Author Courtney Summers on Book Challenges and the Freedom to Read

Mary McCoy, Senior Librarian, Art, Music, & Recreation Department,
"It's powerful to see yourself in a book when you're struggling"  —Courtney Summers
"It's powerful to see yourself in a book when you're struggling" —Courtney Summers

On July 28, Canadian author Courtney Summers’s inbox filled up with messages. Some were from people she knew, some from strangers, but many came from readers over a thousand miles away in Charleston, South Carolina. They were all writing to let her know that her popular young adult novel, Some Girls Are, had been pulled from an optional summer reading list at West Ashley High School in Charleston after a parent complained about its content.

Some Girls Are, which is about a once-popular girl who becomes the target of vicious bullying, received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal, and was named a Best Book for Young Adults and a Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers by the American Library Association. However, the parent protesting the book called it “smut” and “trash.”

At first, the school offered an additional reading option, but the parent filed a complaint, initiating a formal committee review of Some Girls Are. However, before the proceedings could begin, the school chose to remove the book from the reading list entirely.

I spoke with Courtney Summers about what happened over the summer, about the response to the removal of Some Girls Are in the Charleston community and beyond, and her thoughts about why teenagers need to have the freedom to read.

Author Courtney Summers and the cover of her book Some Girls Are

What was your reaction when you found out Some Girls Are had been challenged?

I was very upset.Some Girls Are was an optional title on a summer reading list--students had the choice of whether or not they wanted to read it. It doesn't bother me when someone chooses not to read my books, whatever their reasons, but I think it's deeply troubling and very problematic when someone makes that choice for other readers who might feel differently.

What has the response been like both in the community where the book was challenged and beyond?

There has been an incredible outpouring of support from people all over, people who are passionately invested in and dedicated to fighting censorship and advocating for books and readers. The National Coalition Against Censorship has protested the removal of Some Girls Are and Andria Amaral, a librarian with the Charleston County Public Library, has teamed up with Kelly Jensen to coordinate a huge donation of copies of Some Girls Are to teenagers in Charleston who would like to read it. I'm grateful for and humbled by the support.

Not only was your book removed from the school's summer reading list, the principal did not follow the school district's guidelines for handling book challenges. The book was just gone, and it made me wonder why do one or two offended people get to have so much power in these situations?

When the opposition is very vocal and demanding answers, I think the people they're demanding answers from get nervous and, in an attempt to avoid conflict, their inclination might be to look for the easiest, quickest ways to resolve the situation to prevent it from escalating. But in doing so, the opposite usually happens. I think it's unfair that Some Girls Are's removal violated the district's due process. People should be confident that the appropriate procedures are followed in situations like this. That's why they're there. Otherwise, who is protecting the reading rights of the students?

Why do you think it's so important for teens to have the freedom to read?

I write the kind of books I do because I want the teenagers going through the things I write about to feel less alone. It's powerful to see yourself in a book when you're struggling. I also believe books offer a safe space for teen readers to process what's happening around them, even if they're not directly experiencing what they're reading about. Fiction helps to develop and nurture our sense of empathy. As I wrote in my initial response to Some Girls Are's removal, we don’t protect teen readers by denying the realities many of them are faced with--often, in doing so, we deny them a lifeline. It is vital that teenagers have the freedom to read and it's vital we stand up and fight for that freedom.

Courtney Summers is the author of six novels for young adults including Cracked Up To Be, Some Girls Are, This is Not a Test, and most recently, All the Rage. All are available for checkout at the Los Angeles Public Library.