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Banned by Design: Top 10 Controversial Titles of the 20th Century

Books banned in America have delivered iconic images alongside unforgettable stories and offered inspiration for generations of designers

By Stela Razzaque, Superscript October 22, 2013

Inspired by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Books Week—an annual event celebrating the freedom to read—that took place at the end of September, here are our picks for ten banned books known for their outstanding cover art, design, and iconography.


© Chatto & Windus / London

Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley, 1932

This science-fiction classic was banned for "contempt for religion, marriage, and the family." It has become one of the most frequently censored books in literary history. Leslie Holland, creator of epic cover art, depicts the bleak future of Huxley’s dystopian society with a futuristic, God-like view of the Earth. Many believe that Facebook could be the modern-day realization of Huxley’s world, thus making his dark-blue palette an interesting coincidence. Holland was supposedly a free spirit who preferred to sketch strangers on the train rather than pursue big commercial gigs. Despite this, he has ensured his fame for years to come with this much-celebrated emblem of 20th century apprehension.

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© Bill Binns / Flickr

Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell, 1949

Orwell’s masterpiece was challenged in parts of the U.S. for being pro-Communist. It was also banned in Soviet Russia for being a direct attack on the totalitarian state and their way of doing things. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic novel in content, plot, and style, and so the simplicity and boldness of Michael Kennard’s original design remains the most fitting and iconic of them all. One of the central themes to the novel is the idea that language is a controlling force and paramount to human thought. The cover design, depicting 1984 in numbers as well as words in the foreground, could be seen as an allusion to this key concept of the book.


© The Forest Archives / Flickr

Catcher in the Rye

by J.D. Salinger, 1951

Creating a huge stir after its release in 1951, the book was subsequently banned in parts of the U.S due to extensive use of profanities and sexual content. J.D Salinger was notoriously choosy about the cover art for his books. He preferred simple designs with clean lines and bold colors. Despite being thrilled with E. Michael Mitchell’s design, it is said that the author refused to sign a copy of the book for the artist. Mitchell’s design of a bright red crazed carousel horse, set against a black and white cityscape, is a stunning visual representation of the freedom of youth and the protagonist’s attempt to escape from growing up. Mitchell’s art is deeply symbolic, as “being an adult” means to hop off the carousel and start facing the harsh realities of life.


© Holgalicious / Flickr

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury, 1953

This story about banning books was itself banned in several American states, which cited offensive language and content. The striking cover art by Joseph Mugnaini has become one of the most powerful and iconic images of 20th-century literature. The distraught figure that graces the cover is comprised of book pages and stands over a pile of burning books—a haunting, and powerful image that personifies the demise of independent thought and the freedom to read.


© Hugdsfh / Flickr


by Joseph Heller, 1961

Initially banned in Strongsville, Ohio for use of indecent language, the action was overturned in 1976 by a U.S. District Court. The cover art by Paul Bacon is perhaps just as popular as the novel itself, and one of the most iconic cover designs of all time. Bacon is known for pioneering the “Big Book Look,” characterized by the author’s name and title in large, strong print, as well as a small accompanying illustration. In an interview with Out Of Print magazine, Bacon said that Catch 22 was the most memorable cover he worked on, and also the most difficult, as he completed twelve sketches for it before the design was approved. It would seem that the hard work paid off. Catch-22 has rendered Paul Bacon legendary status in the book-cover design industry and the art world at large.


© Penguin

A Clockwork Orange

by Anthony Burgess, 1962

Burgess’s classic novel was banned in several high schools across the U.S for extensive use of profanities, and the culture of youth violence that it allegedly promoted. The David Pelham–designed cover for the first edition was released by Penguin Books ten years after its publication to tie in with the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. The “cog-eyed droog” that features on the book cover became an instant success and an instantly recognizable icon. "I had seen a press screening of the film and had a clear image of how the cover should look," Pelham told Wired UK. The cog for an eye is an allusion to both clockwork and the protagonist, Alex, who undergoes Ludovico conditioning in the story—a form of therapy that involves holding the patient’s eyes open for a period of time, and forcing him or her to watch violent images.

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© Boy de Haas / Flickr

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

by Ken Kesey, 1962

One of the most challenged and banned novels in America, Kesey’s novel has been said to glorify criminal activity, corrupt juveniles, and contain obscene descriptions of violence. Despite its controversies, the cover art is another one of Paul Bacon’s fine works. One of Bacon’s significant contributions as a designer was to the art of typography prior to the age of Photoshop and the digital revolution. His choice of eclectic, colourful typography is a subtle reference to the playful characters of the book. His hand-drawn lettering was cut-and-pasted by hand to achieve precise spacing. This signature style appealed to many for its imperfect, handcrafted aesthetic. Bacon’s designs have graced the covers of some of the most renowned, bestselling novels, and he is unquestionably one of the most prolific book cover designers of all time.

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© Abe Books / Flickr

Where The Wild Things Are

by Maurice Sendak, 1963

Written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, critics condemned this children’s picture book was condemned as too “dark and frightening.” It was consequently banned from many school libraries across the United States as the illustrations it contained were thought to promote witchcraft and supernatural elements. One of the most contentious aspects of the book was a young boy, Max, being mischievous and unruly towards his mother. He is sent to his bedroom without supper and takes a fantasy trip to a land of “Wild Things”, who declare Max their king. One notable visual technique used by Sendak is the changing size of the illustrations as Max gains supremacy and control in this fantasyland. The designer’s use of crosshatched ink over dull paint was in stark contrast to the solid, bright colors found in traditional children’s books at that time. Despite the controversy surrounding its release in 1963, Where The Wild Things Are went on to win the 1964 Caldecott Medal for the most-distinguished American picture book of the year.


© Wikimedia Commons

Where’s Waldo?

by Martin Handford, 1987

The seemingly-harmless picture book series, illustrated by Martin Handford, has also caused controversy over inappropriate imagery. The challenge of the book is to find the hidden Waldo character within crowds of animated people. Waldo characteristically wears a red-and-white-striped sweater, matching beanie, and black glasses. Some school districts in the United States did not like the incorporation of a topless woman sunbathing on one of the pages. The offending cartoon breast measured one sixteenth of an inch—one would literally need a magnifying glass to see it—yet this ludicrous claim resulted in the book being banned in several school libraries across the U.S. and propelled the book to the ALA’s top 100 banned books list. Despite all this, Waldo has become a familiar and much-loved character, inspiring all variety of memorabilia, costumes, and video games since the eighties.


© Vintage Books

American Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis, 1991

Ellis’ sinister, psychological thriller was banned in Germany, parts of Australia, and Canada until very recently, due to sexual content and graphic violence. While never banned in the U.S., it remains a highly challenged text, with censorship efforts to have it banned. Designer Marshall Arisman created a haunting cover for the novel’s first edition. The image that cloaks the cover is a visual representation of the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, who appears to be part-man and part-devil. This depiction is in the true spirit of Arisman’s design style, which is traditionally sinister, and often portrays abstract people in tortured positions with torn flesh. His use of deep red tones and smeared brush strokes represent the theme of violence within the novel.

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