The Most Unlikely Banned BooksPosted: 10 March 2012
Yesterday at work a bright orange slip of paper caught my eye from between the pages of an innocent looking children’s book. It was on the trolley with all the recent returns, and the label adorning it proclaimed it was ‘banned’. Of course, I had to query this – why would a children’s book be banned, and if so, why would it be so conspicuously displayed (if at all)? To my great delight, one of the permanent staff at that library had begun a special and intriguing display – books of all kinds which have been banned at some time somewhere in the world.
The display had its own information booklet explaining why these books had been banned – some of the reasons are obvious and well-known, however others are rather surprising and just fascinating. It is common knowledge that modern American Fundamentalists hate the Harry Potter books with a passion, and that Nabokov’s Lolita caused uproar on its release – but I bet you didn’t know that the list contains such harmless titles as The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
I spent some time supplying the small display with other titles from the booklet, and thought I’d share my favourite discoveries with you.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
This children’s classic owned a permanent place on the bookshelf when I was growing up. The pleasant and unassuming story is told from the viewpoint of Black Beauty, a horse who begins life in the English countryside, struggles through the daily hardships inflicted on it by a variety of masters and mistresses – some cruel, some kind – and eventually finds happiness. Having sold over fifty million copies around the world, it is one of the best-selling books of all time and no doubt kindled the love of animals in children everywhere.
But why was it banned? (highlight to reveal): Black Beauty fell foul of the South African government during the Apartheid era (1948 to 1994). Horribly unfair laws demanded the racial separation of native Africans and white Europeans living in the continent, regarding the former as second class citizens. Though Black Beauty refers to an animal the government felt that the title expressed inappropriate sentiments about the dark-skinned natives – simply, that ‘black’ could be ‘beautiful’.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
There are very few people in the civilised world, I would wager, who haven’t read or otherwise heard of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s timeless classic. Having embedded itself into global culture and spawned a multitude of cinematic adaptations, the eponymous Alice is arguably one of the most famous and well-loved characters in all of fiction. Almost as well-known are the other characters of the book whom Alice encounters on her journey down the rabbit hole and across Wonderland to the Queen of Hearts’ castle; the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, just to name two.
So who found it so offensive?: Well, for a start it was nothing to do with Dodgson as a person or his private life. In 1931, the governor of Hunan province in China declared the book unlawful because in his opinion, “animals should not use human language”. He also declared that it was “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.” That’s us told.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
There are few authors who have as much of my respect as Tolkien does. As a child, The Hobbit was one of my most beloved books; as an adult, The Lord of the Rings easily tops my favourites. The story of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor and the great war for Middle-earth is one of the most inspiring in existence; and written by a professor of English, it is lyrically perfect. It became the benchmark for high fantasy and influenced countless other authors. It is quite rightly considered a classic and is as widely read as it ever has been.
Why on Middle-earth was it banned?: There is incredible irony here, because although Tolkien was a committed Christian and many scholars have noted Christian ideals and influence in his work, The Lord of the Rings was one of among several books which were publicly burned outside the Christ Community Church in New Mexico in 2001. Why? They were satanic. Luckily, we’re not likely to run out of copies any time soon.
In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak is most well-known for his 1963 publication, Where the Wild Things Are. Like his more famous book, In The Night Kitchen tells the story of a three year old boy who jumps, skips and flies as if in a dream. The boy, Mickey, falls into a giant mixing bowl and is accidentally baked inside a ‘morning’ cake. Emerging from the oven half-way through baking, Mickey sets off in a dough aeroplane to reach the top of a giant milk bottle. He pours the milk down to the bakers, who finish the cake. Mickey slides down the bottle back into his own bed.
You’ve got to be kidding me?: I wish I wasn’t. In 1977, In The Night Kitchen was removed from the library of a school in Illinois for “nudity to no purpose.” Yup – since its publication in 1970, the book has been continuously challenged and banned in the US for the simple reason that it’s main character is naked. Some critics have gone as far to point out the sexual innuendo of “free-flowing milk” and the “phallic” nature of the giant milk bottle. Some copies have even had clothes drawn on the pictures to hide the boy’s nakedness. Sendak, of course, was bemused by this – Mickey wasn’t wearing any clothes as he didn’t want to get them dirty.
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
Known to many as one of the most enduring and harrowing stories to emerge from the Second World War, the musings of a young Jewish girl in the Netherlands has touched many with its insightful and thorough descriptions of her life, hidden in a secret annexe above her father’s offices. The diary Annelies – ‘Anne’ – wrote contain her observations about the restrictions placed on Jews and her family and the others sharing the tiny space but also her feelings and ambitions for the future. She kept the diary faithfully until the discovery of the annexe and her arrest by the Nazis.
But surely?: Yes, you would think that a book of this nature would be deemed a must-read for children everywhere. It is one of the most complete and detailed accounts of life during the Nazi occupation of Europe that we have; that it was written by a young girl makes it all the more poignant and likely to appeal to children. However, in 1983 the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the exclusion of Anne Frank’s diaries from school reading material as it was “a real downer.”
The Diary has also been challenged for its sexual content (would you believe it) as in the 50th Anniversary Edition original passages which had been previously omitted (by the author) were added to the original text. This more complete version was called The Definitive Edition and contained evidence of Anne’s emerging sexual desires as well as unflattering descriptions of the other residents of the annexe. This version was banned from the schools of Culpeper county, Virginia in 2010 after complaints about its sexual and homosexual content.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter
Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny – two of the most famous rabbits known to literature. I grew up reading about them and their other wonderfully illustrated friends from a young age, as do (I would hope) the majority of young children in the UK. Beatrix Potter’s books are so quintessentially English that they developed from the homely letters to her young friends in the 1890s to a vast modern-day franchise which encompasses film, animation, ballet, a plethora of merchandise and even a Beatrix Potter attraction, near Windermere in the Lake District.
Pffft. Pull the other one!: Of all the books I’ve seen on the list at the library, this one is perhaps the most puzzling (though that governor in Hunan would’ve doubtless had something to say about it). Why on earth would someone want to ban Peter Rabbit, and who would even want to? Is it the wantonness of Peter stealing vegetables then escaping the crime scene naked as the day God made him? Or the heinous violence of Mr. McGregor and his garden rake?
Unfortunately not. The Peter Rabbit books were examined during a review of school learning materials by London County Council in the 1980s. As a result, the two stories of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny were banned from all London schools as they only portrayed middle-class rabbits.