As censors nationwide lament the harm done when young people read books with controversial content, two prominent freedom to read organizations decided to ask teen readers about frequently challenged material. As part of the Student Advocates for Speech initiative, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Impact and Legacy Fund co-organized an essay contest, inviting students ages 14–18 to respond to the topic “How a Banned Book Changed My Life.”

According to Christine Emeran, director of NCAC’s Youth Free Expression program, “We received dozens of submissions and it was a competitive process to select the winners, which involved two rounds of finalists” judged by writers and retired publishers. The NCAC’s two winners read their work aloud as part of the June 8 SCBWI–ILF virtual conference, Children’s Book Changemakers. We are republishing the essays here.

Neve Bonura-Learnard is a rising junior at Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, Mass. She wrote about John Green’s debut novel, Looking for Alaska, which won the 2006 Printz Award and has been challenged for explicit language and LGBTQ content.

About three years ago, my mother looked me in the eyes and told me I needed help. As a 12-year-old living in a world where mental health was deeply stigmatized, therapy sounded like my worst nightmare. I was perfectly content letting my life fade into darkness if that meant fitting in. The next morning, Looking for Alaska by John Green lay atop my nightstand. I found that despite my protest to my mom’s endeavors, I was absolutely taken by the book. I would find myself sneaking away to finish a chapter or anxiously rereading a line, careful not to miss a single detail.

My heart would pang at every angsty teenage moment, every epiphany, and like every other reader, I sobbed my eyes out when I learned of Alaska’s death. And, when my journey with Alaska and the rest of the crew ended, I could no longer hide it. I could no longer keep the river at bay. I had to accept that the pain I was experiencing was more than just a bad day. Until this book, I had never wanted to explore my brain because I knew I wouldn’t like what I found. However, seeing Alaska’s struggles never tainted her beauty, fierceness, or spirit; I chose to fight on. In fact, maybe it was her pain that exemplified her brilliance. Whatever it was, I refused to be lost like Alaska. Like John Green once wrote, “The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.” So, I forgave myself for hurting.

I am not exaggerating when I say this book pulled me out of a dark place. It reminded me of the simple joys of peeling fruit, morning sun, and my own laughter. A novel that can have such a profound impact on someone’s life, even save it, should never be banned.

Harsidak Singh is a rising senior at Washington Liberty High School in Arlington, Va. He wrote about his experience reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan, which has been challenged for violent content and for representing Islam.

“For you, a thousand times over”—those words from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini resonated with me on a level that I had never experienced before. As a South Asian male, I had always struggled with feeling disconnected from my heritage, constantly struggling to find stories and characters that truly represented my experience. But when I read The Kite Runner, it was like a piece of me had been unearthed and brought to light.

For the first time, I saw a depiction of my culture that was authentic and unapologetic—the customs, traditions, and beliefs that were so deeply ingrained in my identity were finally being recognized on the page. And beyond that, the novel gave me a new understanding of the human condition, particularly the weight of guilt and shame.

Through the journey of Amir, the protagonist, I learned that it is never too late to seek redemption, to make things right. That even in the darkest moments, when we feel like we have no voice, there is always a way to speak up and fight for what is right.

The Kite Runner moved me to tears, but it also moved me to action. It made me want to be a better person, to speak out against injustice, and to seek out stories that truly reflect the diverse experiences of people like me. It is a book that I will carry with me always, a reminder of the power of storytelling to unite us and inspire change.