Based on a complaint from one parent, the principal of West Ashley High School in Charleston, South Carolina has removed Courtney Summers’ novel Some Girls Are as an option on a summer reading list for freshman Honors English. Although Charleston County School District’s challenge policy says that the school board should make the final decision “based upon careful examination and study of the challenged material,” WAHS principal Lee Runyon said he pulled the book this week because “we felt like we needed to try to accommodate the parent’s concerns, which had some validity, and make a common-sense decision.”
Summers’ book is about a high school senior who is ostracized and bullied by her former friends after she reports an attempted rape by a popular boy. Initially, incoming Honors English I students could choose to read either Some Girls Are or Rikers High, about a 17-year-old boy attending high school inside Rikers Island prison while awaiting trial for a minor infraction. In a letter to the editor of the Post and Courier newspaper last week parent Melanie MacDonald said she and her daughter both downloaded Some Girls Are to their Kindles, planning to read it at the same time. Before long, however, MacDonald reported that “my jaw dropped and I was appalled and disgusted that my child (make no mistake that high school kids are still children) had been assigned this as required reading.”
In her letter, MacDonald objected to the book’s depiction of underage alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, a lecherous male teacher, “body shaming about the size of the lead character’s breasts, and then a sexual reference so explicit that I will not reference it here.” In a follow-up article from the Post and Courier yesterday, MacDonald says although she confiscated her daughter’s Kindle, she has finished reading the book herself and “it doesn’t get any better.”
When MacDonald communicated her concerns to school officials last week, the WAHS English Department initially responded by adding a third option to the reading list: the 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although MacDonald and her daughter now had two alternatives to Some Girls Are, she then filed a formal challenge to the book, which according to the Post and Courier should have triggered the formation of a review committee to decide whether it could remain on the reading list. But before that could happen Runyon pulled it from the list and, in consultation with English teachers, replaced it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak–which explores themes similar to Some Girls Are and is a frequently challenged book itself.
In response to her book’s removal from the list, Summers today posted on Tumblr an impassioned defense of students’ freedom to read:
I have made a career out of writing young adult fiction about difficult topics. It’s my deepest hope teenagers living the harsh realities I write about–because they do live them–will read my books and feel less alone. It’s incredibly powerful to see yourself in a book when you’re struggling. Not only that, but gritty, realistic YA novels offer a safe space for teen readers to process what is happening in the world around them, even if they never directly experience what they’re reading about. This, in turn, creates a space for teens and the adults in their lives to discuss these topics. Fiction also helps us to consider lives outside of our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic toward others.
In the Post and Courier article, Runyon mentioned “timing” as one reason why he did not follow the challenge policy in removing Some Girls Are from the reading list. This may be a hint that the book fell prey to a phenomenon that was positively epidemic last year, when several school districts across the country apparently failed to follow their challenge policies simply due to the logistical issues involved with forming a review committee during the summer months. Obviously all books should receive due process regardless of when they’re assigned, and we hope CCSD officials and the school board will reconsider Runyon’s decision.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.