Battle of the Classics

Season 7, Episode 4

Banning of so-called “classics” grabs public attention, but books like To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 don't need your defense. It's the more recently published titles by and about people with marginalized identities that are most at risk. This episode, we investigate what we mean when we call a book a "classic," and hear from young people about what books they care about today. 

Our call to action for this episode:

  • Talk about the books that are important to you, even if they aren’t challenged.
  • Stay informed about what books are being challenged in your area by subscribing to Book Riot's Literary Activism Newsletter. Each week, journalist Kelly Jensen writes about the latest in book banning trends, stories, and reports from across the country. 

More resources:

Read the new "classics," according to teens.

Episode Transcript

[Promotion for Obscured]

Mike Curato You know, as authors for young people, we are always asked to think about what books we would have wanted to have when we were younger. 


Adwoa Adusei This is Mike Curato, author of the graphic novel Flamer. Flamer is a book for teens about a boy named Aiden who goes to sleepaway camp. Aiden is the only Asian kid at camp. He’s starting to realize that he’s attracted to other boys ... and he struggles with bullying from his peers. Ultimately, though, the book is about hope in dark times. 

Mike Curato When I was 14, I didn't have a book or a movie or show to look to and see myself in and to know that I'm valued in this world and that I deserve to take up space. And this is the book for my younger self. And, yes, it was important for me personally to make it, but it was even more important because I know there are people who are going through the same things that I was going through when I was their age.

Virginia Marshall We released our full interview with Mike Curato last week in a bonus episode. Mike said that he’s gotten messages from young readers who say that reading Flamer was the first time they identified with a character in a book. They write to him about how his book saved their lives.  

[Theme music] 

Adwoa Adusei But it’s also getting taken off of school shelves. Flamer was tied with the illustrated memoir Gender Queer for the most frequently banned book in schools at the start of last school year.  We've talked elsewhere in this podcast about how important it is to have all kinds of books in schools. Because not every young person can get to their public library. They don’t have money to buy books of their own, or don’t have grownups who will get them the books they want to read. 

Virginia Marshall Often, the only books kids will get access to at all are the ones in their classrooms. And when it comes to the books that kids read with the whole class, it’s the usual suspects … books like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So we have to look at those books and ask why they’re there, and we also have to ask why books like Flamer and countless others written for teens with marginalized identities ... aren’t. 

Adwoa Adusei This episode, we’re talking about “the classics.” I’m Adwoa Adusei 

Virginia Marshall And I’m Virginia Marshall. You’re listening to Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series about America’s ideological war with its bookshelves. 

[Promotion for Debutiful]

Summer Boismer The most contemporary text that we read, whole class, was To Kill A Mockingbird. Publication date 1960. That predates my mom. She can't rotate a PDF. 

Virginia Marshall This is Summer Boismier. You may recognize her voice from our first episode. Now, Summer is the Teen Initiatives Project Manager at BPL. But for nearly a decade before that, she was a high school English teacher in Oklahoma public schools. So, she knows a lot about the books that teens read in school.  

Adwoa Adusei And, in Summer’s teaching experience, To Kill A Mockingbird came up year after year. It was one of the only books the whole class could read together, in large part because of the school budget. For example, in the school where Summer taught, there might be 12 sections of an English class with 30 students each.

Summer Boismier Books are expensive. We’re talking hundreds of book, thousands and thousands of dollars. And so we often have to make do with what we have. When we're using To Kill A Mockingbird as our “social issues text,” is that really the best, most responsible choice for the students in our classrooms?  

[Clip from 1963 movie: "To begin with, this case should have never have come to trial. This state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place."]

Virginia Marshall For those who haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, or seen the 1963 movie … the book takes place in Alabama during the Great Depression. The story is told from the perspective of a white girl named Scout whose father, lawyer Atticus Finch, defends Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Despite evidence implicating the white woman’s father as the perpetrator of the crime, the jury convicts Tom. When Tom tries to escape from prison, he’s shot and killed by guards.  

Summer Boismier This is a story that in part deals with racism in the Jim Crow south. It's written by a white woman. The way that the Black characters are utilized, mostly as plot devices or background characters ... it's not a positive representation if your body is always a site for violence. 


Virginia Marshall Summer was able to work in more modern books into the classroom through small group reading or by adding them to her classroom library. Still, she ended up teaching To Kill A Mockingbird to a lot of high school students. And she noticed that many of them had similar reactions to the story.

Summer Boismer The comment that I would unequivocally get every time, every time, was: we know that racism is bad, but it's not as bad now. And I think that's incredibly harmful to teach our young people that, you know, racism is not a problem, that they don't need to do anything about it. Because I do also have students sitting in those classes who experience racism on a daily basis, the moment they step out their front doors.

Adwoa Adusei To Kill A Mockingbird is frequently challenged for racist language, and for violence. According to the American Library Association, in the last decade alone, To Kill A Mockingbird has shown up on the top ten most frequently challenged lists four times. It’s a book about rape and lynching, after all. But the reason that To Kill A Mockingbird is still around is that it’s a classic. It has a kind of armor. 


Summer Boismier I've seen comments online, you know, saying things like, I can't believe that they're banning To Kill A Mockingbird. I can't believe they're banning "insert any text by George Orwell," or really just two: 1984, Animal Farm. Pretty much think back to any book that you were required to read in high school, it's going to have that "classics" label. To Kill A Mockingbird is not going anywhere. It started causing ire in 1960. This is 2023. It doesn't need your defense. What we need to be thinking about, though, is … why is this conversation only coming onto your radar when classics are getting banned? Where is that same energy for Our Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson. Where's that same energy for Gender Queer? Those are the texts that need our defense because those texts aren't insulated by a classics label, right, they don't have that institutional validation. If they get taken off of shelves, they could very well stay that way.

Virginia Marshall So … why can’t we give those books the protection of the “classics” label? To answer that question … we need to understand what we mean when we say a book is a “classic.” 

Emily Knox There are many different outcomes from education, and one of them is social capital. Can you be an educated person if you've never read Shakespeare? That's sort of how you understand what a classic is, and it changes over time. 

Adwoa Adusei This is Dr. Emily Knox. She’s a professor of Library Science in Illinois and the president of the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship … and she’s thought a lot about what we might call “the cannon.” 

Emily Knox So the cannon wars are ongoing. What actually happens is that books drop down from higher education into basically AP classes. Those books have become more diversified over time. So, that's why we see arguments about something like Beloved, which is a very difficult and very violent book. The reason it is being read in high schools is because that in order to get college credit for your English class, you have to read Beloved

Adwoa Adusei Beloved is also one of the most frequently challenged books in the last few decades. We’re going to talk a whole lot more about Beloved and Toni Morrison in our next episode. So for now, we’ll just say that the books considered “classics” are not immune from being challenged. Not just To Kill A Mockingbird and Beloved. … Animal Farm, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye are among the books that are frequently challenged. The difference is that those books have a track record. They’re here to stay, for now.


Adwoa Adusei Aside from being an expert on “the cannon,” Dr. Emily Knox has also literally written the book on book banning. It’s called Book Banning in 21st Century America. So, we asked her one of the central questions we’re trying to get at in this series: why are so many books being challenged and removed from libraries today? And why these particular books? It turns out, the answer has a lot to do with the pandemic. 

Emily Knox What the pandemic did was it put the school at the dining room table. And I think people were very surprised at how much pedagogy has changed over time. What people are learning, how learning takes place. The protests after the murder of George Floyd are very important as well.

[Chant: "Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!"]

Emily Knox There were protests across the country, including in very small towns, including towns where I am. I'm in the soybean and corn part of Illinois and our tiny, tiny all white towns had protests, mostly led by young people. And I think a lot of parents were like, how did my kid get this? How did they decide to protest?

Virginia Marshall When parents are paying attention to their kids’ education, they might look to the books in their backpacks, whether or not they’re part of the curriculum. They might wonder if the books are to blame. 

Emily Knox The Hate U Give was the main book that came out in response to the Movement for Black Lives. 

Virginia Marshall Angie Thomas’s best-selling young adult novel The Hate U Give was among the ten most frequently challenged books in 2020, according to the American Library Association. 

Emily Knox It is one of the most accessible books on a young person's response to that movement. Her best friend gets killed by the police. She shows a lot about code switching, living in two different worlds. It’s a true coming of age novel. 

Virginia Marshall I think many of us can agree it’s important that young people read. And, one way to get them reading is to make sure they feel connected to their books. Yes, they can read the classics, but if they’re having trouble seeing themselves or their experiences in books written decades or centuries ago … why not offer them something that reflects the current moment, or opens windows into the experiences of teens alive today who are different from them?

Adwoa Adusei We don’t have to replace those traditional “classics.” But we can talk about them in new ways. And we can add to the canon. 

Emily Knox I actually think that it might be better to compare and contrast To Kill A Mockingbird with The Hate U Give because you can discuss more clearly who is centered at a particular story by actually having students read both of those stories and say, how do these work together? How do they not work together? What are they describing?

Virginia Marshall We have a motto among librarians at BPL: “Nothing for teens without teens.” In keeping with that motto, we wanted to talk to some teens on our Intellectual Freedom Teen Meetup, a program formerly known as the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council that was started by the Books Unbanned team at BPL. Once a month, teens from across the country gather together on Zoom to talk about ways to advocate for the freedom to read. One of those participants is Alyeah McAllister.

Alyeah McAllister So, I never really had a classics phase, which is interesting because I had like an Ancient Egypt phase and like, I really like reading research articles and like, I read a lot. Like I would read cereal boxes. I just read. I read comics. I like to read, but I never really had a classics phase.  

Adwoa Adusei Alyeah grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, where it wasn’t always easy to get to the public library. And the books Alyeah read in school weren’t all that satisfying.  

Alyeah McAllister There weren't a lot of other Black kids at my school. Well, my school was predominantly white and Asian, and the way that a lot of my peers interacted with certain things. Like some of it was bigoted and then some of it was like trying to be supportive and just, not hitting the mark. I feel like there are better books than To Kill A Mockingbird that can be read. Like I understand for certain people, it's like very transformative and they need that sort of introduction. But then, like, constantly reading about Black people being murdered and stuff like as a Black person. Like, there are other things that we can talk about with relation to that experience.

Virginia Marshall When we asked what Alyeah thought high schoolers should read in class, Alyeah brought up a personal essay written in high school about how to update the cannon.

Alyeah McAllister So, I don't have like a switch in for To Kill A Mockingbird. But I think the books that I talked about were All-American Muslim Girl, which is a really good discussion. I think I put I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.  

Virginia Marshall Alyeah’s recommendations, All-American Muslim Girl and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter are both written from the perspectives of young people with marginalized identities. And, we wanted to hear what other books young people care about today. So we polled some of the participants in BPL’s Intellectual Freedom Teen Meetup on Zoom, and at an event that BPL put on with Teen Vogue during Banned Books Week. We got a few more recommendations and made a book list that we’ll add to our show notes so you can read those books, too. But first, here are the teens in their own voices. And a heads up that there’s some background noise in a couple of these interviews since we recorded at a live event. 

Editorial note: Brooklyn Public Library supports the freedom to read for all. Not every book is for every reader, and the Library encourages readers to explore accordingly. These titles were recommended by teen contributors and reflect the personal opinions and preferences of those contributors. 

Anonymous I have a few favorite books. This Is How You Lose The Time War, Self-Made Boys, and The Sunbearer Trials. I’m not like really able to be out in a lot of places. All of the books that I just shared, some of them talk about queer-phobia and stuff like that but most of them are just queer-normative and it’s just like a really nice thing to read. 

Jane My name is Jane and I’m a high school senior from South Carolina. My favorite book right now is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado because it is beautifully written and I’ve taken lots of inspiration from it into my own creative writing. And, I also think it’s very important because queer abuse receives little to no media representation.

Tara My name is Tara and my favorite book currently is The Degenerates. I would like more books in schools to be focused on identities that are usually not talked about in the past, because usually it’s just predominately Western views about their Imperialism, whereas how about those that are victims of it?

Calle My name is Calle. I'm currently 17. So so far my favorite book is called I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The book is about a young girl named Julia and her older sister Olga had just died. And it's pretty much how she's like, kind of trying to overcome that but also overcome her struggles with her Mexican identity. I can kind of relate to her to an extent because I do have a lot of religious clashes with my parents, which I think Julia also kind of has with her mom.

Charlie This Book Is Gay. I read it about three weeks ago and I really liked it because it felt like it would help so many people who have been pushed into this heteronormative society. If they were questioning their identity, I feel like it would be really great for those kids. Like, they wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone. And it was also really funny.

Adwoa Adusei So, how do we do it? How do we change the canon? How do we protect the books we love with something like the armor that is the “classics” label? 

Virginia Marshall It’s simple. We read them. We check them out from our public libraries and buy them from bookstores. If we work in schools or libraries, we put them in our curriculums and on our shelves. We talk about them so that the people who are in charge of giving out prizes for books read them, too. And give them awards. 

Adwoa Adusei So that’s our call to action for you today: talk about the books that are important to you, even if they aren’t challenged. And stay informed about what books are being challenged in your area.  

Virginia Marshall One way to do that is reading Book Riot’s Literary Activism Newsletter. Each week, journalist Kelly Jensen writes about the latest in book banning trends, stories, and reports from across the country. We’ll be talking with Kelly in an upcoming episode, but you can start reading her work now: subscribe at

Adwoa Adusei And, for any young person listening to this, you can join the Intellectual Freedom Teen Meetup at the library, too. It's a monthly virtual meeting that’s open to young people across the country who care about the freedom to read. We’ll put links on our web page with more information about how to do that. 


Virginia Marshall Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant.  

Adwoa Adusei This episode was written by Virginia Marshall and hosted by me and Virginia. We received production support from Goat Rodeo. Our Borrowed team includes Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton and Damaris Olivo. Ashley Gill and Jennifer Proffit run our social media. Lauren Rochford helps with the emails. John Snowden designed our logo. 

Virginia Marshall The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel. 

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant and Goat Rodeo.