Kara Skinner believes in changing the world through the power of books.
Throughout modern history, there have been many books that have stirred up significant controversy. Some of these books were deemed so dangerous that their authors received real death threats, such as Salman Rushdie.
10 of the Most Controversial Books Ever Released
- The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
- The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Rage by Stephen King
- Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
- The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman; Illustrated by Diana Souza
- The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin
1. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
William Powell’s childhood is similar to those of many troubled teens. He was frequently bullied at school, got kicked out of multiple boarding schools for acting out, and even drove the headmaster’s car into a ravine once. Despite having an upper-class upbringing, he felt he didn’t belong. A learning disability alienated him at school. His alienation and bitterness became amplified when he was sexually abused by a headmaster.
When he was about 19, he was immersed in the hippie movement, very aware of the injustices of the world and frustrated with how easily peaceful protests could be ignored. He was also being drafted into fighting in the Vietnam War, a war he didn’t believe in. Powell eventually dedicated the better part of his life to helping at-risk youth, teaching at different schools, and training teachers on how to deal with emotionally disturbed children. Before that, he wrote potentially the most dangerous book of all time.
During his hippie days, Powell was positive the only way to get respect was through violence and crime, so he created a book to help everyday people make drugs, Molotov cocktails, and bombs. Most of the information was from unreliable sources and inaccurate, like the mythological gigantic marijuana trees growing in New York City’s sewers. But the bomb-making section was unfortunately accurate. The “recipes” combined with a writing style that resonated with troubled youth was a disaster in the making.
The book is now linked to—if not responsible for—dozens of terrorist attacks, including a bomb planted in an airport by Croatian separatists in 1976, abortion clinic bombings in the 1980s, and the 2012 Aurora shooting at the Dark Knight Rises premiere. Powell spent decades trying to get his own book out of print, but because he didn’t own the copyright, the book remains in print to this day.
2. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This 1774 novel is about a young, angsty artist who falls in love with the wrong woman. When his love marries someone else, Werther thinks only suicide will end his suffering and takes his own life. Werther was a huge success and remains one of Goethe’s most popular works. It was the Catcher in the Rye of its time and heavily influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sufferings of Young W, and an opera simply called Werther. It even inspired a perfume called Eau de Werther.
It also caused mass suicide.
Following the book’s publication and fame came a string of copycat suicides. People would dress up in Wether’s blue frock coat and yellow waistcoat and kill themselves, often with copies of the book in their pockets. The exact number of deaths is unknown, but at least a few people followed Werther’s footsteps.
Goethe regretted Werther, despite the book’s success making him a celebrity. He wrote in his Second Roman Elegy: “Oh, how often have I cursed those foolish pages of mine which made my youthful sufferings public property!”
3. Rage by Stephen King
When Stephen King was a teenager, he wrote Rage, which is about a troubled teen who goes into his high school, shoots faculty members, and holds everyone else hostage. Years later, he published it under his pen name Richard Bachman. King feels the book accurately depicts the emotional troubles a lot of teens feel, including himself when he was a teenager. But when school shootings started becoming more prominent, and especially after Sandy Hook, King decided to pull the book out of print because he was worried about the book speaking to troubled teens in a bad way.
His worries were justified. Rage has been linked to two hostage situations and two school shootings. One teen held his high school Humanities class hostage in an attempt to act out the book. A would-be school shooter held his classmates hostage but backed out of killing them at the last second. He told authorities he got the idea from Rage. Two 14-year-old boys shot up their respective high schools, killing a total of six people.
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Rage is now one of the most sought-after out-of-print novels. First edition copies can sell for up to $2,000. Stephen King feels like he did the right thing by putting it out of print, however. He addressed his decision in his essay Guns: “I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do.”
4. Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
The Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz is comprised of three different books, which are described as the stuff of nightmares by adults. The books have been on the ALA’s list of top 100 most frequently challenged and banned books for two decades, often being called the stuff of nightmares and unsuitable for children. The gory content, creepy illustrations, and lack of lessons have all concerned parents and scared kids who have read the books.
These stories, often based on folklore and cannibalism, feature stories like The Wonderful Sausage, about a butcher who makes sausage from human flesh. The Big Toe is an adaptation of a Grimm fairytale featuring a starving boy who comes across a severed toe and eats it.
One parent found connections between The Wonderful Sausage and serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer. Others have complained about how the illustrations have caused their children to have nightmares for months. The Scary Stories trilogy remains Schwartz’s most famous and bestselling work. The Times said that these stories appeal to “a primal need to be scared out of one’s wits,” which might be why they remain popular even today.
5. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
This book starts off with a terrorist attack on a plane headed to London. On the plane are two Indian actors. When the plane blows up mid-flight, the two actors fall to Earth and become symbols of what’s angelic and demonic, respectively. The Satanic Verses caused a huge uproar because of how it depicts Muslims as ignorant, deceitful, and perverted. The 12 wives of Muhammed are depicted as prostitutes in a brothel, and Muhammed himself is called a false deity.
Most importantly, Rushdie wrote about the “satanic verses,” a false theory that Satan inspired Muhammed to corrupt the citizens of Mecca by allowing them to worship other deities while also luring them to Islam. Additionally, the prophet Muhammed was depicted as a salesman who was selling Islam to the people, not someone who was being directed to by God.
This highly insulted a lot of the Muslim community and caused bookstore raidings and book burnings. Bookshops and shopping centers carrying the book were bombed, as well as bookshops owned by Penguin, who published The Satanic Verses. The religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called for Rushdie’s execution in 1989—less than a year after the book was published—causing Rushdie to go into hiding for several days.
He spent the next decade surrounded by bodyguards at all times, relocating every time he became aware of another plot to kill him. His controversy and the death sentence on his head caused him to be ostracized by politicians and other high-profile individuals. British Airways told him not to use their services because he would put their staff in danger.
In 1990, he released a statement saying he had renewed his Islam faith and did not identify with any blasphemous character in The Satanic Verses. The death sentence remained, and Rushdie later declared it was the biggest mistake of his life. People around him started dying. Three of his translators became stabbing victims, and two of them died.
The book was removed from shelves in some countries but became bestsellers in others, particularly America. In 1998, the death sentence was removed. Rushdie went on to write several more books, none of which created the stir The Satanic Verses did.
6. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Communist Manifesto criticizes capitalism and predicts communism overthrowing capitalism. It contains four parts that explain how private property will be abolished and how the proletariat class—the wage workers—will rise up and become the royal class. It ends with a call to action, demanding that “Working men of all countries unite!”
Published in Germany in 1848, these ideas were so radical that Karl Marx was exiled from Germany only a couple of years later. Today it is taught in sociology classes all over the world, and its arguments are often used today to criticize capitalism. However, The Communist Manifesto still remains controversial.
On May 5, 2018, Karl Marx caused yet another outcry in Germany when the German government decided to erect a statue of him for his 200th birthday. The statue had to be guarded overnight leading up to his birthday to prevent vandalism.
7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye quickly became a bestseller when it was published in 1951. It is number 2 on the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is considered an icon of teenage angst.
The book is the thirteenth most frequently banned and challenged book for many reasons. Its use of profanity, including taking the Lord’s name in vain, was bad enough for a lot of people, but it also depicted underage drinking, slurs towards women and minorities, and sexual references. One teacher in 1960 got fired when he assigned the book to his class.
Catcher in the Rye is also associated with high-profile assassination attempts. After killing John Lennon, Mark Chapman read the book while waiting for the police to arrive. A copy of Catcher in the Rye was found in the hotel room of John Hinkley, Jr., who shot and almost killed Reagan. Robert John Bardo was carrying a copy of the book when he shot and killed actress Rebecca Schafer.
Despite the number of murderers identifying with Holden Caulfield, he was a pacifist in the novel.
8. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman; Illustrated by Diana Souza
This picture book is about a little girl named Heather who is joining a playgroup. She gets sad when she hears many other kids talking about their fathers. But her classmates tell her she is special because she has two mothers. Many of the other kids don’t have fathers either, and one girl had two fathers but no mother. The moral of the story is that all families are different, but the most important thing is that all the family members love each other.
The story was embraced by children and became a favorite childhood book, even of kids growing up with heterosexual parents. Adults had a much different reaction.
Heather Has Two Mommies is considered one of the most controversial books of the 1990s. It was read on the floor of Congress, and critics accused the book of being the work of the devil. It was challenged and banned in school systems across the country. Many parents said their children would grow up to be gay if they read this book even once. Angry adults often checked the book out of libraries and refused to return it to keep it away from children.
Lon Mabon launched an anti-gay campaign, using Heather as proof that the LBGT community had a militant gay agenda. Dr. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Texas, used the book as a prop while talking about Sodom and Gomorrah, two biblical cities struck down by God. School chancellor Joseph Fernandez of Queens, New York, was fired when he defended the book and encouraged teachers to use it to better embrace diversity. One enraged opponent of Heather even defecated on the book before burning it.
The book was rereleased for print in 2015, where it was embraced with a lot more acceptance than it had been in the early ’90s. Leslea Newman is hopeful that the book will help those in the LGBT community and their family members gain more acceptance without all the controversy.
9. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
At first glance, The Chocolate War sounds like an innocent enough book about a teen who decides to stand up to authority by refusing to sell chocolates as part of a school fundraiser. But the book’s scenes of masturbation, mob mentality, violent bullying, and corrupt religion have caused outrage among literary critics and parent groups since it was published in 1974.
It is number 5 on the list of banned books in schools and libraries. Common complaints against it are that it casts religion in a bad light, it is needlessly vulgar, and it graphically depicts acts of sex and violence. Even today, some parents are calling for the book to be burned and banned forever. One online reviewer even accused Cormier of “having desires to create false and misleading stories about Catholic schools.”
Despite, or possibly because of this outrage, The Chocolate War was Cormier’s most commercially successful book and continues to be praised by educators and taught in classrooms today.
10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin was already a popular short-story writer before publishing her second novel, The Awakening. Her first novel, At Fault, slipped by unnoticed, but The Awakening was condemned for its “vulgar” themes like sex, adultery, and anti-religious views. Its main character, Edna, is rebellious and refuses to conform to society, something that was seen as quite scandalous for someone to do in 1890. American author Will Cather called the novel sordid and trite.
The book has been banned at the Evanston, Illinois Public Library, and there are rumors that it was banned in public libraries in St. Louis, Chopin’s hometown. It’s also been challenged twice. However, Chopin is now considered one of America’s essential authors, and The Awakening is often praised for its ability to illustrate the complexities of being a woman in a man’s world.
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Isabelle Foster from Piscataway, New Jersey on June 09, 2020:
Out of the 10, I can’t believe I’ve only read three. I guess I need to find the time to read more. Thank you for the list, Kara. Your depictions of the books make me want to quit my job and start reading, right away starting with ‘The Satanic Verses’. ‘Scary Stories’, though, sounds like something I would be too chicken to read.
Subani Moktan on June 07, 2020:
Out of the 10, I can’t believe I’ve only read three. I guess I need to find the time to read more. Thank you for the list, Kara. Your depictions of the books make me want to quit my job and start reading right away starting with ‘The Satanic Verses’. ‘Scary Stories’, though, sounds like something I would be too chicken to read.
Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on April 28, 2019:
I wouldn't mind having a copy of all great read Kara
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on October 06, 2018:
Hope you enjoy the other five, Bill!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 04, 2018:
Well I've only read five of them. I guess I need to go to the library soon. :) Thanks for the great list and prodding.
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 27, 2018:
Ginnevra, what books would you add to the list?
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 27, 2018:
Glad you liked it, Syed. :)
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 27, 2018:
Yeah, I guess it can still be found in earlier editions of the Bachman books. It later got removed when he took it out of print. I might keep an eye out for it at used book stores, like you said, but I bet it's still difficult to get my hands on a copy.
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on July 26, 2018:
Kara, I found the book that includes "Rage" in a Stephen King Anthology. It's called "The Bachman Books: Four early novels by Stephen King. The anthology includes: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man. It's another book you can look out for.
Ginnevra D on July 23, 2018:
Of all time? In the Anglo-saxon world perhaps; most of them are not even known outside of this area. That makes this list very ethnocentric and restricted to the 20th/21st century except for a couple of exceptions. An interesting list except that the title is misleading.
Syed Aabis from Pakistan on July 17, 2018:
Very interesting information
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on July 14, 2018:
Kara, I may have a Stephen King anthology that contains Rage in it, but I have to find the book to double-check. It might not be expensive as you think. A good used book store or swap meet might have one and sell it at a reasonable price. I notice we share the same feeling on several of your selections. I like to read classics which compels me to read young Werther,but I don't like to get depressed in spirits either.
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 14, 2018:
I'll definitely keep that in mind. Sounds like a book I would like, but only with the right frame of mind.
Shannon Henry from Texas on July 14, 2018:
It's very graphic and complex for it's look at social conventions and inter race relations in the early 1900s. I don't remember all of it, but it does have a sort of heart breaking quality to it as well. You may like it, but don't read it if you're looking for one of those feel-good happy ending types.
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 14, 2018:
That's really cool, Shannon. Sounds like you had an interesting high school English class. I've never heard of Sula. Was it good?
Shannon Henry from Texas on July 13, 2018:
Interesting. I read Scary Stories to tell in the Dark as a teen, though I can't really recall any of the stories. I do, however, remember reading The Catcher in the Rye in a high school English class. And in a high school reading class we read a book called Sula by Toni Morrison that required parental permission to read because of profanity, graphic sex descriptions, racial slurs, etc.
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 13, 2018:
I'm glad I got you interested in some of these books. I'm also really intrigued by The Awakening and The Chocolate War. I also want to read Rage and it's really sad King took the book out of print, but I understand why he did so. I've liked a lot of his other books, so I think I'd like Rage if I ever got my hands on a copy (I doubt it, considering what they cost now, haha). I admit I also want to read The Anarchist Cookbook, but I don't really want anyone to know I was reading. I bet it would be really handy when writing novels, though, and in it is an urban legend about a giant marijuana forest in New York City's sewers, which I definitely want to read more about. I'm less interested in Young Werther, it seems too sad and angsty for me, and Satanic Verses seems to be Islamaphobic, so I'm less interested in that one, too.
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on July 12, 2018:
Your ability to interest me in subject matter is sharp. I remember reading Catcher in the Rye in an English lit class. It's the only novel I've read on your list. I'd read Scary Stories because I'm a horror fan. I've read many Stephen King novels except Rage. I'm amazed he took it out of print. The Awakening and The Chocolate War intrigue me. Satanic Verses is fascinating but scares me; radical Muslim themes make me paranoid. The Sorrow of Young Werther appeals to a classic mood. Heather has two Mommies is remarkable; it was published before it's time. The Anarchist Cookbook seems like a book I wouldn't want anyone to catch me reading. Now your list is ingrained in my mind, Kara. I can read them in any order.
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 12, 2018:
You're right that publishers are very strict. However, some publishers like the controversy because it often acts as publicity. The original publisher of The Anarchist Cookbook had a reputation for publishing controversial books because he knew people would buy them just out of curiosity.
Heather Has Two Mommies was originally self-published and then picked up by a publisher who had published "My Daddy's Roommate", another children's book about kids with same-sex parents. I'm not sure if that publisher wanted the controversy or just wanted to add more diversity to the book world, but it looks like same-sex couples in children's books was on-brand for them.
Which of these books do you want to read the most? I've only read Catcher in the Rye and some of the Scary Stories myself, but I'm curious about the rest of the books on the list.
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on July 10, 2018:
Kara, I'm fascinated by your research into controversial books. I think your article is very important. The books listed seem like a paradox. Publishers are strict on what material they approve as publishable or am I mistaken? I'd like to read some of your selected listings when I get a chance. I'm amazed some of the publications were released before their time, and some of the stuff is haunting parents and bookshelves of the library.
Kara Skinner (author) from Maine on July 06, 2018:
Thank you, mactavers. I agree. Books can be very powerful.
mactavers on July 06, 2018:
Great Hub. The books described are proof of the power of the written word.