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Lesson Plan Booster: Censorship and Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week (the last week in September) provides the perfect opportunity to discuss censorship and put some of the more famous book-bannings in their proper context.

Grade Levels


Learning Objectives

Students will be able to identify how a book can get banned, discuss the motives behind the action, and civilly debate the pros and cons of such a decision.

Nazis burned books in 1933.
The Nazi Party burned books it deemed contrary to its ideology.

NOTE: For the purposes of this discussion, a “banned” book is defined as one that has been removed either from a local library shelf or a school curriculum, while a “challenged” book means that someone has simply questioned its appropriateness. On the other hand, censorship is defined as a larger-scale effort to prevent a book from being published or sold at all. The most extreme form of censorship is a mass book burning, like the one pictured to the left. Censorship is not to be confused with "censoring," which generally means that a book remains accessible, but with certain objectionable portions blocked or removed.


  1. Familiarize yourself with Banned Books Week, and all of the tie-in events associated with it. Since the inception of Banned Books Week in 1982, libraries and bookstores throughout the country have staged local read-outs as part of their activities. Readers from around the world can now participate virtually in Banned Books Week. For example, participants can proclaim the virtues of their favorite banned books by posting to a dedicated YouTube channel videos of themselves reading excerpts.

    The sponsors of Banned Books Week offer a variety of resources to help celebrate the week. The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression created a handbook for booksellers to help them observe the week. The American Library Association (ALA) created Ideas & Resources to help librarians, schools, and other organizations promote Banned Books Week. The ALA also sells Banned Books Week merchandise to help celebrate the freedom to read.
  2. Explore the idea of censorship. Read the lesson plan Censorship in the Classroom: Understanding Controversial Issues. See also National Council of Teachers of English: Guideline on the Student’s Right to Read.
  3. Consider the view expressed by Jonah Goldberg (Columbus Dispatch, Sept. 9, 2011) in this excerpt of his opinion piece “Banned Books Week is Overhyped.”

    The preferred tactic of [those who celebrate Banned Book Week] is to highlight a decision by one school somewhere in America and hype the anecdote as a trend. So when a school in Missouri removed Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five from its shelves, it was immediately decried as the harbinger of a national trend.

    To get a sense of how overhyped these sorts of stories are, consider that reported challenges have dropped from 513 in 2008 to 348 last year. The historic norm is a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges.

    Well, there are almost 100,000 public schools in America (98,706 in 2009) educating roughly 50 million students. (There are 33,000 private schools. And some 10,000 public libraries.) So if there were, say, 500 parent-driven “bans or challenges” in a given year in public schools, that would mean for every 200 public schools, or every 100,000 students, only one parent complained about an age-inappropriate book.

    Banned Books Week, as an educational enterprise, denigrates the United States as a backward, censorial country when it’s anything but. It also demeans parents and other citizens who take an interest in the schools.
  4. Choose a selection of specific banned books to discuss. Visit ALA’s free downloads page and scroll down to access lists of recently banned books by year. Or access ALA’s list of older or classic books that have been banned.

    You may decide to base your selection on factors including popularity of a given title, whether the book is part of your school’s curriculum, or the particular reason cited for banning a certain book. If you prefer to avoid the topics of offensive language or sexuality, you may choose to focus on books banned for political reasons. Representing the diversity of reasons for banning, some titles of note include:

    Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko
    In 1972, a Ridgefield, CT school board banned this book from the high school reading list, claiming it “downgrades police departments.”

    Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
    This book is about censorship and those who ban books for fear of creating too much individualism and independent thought. In late 1998, this book was removed from the required reading list of the West Marion High School in Foxworth, Mississippi. A parent complained of the use of a swear word in the book. Subsequently, the superintendent instructed the teacher to remove the book from the required reading list.

    The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
    Some parents object to the magic and wizardry that is at the heart of the Harry Potter books. Because of their objections, many schools and libraries have banned these books.

    The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
    Selling chocolates as a fundraiser at school not only sets off fictional turmoil in this book, but also prompts parents to challenge the book. Reasons given include language, violence, resisting authority and sexuality.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
    Offensive language—in particular, a racial slur—is the usual reason given for banning this book, which has been controversial since it was published in 1884. Twain’s famous story highlights the friendship between a white boy and a black man in a book that attempted to challenge the racism Twain saw around him.
  5. Research the history of banning and censorship. Some examples varying in terms of severity include:

    Access USA Today’s analysis of challenged and banned books from 2003-2008, which reports on the most common reasons for banning books, as well as the rate at which challenged books were actually banned.

    The Nazi Party famously hosted book burnings, destroying any publications deemed contrary to its ideology.

    During the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in the 13th century, the invaders burned libraries and threw the remaining books into the Tigris until the river ran black with ink.

Structuring Class Discussion

Banned Books Week is a great time to examine the role of books and reading in our society and the reasons why people object to certain books. While many titles are not suitable for certain age groups and everyone has a right to decline reading a particular book, banning (removal of a book from a public place) involves a decision whereby others will not be allowed access to a title and therefore cannot make that personal choice. Let’s talk about the history of book banning, some specific banned titles and how you feel about them, and the issue of banning in general.

Possible Student Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of your favorite books? Are any of them on the banned list?
  2. If you were participating in Banned Book Week activities, which banned books would you most like to read, and why?
  3. Have you ever been offended by a book? Why? Do you think others would agree with you?
  4. What are some reasons a school board might choose to remove certain books from schools?
  5. Under what circumstances (if any) should a book be removed from a school? A library?
  6. What is the difference between banning a book and restricting access to a book (e.g., requiring parental permission)?
  7. Does book banning constitute censorship? If yes, in all cases, or only in some?
  8. Does a member of the public have a right to decide whether others should be allowed access to a book? If so, under what circumstances would he or she have the right to decide?
  9. Is book banning an “epidemic”? Has it increased or decreased in recent history? Is there a “right” amount of book banning? Should we have more or less book banning than we do currently?
  10. What do you think about [the particular banned books you have chosen to discuss with the class]? Do you agree with the decisions to ban these books? Why or why not? How might historical context have influenced the decision to ban these books? (If applicable) Why are these books still respected as pieces of literature, despite being controversial? (If applicable) Did our school make the right decision to ban this book? (If applicable) Did our school make the right decision to include this controversial book in the curriculum/library?
  11. What, if anything, can be learned from reading a book that has content which some people find offensive? Can the book be viewed as a history lesson in terms of the values of a given time period? An example of poor choices that lead to poor outcomes? A lesson in flawed human beings overcoming challenges and adversity in life?
  12. How does the historical context of a book affect the public’s reaction to it? Would a book considered objectionable in the 1960s or another decade be viewed more favorably today?
  13. Are books that have been banned in the past considered more acceptable today? Why?
  14. How has book banning changed over the years? How does it look different now, compared to ancient times? Seventy years ago (the 1930s)? Forty years ago (the 1960s)? Ten years ago?

Related Resource

Every-Day Edit: Banned Books Week


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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Updated 09/08/2017