Banned Books Essay Prompt Definition

For the fourth year in a row, the Chinook Bookshop and The Colorado Springs Independent have teamed up to sponsor the Banned Books Week Essay Contest. Junior high school students were asked to write about "What 'Freedom to Read' means to me" and high school students addressed the topic "What do you think about banning books in a high school library?" And once again, the entries were impressive.

The essays were screened and judged by a panel including: the Chinook staff; Kathy Glassman, president of CSEA; Susan Rottman, local author and teacher; and Independent editor Kathryn Eastburn.

Our thanks to the teachers who encouraged their students to participate and to all students who submitted essays. Winners will be honored at a 5:30 p.m. reception on Friday, Oct. 27, at Chinook. The public is invited.


Junior High School Winners

First Place Brandon Redlinger, Grade 8

Eagleview Middle School

"We don't have to agree with what we read, but we should learn from it."

The freedom to read means we shouldn't allow censorship or book banning due to subject matter, language usage or violent situations. To prevent children from knowing about the world and human nature is unrealistic. "Children are not innocent. They are just inexperienced," said Judy Blume, a veteran of censorship wars. Shielding children from the cruel reality of the world doesn't do them any favors. Instead of shielding children, parents can offer a perspective from personal experiences and help children interpret the world, its realities and flaws. Children, with guidance from parents, should be able to make decisions about what they read and believe. Parents need to take the responsibility, deciding what is appropriate or inappropriate for their children. We shouldn't sacrifice our First Amendment rights to censors just to be protected from what other people consider right and wrong.

The determination about which books should be restricted from children depends on their level of maturity. A person less mature might misinterpret the meaning of subject matter resulting in inappropriate thoughts, beliefs or behavior. Conversely, a person who is mature enough to comprehend what the author is implying will understand the message being emphasized. Again, parents' supervision is indicated, not banning.

Reading is one of our greatest freedoms. Censorship leads to conformity. This limits the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our culture depends. Creativity, research, and technological advances would be limited. Democracy's responsibility is to make available a diversity of views, popular and unpopular. It's not right to coerce the thought of some and inhibit the efforts of others. All community members should have equal access to the entire range of written resources. Publishers' responsibilities are to give the full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of expression. The freedom to read is of little consequence unless the reader can obtain material to suit his purpose.

Libraries should be allowed to provide information presenting contrasting viewpoints on historical issues. History teaches students the events that shaped the world. Materials shouldn't be removed because of differing partisan or doctrinal views. A person's right to use a library for research should not be denied because of parents' conflicting views either. We don't have to agree with what we read, but we should learn from it.

The First Amendment guarantees our freedom to decide what we choose to read and think. Though someone may be convinced his views are right, that individual is not entitled to impose them on others.

Second Place Grady Castle, Grade 8

Eagleview Middle School

"Controversial writing ... keeps our minds alive."

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its shame." -- Oscar Wilde.

When books are banned, it illustrates a refusal of the censors to look at the world with open eyes; to close their eyes like they closed the banned book. Banning books divulges more about the censor than the book or the author brought into the limelight.

Freedom to read means that you are able to read freely without the possibility of being stopped because the material is inappropriate according to the challenger's belief system. If the challenger doesn't like the book, maybe he shouldn't read it or let his children read it. But banning books takes the books off the shelves, abolishing even the slightest chance that those condemned books might be able to be read at all. Banning for one bans for all.

"... I say let's get back to the good old First Amendment of the good old-fashioned United States -- and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge, or give me death!" -- Kurt Vonnegut

The Bill of Rights makes important changes to the Constitution set to establish rules for the United States of America. Obviously, the most important change would be made first. If the First Amendment states that it is okay to write as you wish, then I believe it's okay to write as you wish. And a corollary to that is it's okay to read what you want, too. Depriving others of the chance to read is an unjust thing to do. It doesn't matter if another doesn't want to read a book because the author said something that was offensive, but don't try to control another's value system by limiting their exposure to ideas.

If the privilege of writing something one believes in is taken away, then the privilege of believing has been taken away. Freedom to read is the freedom to read anything. I have read many books I wanted to read even though it was prohibited and that's the way I want it to always be.

I want it to always be this way because my interest jumps a notch when someone tells me a book's controversial. Controversial writing causes sparks and keeps our minds alive.

"Free societies ... are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom's existence." -- Salmon Rushdie

High School Winners

First Place Kendall Anderson, Grade 11

Manitou Springs High School

"Books that break the mold are what we need."

Stripping books that some people deem inappropriate from high school libraries underrates youthful intelligence, clouds history and dilutes our culture to fit a mold of conformity. Oftentimes books are quite literally judged by their covers. There is much more to most frequently challenged books than a controversial topic. What lies between the covers are breakthroughs in expression, timeless plots, and new perspectives for readers. Books that break the mold are what we need. High school libraries should foster open expression without limitations by censors.

The dull reaction and sarcastic tone Kurt Vonnegut takes when describing war and massacre cause his books to be challenged in several communities. Misunderstanding provokes this ridicule. Vonnegut uses the phrase "So it goes" to describe numerous senseless deaths in his book Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut doesn't mean to devalue the importance of life, but rather, he emphasizes with the repeated phrase the horrible reality of lives lost. By assuming that high school readers can't understand and appreciate this, censors misjudge student intelligence and swindle teens out of experiencing groundbreaking literature.

Rape is not a tasteful subject for anyone. However, a novel can deal with this delicate subject with more empathy than the evening news. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings confronts this touchy subject. Yet while rape may not be a comfortable topic, the problem is not alien to many young women. By pulling these books off shelves, censors close our eyes to the world around us. Such books can teach the confused or comfort the suffering. If ideas in books are too taboo for some readers, no one is forced to read them. Someone who thirsts for that information, however, shouldn't be deprived of the opportunity to find it.

In Mark Twain's novels, TheAdventures of Huckleberry Finn and TheAdventures of Tom Sawyer, many people confront uncomfortable language. These books offer the reader a peek into another time period when a different set of values reigned. We should be trying to reclaim the innocence of that era, not censoring the slang of the time. Censoring regional books such as these distorts history.

We should not underestimate our youth, disguise our culture, or sweep the past under the rug. A high school student can't be sheltered from what is true or from ideas that can change their lives. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be touched by literature. Censoring books in a high school library is not acceptable.

Second Place Annabell Woods, Grade 11

Manitou Springs High School

"Some believe they can hoodwink today's youth."

My generation, probably more aware of the world than our predecessors, faces challenges on all levels as capable adults, and we cannot allow ourselves to be swaddled when we are not infants. Censoring challenged books in high schools distorts constitutional freedom and robs young adults of potentially enriching literature. Some believe they can hoodwink today's youth. With some initiative and persistence, these people often succeed. While they preach purity, censors pervert and destroy many authors' ideas and stop our right to judge for ourselves what we can view.

As a child, the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Oz books by Frank L. Baum, and similar stories ignited my imagination with adventure and images of wizards, witches, and talking animals. The same reasons these stories stay alive and vivid in my memory are some of the same reasons that censors ban books today. When children today read the widely scrutinized Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, I am certain that Rowling's words excite them as Lewis's and Baum's words excited me.

I gravitate toward literature that depicts reality. TheAdventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, criticized for displaying disobedient behavior and racial slurs, accurately portray the author's era. The artful precision that acclaimed poet Maya Angelou paints her personal experiences in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is censored because it discusses rape. A Separate Peace by John Knowles let me peer into our world at a different time. These books open the minds of high school students, rather than pervert them.

Regardless of what I believe is appropriate, others have the freedom to judge differently. If I believe a work is unsuitable, I can choose not to read it. I can even one day restrict what my own children read. When I tell others that they cannot read something, I impose my own values on others. In forbidding others from reading a book I do not own or have any grounds to regulate, I rob them of their freedom and, more importantly, their desire to learn. Today, the boundaries of purity and pornography, art and anarchy are faintly drawn. We live in a gray world where light and shadows mingle, making it impossible for a few individuals to make universal judgements over all people. By judging issues for ourselves, we excel beyond false logic, ignorance, and an imposed idea of purity.

Honorable Mention

Phillip D. Dressen, Grade 12

Centennial High School, Pueblo

Regina Caputo, Grade 11

Centennial High School, Pueblo

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.

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
Education World®         
Copyright © 2011, 2017 Education World

Updated 09/08/2017

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