Protecting the Freedom to Learn: A Banned Books Week Reading List
Months after the Leander Independent School District in Texas made headlines for banning a slate of books and graphic novels from its secondary school curriculum, the Austin-area district released its decisions on an additional set of titles in August, announcing that 13 books are to be removed from schools, with an additional six titles suspended until further notice. Across the United States, similar book bans and censorious threats have taken hold in schools, academia, and the public square, with books that center the history of racism in the U.S. and/or LGBTQ+ stories being targeted most frequently. This has raised questions: Who is allowed to be heard? Who decides?
This year, as we celebrate Banned Books Week, PEN America uplifts the books, authors, teachers, and writers who insist on telling stories and examining history with honesty and complexity. In this reading list, we’ve chosen to spotlight 10 of the 19 books slated for removal or suspension in Leander, TX. Many of these books have been authored by women and people of color and discuss themes of racial discrimination, immigration, LGBTQ+ relationships, mental health, and sexual assault and violence. We hope you’ll take the time to check out these groundbreaking books. See how PEN America is championing the freedom to learn for Banned Books Week and how you can help us fight back.
Speak is the story of Melinda, a high school freshman and social outcast. Through the work of an art project, Melinda is finally able to face up to the fact that she was raped at a party by an upperclassman. When faced with another violent encounter with her rapist, she refuses to be silent, and fights back.
None of the Above tells the story of a teenage girl, Kristin Lattimer, champion hurdler and homecoming queen at her high school, who finds out that she possesses an intersex genetic trait. The novel depicts the unraveling of her school, sport, and home lives when her diagnosis is revealed.
The Book of Unknown Americans tells the story of a romance between two teenagers in Wilmington, DE: Maribel, who has recently immigrated from Mexico with her parents, and her neighbor Mayor, whose family is from Panama. Together, the two find common ground in the complexities felt by Latinx diaspora communities in the United States. They navigate first love and the challenges of Maribel’s learning disability, until it all ends in tragedy.
Brave Face charts the author’s experience growing up as a gay teenager and struggling with depression, against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. The memoir addresses Hutchinson’s journey to eventual self-acceptance, along a painful road of self-harm and alienation.
In the Dream House tells the true story of the emotional, mental, and physical abuse that Machado sustained in her relationship with another woman, while studying for her MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Machado challenges notions of lesbian relationships as safe and idyllic, and explores abuse in queer relationships at large through essayistic prose.
Set in the future, this graphic novel portrays a dystopian England that has succumbed to fascism. It tells the story of the loss of identity in a totalitarian police state, and the human spirit’s potential to withstand it.
Red at the Bone oscillates between past and present, interweaving a narrative across generations of a Black family in Brooklyn, NY. Sixteen-year-old Melody celebrates her coming-of-age party in her grandparent’s brownstone. It is the mirror image of her mother’s would-be celebration 16 years earlier, but the event never took place due to her unexpected pregnancy.
American Street is a coming-of-age story about Fabiola, a U.S.-born Haitian teenager moving back to the United States with her noncitizen mother. After her mother is taken into custody by immigration authorities, Fabiola navigates a return to the unfamiliar country of her birth, facing homesickness and alienation along the way, as she longs for a sense of community and for her mother’s freedom.