What to Read When You Want to Read an “Uncomfortable” Book


Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is no stranger to the American Library Association’s “Banned or Challenged Books” list. Even so, the news caused quite a stir among fans and advocates of literary freedom when, in the middle of October 2017, officials for the Biloxi, Mississippi school board announced that the novel had been removed from the school’s curriculumTo Kill a Mockingbird deals with issues including but not limited to rape, race, sexism, and classism. It was removed from the curriculum on the grounds that language characters use in the novel makes students “uncomfortable.”

While the rest of us have the freedom and autonomy to read, celebrate, grow, and learn from Lee’s timeless classic, students in Biloxi do not. In light of these events, here are eleven authors whose works have been challenged or banned with recommendations on other “uncomfortable” books that will make you a better person for having read them.


Jacob M. Appel, author of Einstein’s Beach House
Recommended reading: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

“This is Morrison’s first novel and probably her most controversial. Frequently challenged in school curricula and libraries, the book features a young African-American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who has internalized what she perceives to be white society’s standards of beauty and who longs to have blue eyes. The novel grapples with incest, sexual violence and racism with an unsettling candor that disturbs many readers, but this deeply authentic window into the social forces that undermine Pecola’s future is what makes the novel such a tour de force. Morrison’s gift as a writer is that while Pecola comes alive as a character grounded in a particular time, place and heritage, she speaks to all of us through her suffering and her dashed aspirations.”


Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and The Revolution of Marina M
Recommended reading: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

“Perhaps the most insidious, subtle censorship takes place when self-deputed regulators of other people’s minds challenge children’s books for the most insubstantial and yet darkest of reasons—that they represent a certain kind of honesty or freedom they’d prefer not to experience themselves nor expose their children to.

Fine. Not fine, of course, but it’s their life, their children. But that’s not enough. They take it to the next level, deciding that other people’s children shouldn’t have a chance to encounter them. Maurice Sendak’s classic In the Night Kitchen is the perfect example—a gloriously artistic, sensual romp, a liberating journey for anyone who opens its pages. Milk bottles become skyscrapers, tea strainers become cathedral domes. Whose imagination is not set free in reading Mickey’s dream? What’s the fuss then? The child is portrayed nude in a few of the panels—in the gleeful way of real children.

What a tragedy when that kind of freewheeling freedom and joy has to be nixed because someone is uncomfortable with a line-drawing of a naked kid. To view the censored editions is a shock and a lie—pants drawn onto the defiant Mickey as he stands in flour yelling COCKADOODLEDO! This is what they want to do to the free, playful mind. Put pants on it. Eliminate freedom and rambunctious joy from children’s lives. It’s the spirit these people can’t stand, and they can’t say that, so they focus on a puny pre-school penis in a line drawing, and punish it, hoping to punish us all for a freewheeling love of life.”


Alain Deneault, author of Imperial Canada Inc.
Recommended reading: Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

“In the spirit of the North American way to consider issues and context, sometimes students will ask nowadays to stay aware of the content of a teaching course if it’s related to some historical event or issues that “traumatized” them. Students will then ask the professor to inform them that the issue will be raised in order to leave the classroom because it’s too heavy for them.

I teach what is called critical thinking, mainly related to the Frankfurter school. What’s risky with that kind of position, not wanting to be confronted with new ideas or not wanting to be uncomfortable, is that they tend to foster ideology; they tend to encourage ideological ways to structure social debate. Ideology is about shaping minds so that they fit with the way power evolves. This is ideology. Ideology is about putting words and logical frameworks in the minds of citizens so that they cooperate. The ideology make believe world is related to specific mindsets. Whatever doesn’t fit with that mindset is supposed to be rejected as being foolish or irrelevant by ideologists funded by specific powers that may be “experts” we hear on television, in parliaments or at the university. Edward Said explains well the role of the expert, for that matter, in Representations of the Intellectual.

The critical thinking of the Frankfurter school was meant not to support or encourage debate between ideologies, but to think and to analyze the way ideology is working, performing, and evolving so we can identify ideological processes. It was also meant to think about ways to be stronger than ideological opposal and emancipate from them in ways that suppose emancipation within doubt. One can put it that way: never be sure what you think is the sole way to conceive things, even though throughout these thoughts over ideological proposals, required new models may emerge. It’s about not opposing to the ideology another kind of ideology but to think of new ways to behave, ways to confront social realities, ways to register new words and new concepts in the social field, without being absolutely dogmatic… It’s about putting new ideas and doubt at the same time in the social debate.

I’m afraid when I hear about what is bothering people with the rejection To Kill a Mockingbird that we will be facing further moral codes about what we may think and what we may not think. It’s a way to promote the structure as such of ideological assertions different powers (public or private) are promoting.”


Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank
Recommended reading: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

“This autobiographical portrait of Angelou’s childhood has been challenged or banned dozens of times since 1983 for its sexually explicit scenes, but also for being “anti-white” and encouraging homosexuality.

I believe this book is more important now than ever, not only for its historical context (set in America’s south during the 1930s, and California during the 1940s), but because of the current political climate where racism and misogyny have both risen again to take center stage in the news almost daily. It is critical to understand racism’s roots, and to allow girls and women who have been sexually abused a voice—the very voice Angelou lost, only to be regained through a sympathetic mentor and (gasp!) poetry.

As a personal aside, most of my novels have been challenged and/or banned. A reader wrote to tell me that Crank (the most challenged book in 2010) did for her what other poetry did for Maya Angelou. It gave her the courage to regain her voice and ask for the help she desperately needed.”


Susan Kuklin, author of No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row
Recommended reading: It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley

“The time when a parent sets out to have the talk with their children is, for some, uncomfortable. One book that has facilitated conversations about sex for parents and children around the world is It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley. And yet, this effective, caring, charming book that correctly explains sexuality and the human body is the American Library Association’s seventh most challenged and banned book in the twenty-first century. Why?

Why are our bodies considered dangerous knowledge? Why are publications about sex banned or challenged? And why, oh why, would a responsible person not want their children to have an accurate account about a significant part of their lives?

It’s Perfectly Normal offers clear and truthful information about our bodies, ourselves. Full disclosure: Robie is a close friend. Because she is a friend, I know how carefully she researches and updates her books. Robie says, ‘When I’m writing nonfiction for kids, I ask myself what is in the best interest of the child. My belief in what is the best interest of the child is to give information they may be curious about, want to know, or need to know.’

Read It’s Perfectly Normal! It’s a very good book.”


Bernard MacLaverty, author of A Midwinter Break
Recommended reading: Ulysses by James Joyce

“It breaks all the rules.”


Juliet Marillier, author of Daughter of the Forest
Recommended reading: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

“This novel built around the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red was described by Neil Gaiman as ‘powerful and moving’. It is gritty and real as well as mythical and magical, revealing not only the darkness at the heart of the old tale that forms its structural basis, but the darkness in any world where ignorance, prejudice, cruelty and the misuse of power exist. What is better, to live in safe isolation, protected from the perils of the outside world, or to step out from safety and face them head-on? Tender Morsels was Margo Lanagan’s first novel, though she was already well known and respected as one of Australia’s finest writers of short fiction. It is disturbing, brilliantly written, and above all, thought-provoking.”


Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies
Recommended reading: 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray

“It is a children’s book about Bailey who loves dresses. Everyone thinks Bailey is a boy, but Bailey knows that she is a girl. This book sometimes makes readers (usually adult readers, not children) uncomfortable because it challenges gender stereotypes and forces the reader to confront their own preconceived notions about gender and gender expression.”


Mohana Rajakumar, author of Love Comes Later
Recommended reading: A Time to Kill by John Grisham (vigilante justice, in the American south, white on black crime) and Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (not about the South or America, but women and patriarchy)

“Reading is the gateway to empathy as it opens us to the lives, circumstances, and feelings of people who are dramatically different from ourselves, often located in places we may never get to visit in person.

The purpose of literature is to transplant readers into experiences that are different from our own, tackle difficult historical moments, and memorialize those we should never forget.”


E.R. Frank, author of Life is Funny
Recommended Reading: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

“It’s always difficult to compare a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird with any other. That happens to be one of my top ten favorite novels. Also, it’s difficult to respond with merely a list of book titles. The discourse is one that is large, complicated and quite nuanced. What is uncomfortable for one individual reader may not be for another. What is uncomfortable for a community of readers may not be for another community. Examining why leads to a variety of additional multifaceted and important conversations. And then, what is it that makes a reader uncomfortable? It may be specific content, such as, say, sex, but not violence. Or the opposite. It may be the way in which specific content is written. Racism, for example, written in one way may make a reader uncomfortable. Written in another way, the same racism may not cause that same reader discomfort. Also, is the discomfort coming from knowledge of who wrote the book? These days, more than ever perhaps, readers may be comfortable with a book until they notice who has written it. Other readers may be unbothered. So this is a big topic.”


Mariko Tamaki, author of This One Summer
Recommend reading: The MARCH series by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, and How to Survive a Plague by David France

“I think understanding history and resistance is always important.

I think overall it is always important to read a diversity of books that represent different perspectives. If you haven’t read a book by, say, someone queer, go do that… now.”

Spencer Folkins' writing has appeared online (most recently in/on Maudlin House, Gone Lawn, Danse Macabre's DM du jour, The Brunswickan, and elsewhere), in several anthologies, one magazine and one literary journal for young writers. He currently attends St. Thomas University. More from this author →