocence, with Atticus Finch as a hero and shining beacon of how to be an exemplary lawyer.

Why was it banned? Like many great works, the book was controversial when it came out. It was released before the civil rights movement in conservative America, which had a problem with the rape and language aspects of it. Back in 1966, Hanover County, Virginia saw the largest protest against Lee’s work, with parents complaining about their children being exposed to the iconic work. Now in 2016, we’ve gone full circle to Accomack County in Virginia who have cited language and themes as a reason to ban the book from the curriculum.

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 

The gist: The sequel to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Huckleberry Finn is also a character. Released in 1885, the classic tale sees Huck fake his own death to escape his abusive father. Setting off down the Mississippi River, he bumps into a runaway slave he knows who is escaping for fear of being sold and they travel together as fugitives. Told in Huck’s voice, the book explores themes of slavery and contradiction in ‘free’ society, with the boy questioning everything he knows of the society and religion he’s been brought up in.

Why was it banned? It was first banned about a month after it’s release in Massachusetts, for it’s casual use of the n-word and unapologetic portrayals of racism and racists, which librarians deemed as ‘not suitable for trash’. Since then it has been challenged and banned over the centuries in various counties across America who find the language and themes conflicts with their own beliefs and promotes/condones racism. Today, the same conversations are being had in Virginia, who have removed the book from Accomack County schools until further notice.

3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

The gist: Written in 1931 and published a year later, Huxley's parody of H. G. Wells’ utopian future in his novel, Men Like Gods isn't wholly dissimilar to George Orwell’s 1984. Addressing the period's core theme of industrialisation, Huxley explored the loss of identity and increasing dividision of society to devastating effect.

Why was it banned? Initially, Ireland pulled it off the shelves for its controversial themes on child birth, before several states in the US tried to have it removed from school curriculums due to its “themes on negativity.”Why was it banned? Initially, Ireland pulled it off the shelves for its controversial themes on child birth, before several states in the US tried to have it removed from school curriculums due to its “themes on negativity.”

4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

The gist: Steinbeck’s Pullitzer Prize winning novel, released in 1939, told the all too familiar story of the effects of the Great Depression on the rural poor. Focusing on a family of sharecroppers, the Joads, who were driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. With nowhere left to turn, they set out for California along with thousands of other "Okies" in search of land, jobs and dignity.

Why was it banned? Despite the book being championed by the literary elite, it was publicly banned in the US and burned en masse by the general population. People were shocked by its description of the poor, which Steinbeck later admitted was a sanitised version of what was really going on in these remote communities.

5. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)

The gist: Set in France during the 1930s, the book follows the life of its author, Miller, who at the time was a struggling writer. Written in the first person, he wrote about his sexual encounters with friends and colleagues, it was an expose on the lives of American expats living abroad.

Why was it banned? Almost as soon as it was released, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote Cancer is, "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” As you can imagine, people weren’t ready for what George Orwell would later call “the most important book of the mid-1930s”.

6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

The gist: Billy Pilgrim, a disoriented, and ill-trained American soldier, is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and taken prisoner in Dresden. Housed in a disused slaughterhouse, known as "Slaughterhouse number 5", he and the other POWs and German guards alike hide in a deep cellar; sheltering from the firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II. During this period, time begins to warp, and Pilgrim starts to see visions of the future and the past, including his death.

Why was it banned? The good old USA thought better than to let its children be exposed to such themes, residing it to the ranks of the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged books.

7. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988)

The gist: Rushdie’s book tells the story of an Indian expat living in modern day England. After surviving a plane crash, Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood superstar is left to rebuild his life, while the other survivor, the emigrant Saladin Chamcha has his life torn apart.

Why was it banned? Many in the Islamic community saw Rushdie’s take on Islam to be blasphemous. In Venezuela, you would be imprisoned for 15 months if caught reading the book, while Japan issued fines for people who sold the English-language edition. Even in the US, two major bookshops refused to sell the book after death threats were received.

8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky (1999)

The gist: Inspired by the late J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the book, published in 1999, tells the story of a teenager, “Charlie” who writes a series of letters to an anonymous friend. Being a teenager, Charlie goes to great lengths to describe his introversion, teenage sexuality, abuse, and his drug use.

Why was it banned? Its explicit sexual content, particularly the homosexual aspects, has led it to be withdrawn from libraries across the US, and it regularly makes the American Library Association's top 10 most challenged books list.

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

The gist: One of the most celebrated pieces of African literature, Achebe’s story of Okonkwo, a leader and local wrestling champion in Umofia – a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria – recalls the influences of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on his traditional Igbo community during an unspecified time period in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Why was it banned? Reportedly banned in Malaysia, it is critical of colonialism and its consequences.

10. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (1991)

The gist: Easton Ellis’s tale of serial killer and impeccable business man Patrick Bateman, starts off as merely the retelling of one man’s experiences living in an affluent part of New York city during the 1980s. As the book progresses however, the shiny veneer of Yuppie life soon reveals a far more sinister side.

Why is it banned? Anyone who has seen the film will know why. Germany deemed it harmful to minors when it first appeared in 1991, and restricted its sales. It was banned in Canada until very recently, and it’s banned in the Australian state of Queensland and is restricted to over 18s only in all other states.

11. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)

The gist: One day, Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman supporting his parents and sister, awakes to find he’s turned into a giant bug. Once the most beloved member of his family, so begins his estrangement from his beloved, and the rest of society, to the point where he is locked away in his room and plainly forgotten about.

Why was it banned? All of Kafka's work was banned under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and also in Czechoslovakia because he refused to write in Czech, using only German.

12. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

The gist: Humbert Humbert, a scholar born in Paris, is obsessed with young women, or “nymphets” as he calls them. Moving to a small New England town, he comes obsessed with the 12-year-old daughter of Charlotte Haze, and secretly covets her, using his marriage to her mother as a ruse. Humbert and the girl abscond and begin hopping from town to town trying to conceal their true relationship.

Why was it banned? After being called 'the filthiest book I have ever read' by the editor of the Sunday Express, the Home Office seized all copies of the book in 1955 on the grounds that it was pornography. The French banned it the following year, but curiously, it was published without issue in the USA.