Nothing rockets a book faster to the top of my TBR list than the news that it’s been banned or challenged by somebody somewhere. That’s how I found myself burning through Courtney Summers’s YA novel Some Girls Are, which was recently removed from a South Carolina honors English summer reading list at the request of a parent who found it objectionable. The school’s principal pulled the book from the list without subjecting it to the normal review process, which is exceptionally disturbing since Some Girls Are was just one of three books the students could choose from (ironically, Summers’s book was replaced with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, another YA novel that frequently turns up on banned and challenged lists for its frank discussion of uncomfortable topics).
Some Girls Are tells the story of a popular girl’s fall from grace and subsequent bullying at the hands of her former friends. Regina is one of the Fearsome Fivesome, the clique that rules her small town’s high school. But staying in a clique can be just as hard as getting into a clique, as Regina discovers after her BFF’s boyfriend tries to rape her one night at a party. When the friend she confides in proves untrustworthy, Regina finds her reputation smashed to pieces and her membership in the Fivesome revoked…possibly for life.
One thing this book does exceptionally well is examine the relationship between being bullied and bullying, examining how a person can shift back and forth from one state to the other. It’s not an easy read: not content to explore one teenage challenge, Summers throws the entire kitchen sink of adolescent problems at her characters at once, including eating disorders and the death of a parent. Every child in this novel is a hot mess, and their teachers and parents are pretty much either oblivious to what’s going on with their kids, or deliberately turning a blind eye.
I could see where that might make a grownup reader feel uncomfortable.
Summers mounts an eloquent defense of the book on Tumblr that, I think, gets to the heart of the matter:
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.
Including Some Girls Are on a summer reading list for students entering West Ashley High School could have been an opportunity to send a message about the types of shaming, language, and bullying that would not be tolerated as well as increase students’ awareness of the effects this type of behavior has and open up critical lines of communication about it.
Summers understands intuitively that the most offensive thing a teenager can experience in a classroom is silence.
Some books are hot potatoes nobody wants to touch. Some books push us out of our comfort zones. Some books remind you that some things never change, and never will change unless they’re brought out into the sunlight. Some books are the only means by which a teenager in trouble can reach out for a lifeline. Some books might be the only opportunity some children will have to develop compassion for others who are less fortunate. And every book is one somebody’s “some books are” list. Read them before somebody decides you shouldn’t be allowed to.
Truth-telling time: were you bullied in school, or were you a bully? Both? Neither? Do you think bullying has gotten worse in the digital age, or does it just seem that way because it’s more widely reported? What would you want your high school classmates to know about you now?
If you are a teen being bullied, or in an otherwise violent or abusive situation, the Teen Services staff has put together a resource guide with information to help you cope. Parents who would like to talk about bullying with their kids and teens can consult the information available through the National Bullying Prevention Center. The American Academy of Child and Educational Psychiatry also maintains a resource page for parents and clinical professionals who work with bullies and their victims.