OPINION: Read banned books

As efforts intensify to remove books from libraries across Alaska, let me double down on this simple life ethos: Read banned books.

My earliest memories of being encouraged to read banned books come from selecting my take-home books for the week from the local library. My mother handed me a copy of “The Color Purple,” shortly after I had been called the n-word on the playground and was lost in frustration and confusion. Later, after my first menstrual cycle, my mother gave me a copy of the perennially banned book “My Body, My Self,” which helped me understand what exactly was taking place inside my quickly changing body.

Banned books have taught me that the good guys don’t always win — ”The Chocolate War” — and that some things are worth great sacrifice: ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” It is through banned books that I realized my own biases — ”Stranger in a Strange Land” — and challenged my own assumptions about the places in which I have lived: ”The House on Mango Street.”

We all know books create windows into unimaginably fantastical moments — ”Moby Dick” — and describe experiences so far removed from our own they seem almost mythical, such as ”Siddhartha.” We learn more about ourselves by what we choose to read, and we learn more about the world by what we are asked to read.

Reading “A Diary of Young Girl” as a family in middle school meant many late nights answering questions and explaining difficult and challenging topics. Reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” produced many tears and halting family stories. It is these moments that stay with me as an adult. Books elicit difficult and informative conversations that educate and teach about the way the world is, and often about how the world should be.

Now as an adult, it is my responsibility and privilege to pass along the knowledge I gleaned from my favorite books to future generations. To be one that helps answer difficult questions with transparency and humility. America’s nation-building did not happen without great harm and ignoring or preventing young minds from acquiring and learning from these truths is an abdication of our shared responsibility to honor those who came before us and give tools to those who come after us.

In America, the books and information allowed in our public institutions should not just reflect a small subset of our population or a chosen populist narrative. Books are meant to challenge us, to make us feel and to help us grow. Read with your children and share books with your nieces and nephews. Spend an afternoon immersed in a classic novel. Get frustrated with a how-to book or pick up an autobiography and read about the absurdity of someone else’s life.


But whatever you do, don’t ban books. Don’t perpetuate the thing that we know does the greatest harm — ”Fahrenheit 451,” “Brave New World,” “1984.″

In 2008, I compiled a list of the top 50 books I believed every young person should read before they graduate high school. Over the years, many of the books on this list have been banned at one time or another. In honor of this year’s Banned Book Week, Oct. 1-7, let me re-share that list with you. My only oversight: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison didn’t make the cut.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain

“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

“The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck

“Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

“The Odyssey” by Homer

“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Paradise Lost” by John Milton

“Stranger in A Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee


“The Iliad” by Homer

“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

“1984″ by George Orwell

“Animal Farm” by George Orwell

“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck

“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe

“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner

“The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy

“The Painted Veil” by W. Somerset Maugham

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley

“Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury

“Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte


“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros


“Catch-22″ by Joseph Heller

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway

“Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse

“Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin

“A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett

“The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair

“Schindler’s Ark” by Thomas Keneally

Sen. Löki Gale Tobin, D-Anchorage, is the chair of the Alaska State Senate Education Committee, serves as the Pride Foundation Board Secretary, and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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