Defending the Canon: SLJ & NCTE Review 15 Banned Classics

In our last round of reviews of banned classics, SLJ and NCTE cover two of Jane Austen's works, the timely Fahrenheit 451, and the heartbreaking I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.


Defendig the Canon logo treatment with book cover design


In Oklahoma, Missouri, and Tennessee, legislation has been introduced seeking to criminalize librarianship, all because librarians are trying to foster a love of reading in their students. If they dare to add materials to their shelves deemed “obscene”—often those books representing marginalized experiences—librarians are in danger of losing their jobs, reputations, and even freedom.

Earlier this year, School Library Journal participated in the Book Resume project spearheaded by Unite Against Book Bans, in which we provided the SLJ grade level for books, such as Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Ashley Hope Perez’s Out of Darkness, with the hope that this info keeps them on the shelves. But what happens when there is no review for a curricular staple from a trusted review publication? What if that book is Pride & Prejudice or Fahrenheit 451?

That’s what longtime reviewer and Texas middle school librarian Ashley Leffel was facing when she reached out last fall. “The biggest issue is that reviews don’t exist saying that Jane Austen’s books have appropriate content for middle school, therefore, according to our collection development policy, we can’t [purchase] it,” she says. “It’s not so much objectionable as ‘there isn’t a review, so you can’t have it.’”

This round-up is our solution to that problem. In this first batch of Banned Classics reviews, we highlight 15 such titles. Excerpts of each review are featured here. The full versions will roll out throughout the month of April.




Things Fall Apart


NCTE: A pivotal narrative that dives into the historical aspects of Africa’s first meeting with Europeans. Readers encounter the rise and fall of African royal Okonkwo. Sacrifice, repentance, and redemption are the central themes in this classic. Students can learn so much through applying lenses of advocacy, criticality, and humanity to their dissection of Achebe’s work.–Darius Phelps

SLJGr 9 Up–Widely considered the first novel in English to portray African life and people from an autonomous African point of view, Things Fall Apart dramatizes the Igbo culture of Nigeria and its confrontation with European missionaries. VERDICT A key document of African identity and decolonization that comes within a propulsive, eye-opening hero quest, strongly recommended for all high school libraries.–Bob Hassett

See full review.




I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


NCTE: Brave and poignant, this is a moving account that explores identity, racism, trauma, and rising above severe adversities, while triumphing over challenges. The first of her seven autobiographical books centers her experiences as a Black girl, from the age of three to 17, and does not shy away from difficult topics and themes, including sexual abuse. Readers will learn how Maya navigates a life of trauma and develops a long-lasting relationship with literature.–Raven L. Jones

SLJ: Gr 10 Up–Infused with poetic language and emotion, Angelou’s memoir is often a heartrending read, that will, unfortunately, resonate with many. Still, it is also filled with joy and will inspire young adults to fight against oppression. VERDICT Recommended for all libraries and collections.–Kristyn Dorfman

See full review.



Sense and Sensibility


NCTE: Austen’s stellar debut novel showcases the lives of the Dashwood sisters who are forced to leave their family estate, which becomes the catalyst for a life-changing journey rooted in loyalty, romance, and heartbreak. It can be used as a mentor text with current YA novels and paired with informational texts centering women’s history and social class.–Darius Phelps

SLJ: Gr 7 Up–A balance of head and heart are advantageous when finding a perfect match. Marianne’s all-in approach, with sometimes disastrous results, and Elinor’s more guarded viewpoint on love present two perspectives on romance that readers will relate to. VERDICT A coming-of-age classic set in Regency England. A must-have for teens and adults alike.– Ashley Leffel

See full review.



Fahrenheit 451

Simon & Schuster

NCTE: Fireman Guy Montag sets books on fire. When his neighbor challenges him to look at life differently, Guy starts to question his work and learns that it’s the ideas from books that really matter. This dystopian novel is set in a world different from today’s and yet many of the themes will resonate with contemporary readers.–Jen Vincent

SLJ: Gr 8 Up–This speculative fiction work is perfect for discussions on the repercussions of suppressing First Amendment rights. VERDICT A must-buy for all libraries that serve teens.–Heather Lassley

See full review.



Wuthering Heights


NCTE: Catherine and Heathcliff meet as children and fall in love. But Catherine marries another man who is considered more fitting for her station. Readers will relate to the feelings of jealousy, betrayal, and revenge that course through the novel. One of the volume’s strengths lies in the contrasting voice of reason and moral conscience provided by the narrator.–From NCTE’s Database

SLJ: Gr 8 Up–This is a love story at its core. Although students will have to work through the cadence of the 19th-century language, once they start, they will not want to stop. Teachers and students alike will enjoy comparing the different retellings that have arisen since. VERDICT This book needs to be on every classic shelf.–Heather Lassley

See full review.



The Outsiders


NCTE: The Outsiders is narrated by 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, a Greaser from a poor neighborhood, who experiences a harrowing and fateful few days. A clear and forceful message is conveyed to teens: despite life’s hardships, there is still good in the world. This is an ideal book for reluctant readers. Its exciting narrative and simple language will quickly capture their attention. It is a stimulus for fruitful discussions on the central themes of self-realization, maturation, and seeing people as individuals rather than as stereotypes.–Dorian Harrison

SLJ: Gr 7 Up–This novel delivers a powerful message about class, friendship, and violence. Every student will find a character in these pages who will resonate with them. This timeless classic is as relevant today as it was when it was written. VERDICT Be sure to have multiple copies in any library that serves middle and high schoolers.–Heather Lassley
See full review.





NCTE: Winston Smith rewrites history as part of his job at the Ministry of Truth, but as he slowly understands the impact of these lies, he throws into question everything he’s believed. This remains as powerful, timely, and important now as it was when first published in 1949—even more so as Orwell’s totalitarian vision unfolds disquietingly around us.

It challenges students with thought-provoking ideas that will spark discussion, composition, research, and debate.– From NCTE’s Database

SLJ: Gr 10 Up–In one of the original dystopian cautionary tales, past history is changed to serve an agenda and independent thought is outlawed. VERDICT Due to the complexity of topics and discussion of sexuality and torture, this book is recommended for older teens.–Ashley Leffel 

See full review.



The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale


NCTE: Still the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, this tells the story of author Spiegelman’s father and his experience as a Polish Jew in WWII. He renders the horrors of the Holocaust in stark black-and-white art with Jews depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. His drawings are deceptively simple, and yet convey wide-ranging emotions of fear, anger, relief, and joy.–Evelyn Pollins

SLJ: Gr 8 Up–Even with so many WWII books available, Maus stands out. The graphic novel format and allegorical treatment guarantees that this book will not stay on the shelf. VERDICT A must-read for students interested in learning more about WWII.–Heather Lassley

See full review.

SLJ Reviewers: Shelley M. Diaz, Kristyn Dorfman, Bob Hassett, Ashley Leffel, Heather Lassley 

NCTE Contributors: Dorian Harrison, Raven L. Jones, Diana Liu, Mona Mustafa, Darius Phelps, Evelyn Pollins, Jen Vincent

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