Banned Books Week Recommendations

5 books that remind us to celebrate and protect reading.

Banned Books Week runs from September 25 to October 1, and focuses this year on diversity. The week is a celebration of reading and an important reminder that we should never take free and open access to ideas for granted.

We asked Deb Heard, executive director of the Hurston/Wright Foundation and a former editor of the Washington Post Style page, and Dana Williams, professor of African American literature and chair of the English department at Howard University, for their favorite books that would have been banned if the censors had their way. Join them at Busboys and Poets 14th & V on September 27, 6:30 p.m., for a discussion about diversity, censorship, and how to support the authors who need it the most.

A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

I’d recommend A Lesson before Dying. It was the first book that made me think, with sophistication and depth, about the inhumanity of the death penalty. It’s one of the most powerful and moving books I’ve ever read. It’s the book I site (and mean it) always as my all time favorite book.

— Dana

The Color Purple

Alice Walker

I loved this book because of the voice Walker creates with 14-year-old Celie’s letters to God. She exposes the secrets that children keep out of fear and confusion and she makes readers care desperately about Celie’s fate and future.

— Deb

The Coming

Daniel Black

I’d also recommend Daniel Black’s The Coming. It’s a book about the Middle Passage with a collective narrator. It’s called a novel, but it could be a long poem, an epic. It defies genre. It’s actually the common text for this year at Howard University. There are scenes of rape of men and women, so I could see school districts banning it. But it tells the story of the horror and beauty alike of the Middle Passage, the coming, as it were, of enslaved Africans to America. It’s the best novel I’ve read in 10 years.

— Dana

Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin

The writing is exquisite, from the opening line. Baldwin uses small, intimate interactions to tell a haunting story of longing, joy and pain. If that weren’t enough to make this an incredible work, he writes frankly about a world that was extremely controversial when the book was published in 1956.

— Deb

Kaffir Boy

Mark Mathabane

My third choice would be Kaffir Boy. I remember going to the library in my hometown looking for this book. I can’t remember how I even knew it existed. Somehow I did. But no one had heard of it. For years, I longed to read that book because it was about another country and about black people resisting white supremacy. I had to know what that book was, what it was like to read such a book as I sat in my reading nook in small town Louisiana. Years passed, and I never forgot my desire to read it. So, when I finally got a copy (this was all pre-Internet and book ordering at books stores and libraries for a single reader), I valued it for all the reasons you value books — because they take you to places unknown, because they teach you that we are all more alike than not, that the human spirit can’t be defeated.

— Dana

Originally published at