Flowers for Algernon, for Banned Books Week

I wasn't surprised to see Slaughterhouse Five show up when I did a google search for banned or challenged science fiction and fantasy books. But I was pretty stunned to learn that Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (published as a novel in 1966), was number 43 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999.

Flowers for Algernon tells the story of a young man of very low intelligence whose IQ is raised to genius level through a miracle of modern medicine. And that's all I'll say, not wanting to spoil any of the rest of it.

Apparently, the parts of the book where Charlie struggles to understand himself as a sexual person are troubling. In January 1970, for instance, two school boards in Canada banned Flowers for Algernon from their ninth-grade curricula and the school library, after a parent complained that it was "filthy and immoral". From Wikipedia: "The president of the BC Teachers' Federation criticized the action. Flowers for Algernon was part of the BC Department of Education list of approved books for grade nine and was recommended by the BC Secondary Association of Teachers of English. A month later, the board reconsidered and returned the book to the library; they did not, however, lift its ban from the curriculum."

I was in eighth grade when I read it the first time. I don't remember the "filthy and immoral" bits.*

I remember how much I cried.

I remember how my arrogant attitude that intelligence was the standard by which to judge people received a powerful and much needed kick in the tail.

I remember crying more.

Why anyone would want to keep their kids from reading this lesson in compassion is beyond me. They probably hadn't read it.

* Ant this is not because I was hardened and jaded--my mind was still very much that of a pure and innocent child. I think. It was, after all, not until ninth grade that I read Clan of the Cave Bear et al., by Jean M. Auel (frequently challenged) and Forever, by Judy Blume (which of course is so challenged as to not be worth mentioning).


  1. I so agree with you. I was far more disgusted by how people treated him based on his intelligence, and the pain of his realization of that, then the awkwardness of his growing awareness of sexuality. It's such a good book.

  2. Ooh. I remember Flowers for Algernon. I was so deeply depressed after I read that. Watching the Robin Williams movie Awakenings was about the same experience. The rise and fall of a human being is painful to observe.

    More painful was the way people treated each other. I would find that an opening for discussion, rather than something to ban. How could Charlie's sexual bewilderment be immoral when everyone has sexual bewilderment? He was supposed to represent Everyman...

    The people who come up with these challenges are the types of people who pass around "dirty" books with only the titillating sections marked, and never read the whole thing. It was immature when we did it in junior high, you'd think people would get over themselves.

  3. I've never read it, and never had any idea what it was even about - but your post has made me put FFA on my TBR pile. Thanks!

  4. Oh Alicia, let me know what you think!

  5. I remember reading this one too! It's still so vivid for me.

    Books like this are so amazing and have such an impact on young people, it makes me so sad to know that some don't get access to them.

  6. I love this book! Isn't it crazy it was on the list? Now I want to reread it...

  7. We had an abridged version in our lit textbooks that I read in 8th grade and I really enjoyed it. So when it was on an optional reading list the next year I read the whole thing. I still enjoyed it, and was very touched by the whole book, but as a 14 year old, that was the first time I had encountered a book with that kind of sexuality in it. At least one I could understand (a lot of stuff goes over my head). I'm sorry to say it really kind of bothered me.

    That being said, I certainly don't approve book banning. But I don't think I personnally should have read it at that age. I kind of wish I had a little more maturity under my belt before I tackled that one.

  8. My two favorite books are in this banned category .. oh really bad..

  9. Alyssa, I am now wondering if maybe I read the short verision as an eigth grader too (it was written as a short story first), and the long version as an older teenager, because I have no recollection of any of the discussion of the sexuality at all.

  10. It's a very passing reference. I remember liking the short story version of this a whole lot more.

  11. I'm supposed to be reasearching this book for my eighth grade honors comp and lit class.

    After reading all the summaries, and what you've described, I think I'll give it a look or two. Thanks. :)

  12. This is in our 6th grade Texas textbook; it was the short story. It was very moving for my students.

  13. I just read this for a school summer assignment, and I'm going into 7th grade. I can't believe how people want to cut out the middle part of the book, because it is so crucial to the plot. I loved the story, but it got harder and harder to read because my eyes started to water as the plot declined. I full out cried when he turned himself into the institution, knowing that he would never again see those he loved, but would stay there in a decreasing mental state until he wasted away.

  14. Honestly the number of banned books I'm finding out about that were required reading at my Catholic school is ridiculous.

    My siblings switched to the public school in high school...I can name several books I had to read (or that other level English classes had to read) that the public high school here banned.

    Catcher in the Rye (a personal favorite)

    To Kill a Mocking Bird

    Fahrenheit 451

    The Color Purple (I didn't read this one...idiots at my school would let me into AP English even though I was recommended. I did read the first page though...it was intense.)

    It's Jon st bonkers how much more lenient the religious school was!


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