Banned Books Week: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

It’s Banned Books Week so I’m highlighting a different banned book each day this week.  My posts will include the banned book, where/why it’s been banned (or challenged), my opinion, and a student’s opinion.  I’m also hosting a banned books giveaway, so I hope you’ll check it out and enter to win a banned book of your choice.

Banned Book: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Where/Why It’s Been Banned: “Removed from a spring break elective course at the Bedford, N.H. School District (2010) after a parent complained about the novel’s sexual content. The complainant further suggested that the school only allow “youth versions” of particular books or organize a parental review system over the summer that would look at books that students need parental permission to read. A checklist has been proposed that Bedford school officials would use to rate books and other instructional materials.” (Source–Quote taken from ALA banned books resource page)

My Thoughts: I chose to highlight this book first for a couple reasons.  First, I didn’t know until a couple days ago when I was getting these posts ready that Water for Elephants had been banned.  Second, this book wasn’t published as a YA novel.  I read it this past spring after one of my high school students handed me her copy and told me I had to read it.  I was surprised by the mature, sexual scenes but that’s because I’ve been reading YA almost exclusively and had to remind myself that this novel wasn’t published YA.  It did make me wonder what my student thought of those scenes, which we discussed when I gave her book back at the end of spring break.

Despite the maturity of the novel, there are quite a few positive messages in the novel which I think outweigh those scenes.  Jacob, the main character, suddenly becomes an orphan just as he’s about to graduate from college and become a veterinarian.  As a last resort he hops a circus train and is thrown into a bizarre and often dangerous life.  Water for Elephants is historical fiction and Sara Gruen did a wonderful job researching the time period and the circus culture when writing her novel.  Her story focuses on Jacob and how he learns to survive this new life, but also how he shows compassion for both people and animals, learns to stand up for himself, and finds his first love.

I have a copy of this book in my classroom library, because I know my mature readers will enjoy it.  I made sure to buy a copy with the original cover (the movie cover has Robert Pattison and Reese Witherspoon) because I think my boys in class will be more likely to pick it up than they would if I had the movie cover edition.  If you’re looking for a rationale for Water for Elephants, it’s listed as a Scholastic Reading Counts book **side note: I’m not an advocate of boxed reading programs like this, but I know many schools use them.** and it’s a 2007 Alex Award winner.  The Alex Award is given to books that are written for adults but appeal to teen readers.

Student Response: This quote is from Tristan, my student who let me borrow her copy over spring break.  “The book is an adult book to begin with, so why would the author have to worry about sexual content? As far as having it in a high school, I think that teens can handle it. And if a parent has a problem, THEN THEY DON’T NEED TO LET THEIR CHILD READ IT!  But they don’t need to drag other students into it. I do agree this book does contain a lot of sexual content, so I wouldn’t want my middle school sister reading this. But teens can handle it, and parents shouldn’t be naive enough to think this isn’t something their children are oblivious about.”


  1. Thanks for the post. I wasn’t aware that it was a banned book either. It is a great book.

  2. I’ve heard so much about this book! I think I’m going to too by the library today and pick it up!

  3. I didn’t connect with this book… it was action packed and definitely a page turner, but it almost felt like there were too many elements that were included in the story for shock value only, instead of contributing to character or story development. A few random acts of cruelty, disgust, lust, etc, would have adequately added to the illustration of harsh circus life, but incident after incident was thrown at you until you were pretty much emotionless about everything else that happened in the story.

  4. I love this book and after finishing it myself, gave it to my teenager to read. As a parent I think it is important for each of us to scrutinize what our children read and view and to each their own but banning a book? Come, on…. First of all I do not believe that any high school student in a public school will be shocked by any sexual content. (Listen in on their conversations, they know it, they joke about it and just like when we were in high school “sex” is not a big secret). If you do not want your teenager reading it, tell them not to, but do not ban books. Banning something just makes you want to read it more.

    • Sorry previous post was supposed to say ” a public school will NOT be shocked by any sexual content”

    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      As soon as I tell my students about Banned Books Week, so many of them want to read the books to find out why they’re so “bad.” It’s always interesting to hear their opinions once they’ve finished reading the books. Usually they can’t understand what’s supposed to be so wrong with them.

  5. I just finished reading this book; I’m 31 years old. I saw the movie as well. I was shocked to read that it was banned for sexual content — there is hardly any sex in it!! Teens can definitely handle this. I would EXPECT my teen to be mature enough to be able to read this, because most likely if they are in high school, a lot of them have had sex before. Hiding this from them will just cause the subject to become more taboo, and make kids want it more. And yet, they are allowed to watch people blowing off each other’s heads in movies and video games with no problem??? On that note, I’m surprised this book wasn’t also banned for the violent content as well. This is ridiculous.

  6. Thanks for all the comments …….looks like I am about to dive in it.

I love comments!

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