Banned Books Week

Readers’ Advisory: Banned Books Week, Sept. 27 – Oct 3, 2014

By Holly Hibner and Mary Kelly

Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read. It began in 1982, when there was a sudden uptick in the number of books being challenged in schools and libraries. An astounding number of challenges happen each year (307 reported in 2013, according to the Office of Intellectual Freedom!), and Banned Books Week is a way to celebrate the value of open access to information (1). It is important to point out that of those 307 challenges, few of them were actually banned. The diligence of teachers, librarians, and informed citizens ensured the freedom to read in most situations.

The reasons cited in book challenges often include “sexually explicit” material, “offensive language,” “unsuited to age group,” “violence,” and “homosexuality.” In reader advisory, it is important – crucial, even! – to find out the reader’s comfort level with these factors. At the same time, it is important not to push a bias onto the reader or unfairly characterize a book in any of these ways. How, then, does one link book to reader when these dynamics do, in fact, exist? Readers may be embarrassed to admit that they like sexually explicit material! Or the reverse: I remember a nice senior woman who wanted absolutely no sex, language, or violence, and only wanted to read about teachers and preachers. As reader advisors, we make no judgments and simply try to find the reader a book to suit their interests.

Here are some read alikes for a few often-challenged titles (2). There is variety in this list to suit all comfort levels. That really is the point of Banned Books Week, isn’t it? To celebrate the fact that in libraries we have something for everyone and strive to continue that tradition!

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

In this book, Ana, a college student meets Christian, a wealthy young entrepreneur. He tries to talk her into a dominant/submissive sexual relationship. It is often challenged on the grounds of nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group.

Read alikes for fans who are not put off by these factors include erotic fiction like Belinda by Anne Rampling, In the Cut by Susanna Moore, Dangerously Bound by Eden Bradley, Seduced by Fire by Tara Sue Me, and “Bound” by Lorelei James.

Suggestions for those who want to tone it down a bit (not gentle reads, but romances with some scandal and titillation) include Play Dirty by Sandra Brown, Confessions of a Wild Child by Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon’s The Tides of Memory by Tilly Bagshawe, Someone to Watch Over Me by Judith McNaught, and Power Play by Danielle Steel.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Alaska is an emotionally unstable prep school girl. She and her friends experiment with drugs, alcohol, smoking, and sex, and engage in a prank war with other prep school kids. When Alaska dies in a car accident, the others try to make sense of her life and her last days. The story is told from the perspective of Miles, the new boy in their circle. This book has been challenged for drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and offensive language.

Read alikes for fans who don’t mind the inclusion of these vices are Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King, and another classic, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

Suggestions for those who want the teen angst and drama without the sex, drugs, or language are Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, or Spud by John Van De Ruit.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Housseini

In mid-1970s Kabul, a wealthy Afghan boy and the son of a servant are best friends. The story follows their friendship through both loyalty and betrayal through the upheaval of Afghanistan, into the early 2000s. This book has been challenged for homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, and sexually explicit material.

Read alikes for fans of this style include Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, and “The Watch” by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.

Suggestions for books with all of the culture, but limited language and sex are The Companions of Paradise by Thalassa Ali, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The Secret Sky, a Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This biography details the unconventional upbringing of Jeannette Walls and her siblings in a dysfunctional family. It has been challenged for offensive language and sexually explicit material.

Read alikes for fans are Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Sickened by Julie Gregory, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found by Jennifer Lauck.

Suggestions for books about people with interesting lives but less dysfunction include Longshot: The Adventures of a Deaf Fundamentalist Morman Kid and His Journey to the NBA by Lance Allred, My Life in France by Julia Child, and A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary.



[alert-info]Holly Hibner Mary Kelly

About the Authors

Holly is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Plymouth District Library in Plymouth, MI. She has a mild obsession with collection quality (ok, maybe not so mild) and can be found at the Readers’ Advisory desk dreaming up read-alikes.

Mary is the Youth Services Librarian at the Lyon Township Public Library in South Lyon, MI. She, too, is obsessed with collection quality, and has taken it up a notch with never ending shelf lists, spreadsheets, and inventory. Mary has a special knack for linking books to readers of all ages.

Together Mary and Holly are the authors of “Making a Collection Count: a holistic approach to library collection management.” They also tweet at @awfullibbooks and blog at


  1. Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read, accessed 8/4/2014
  2. Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century, accessed 8/6/2014

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