Is there anything better than a fresh stack of books at the start of the summer? OK, fine. Not every child would answer yes to that, but the fact is summer is the time to read, either for pleasure or for school.
But reading has been a fraught topic across this country in recent months. Books many of us grew up on – literature that widens our children’s world, novels that spur questions and discussions, poems that make people of all ages laugh out loud – have been challenged or pulled from shelves by school boards, parents and politicians.
We asked children’s authors, reading experts, a librarian and a poet (and her son!) to recommend challenged or banned books for kids and teens this summer. These books are meant to entertain, enlighten and expand children’s and teens’ understanding of the world.
Picture book author of “Drawn Together,” “Green Lantern Legacy,” “Let Me Finish” and others
Recommendation: “When Aidan Became a Brother” by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita.
This heartwarming book follows Aidan’s journey as a transgender boy and soon-to-be big brother. Through tender text and soulful illustrations, Aidan’s family learns together, makes mistakes together and moves forward together. And as the family expands and evolves, young Aidan finds strength in knowing that no matter how much things change, their love remains constant.
This book was pulled from shelves in an elementary school in Pennsylvania, presumably because the main character is transgender.
Poet and author of “Good Bones,” “Keep Moving” and more, and her son, Rhett, age 9
Recommendation: “A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein
I grew up with Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic.” My daughter, Violet, loved it when she was younger; and my 9-year-old son, Rhett, still turns to this book often. He loves to read the poems to me at bedtime, and we laugh together. When I told him this book was on the challenged list – along with one of his other favorites, “James and the Giant Peach,” his eyes grew wide. “Why?” he asked.
I asked him why he likes “A Light in the Attic,” and he offered this, first and foremost: “It’s silly.” Rhett said he likes both the poems and the artwork, because both are so imaginative. “If you read a poem, it doesn’t have to rhyme, but when he rhymes it sounds really funny. It’s kind of like a rap song – sometimes he makes up words to fit the rhyme. It makes you excited to read the poems to see how he’s going to play with words. And the illustrations look really warped, but that’s part of what makes them funny. I like the style.”
Flipping through our battered family copy, he said: “Honestly, I can’t find one poem in the book that doesn’t have something funny in it. If you were in a bad mood it would make you giggle and cheer you up – whether you like it or not.”
“A Light in the Attic” was banned in some Florida schools due to concerns it “promoted violence and disrespect.”
Newbery Medal winning author of “Flora & Ulysses” and “The Tale of Despereaux”, among others, and former Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
Recommendation: “The Giver” by Lois Lowry
I’ve read this book four times. Each time it gives me something new. And each time, it makes me think about how I want the world to be and what it means to see and feel. It is a deeply moving, thought-provoking, necessary book.
”The Giver” is a dystopian novel that has been banned or challenged because of difficult topics, including infanticide, euthanasia and suicide.
Newbery Medal children’s book author of “Merci Suárez Changes Gears,” among others
Recommendation: “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo
Few main characters will stay with a reader for as long as Xiomara. This explosive novel-in-verse unpacks a young Dominican girl’s coming of age and her embrace of her own body, mind and voice. Each poem is a powerhouse of emotion and honesty as Xiomara questions the dynamics in her household, the teachings of her church, and the rules imposed on young Afro-Latinas in school and community. This is the perfect book for teens who are asking hard questions about their lives.
“The Poet X” has been challenged or banned for perceived anti-Christian verses. It also has sexual references and profanity.
Jordan Bookey and Felix Lloyd
Co-founders of Beanstack, a tool for reading challenges in schools and libraries, aimed to promote reading
Recommendation: “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
We read “The Hate U Give” a few times, most recently as an informal family book club with our middle grade son. The main character, a high school student named Starr, is lovable and real; we could feel her struggle in the book’s movement through the different worlds in which Starr lives, including her Black neighborhood and her mostly white private school. As a Black man, Felix connected with the quiet complexities of the characters Maverick and Uncle Carlos. We especially appreciated how this fictional story gave us a vehicle for discussing heavy, real-world topics like police brutality and speaking out. Also, Starr’s personal journey to question and redefine complicated (and in some cases unhealthy) friendships led us to conversations about what healthy friendships should look like. And as our son pointed out, “The book is still a page turner.” During the school year, we have to rush from one thing to the next. The summer gives us more time to spend in conversation with our kids. The Hate U Give is compelling in its plot and in sparking shared dialogue with middle- or high school-aged kids.
”The Hate U Give” has been banned and challenged for profanity, violence and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda, according to the American Library Association.
Mary Ellen Icaza
Chief executive and executive director of the Stark Library
Recommendation: “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
There are many challenged books that I would recommend that high school students read, but one that comes to mind is “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. This book is written from the perspective of two teenage boys, Rashad, who is mistakenly accused of stealing and then beaten by a police officer; and Quinn, who witnesses the beating. Why do I recommend this book? This book features real-life issues such as police brutality and racial profiling, that are happening in our country, but it does so in a unique way through the voices of Rashad, who is Black, and Quinn, who is white. The writing is powerful – raw and honest. Some have challenged the book because of what they describe as violence, language, and promotion of an anti-police viewpoint. However, “All American Boys” encourages readers of the book to critically think about recent events, consider what they thought they knew, about topics like racism, social justice, and police brutality, and perhaps generate difficult conversations with peers and adults.
According to the American Library Association, “All American Boys” has been banned and challenged for profanity, drug use and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views and contain divisive topics.
Actor, television host, reading advocate
Recommendation: “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
There is a reason that Atticus Finch is one of the most enduringly popular characters in American literature. He was one of my literary heroes growing up; a man determined to stand up for those who don’t have a voice because it’s the right thing to do. Set in the pre-civil rights era South, the story depicts an America that hardly exists anymore yet deals with issues of race and class that plague us still.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” has been often banned or challenged, mostly for racism and use of racial epithets and other profanity.
The Washington Post’s Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.