My first reaction to reading that Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers, has been removed as an option from the summer reading list for West Ashley High School in Charleston, North Carolina over a mother’s concern that it’s “smut” and “trash” was outrage. I haven’t read Some Girls Are (though I’ve now ordered it from Amazon!), but I read All the Rage recently and I would imagine Some Girls Are features the same realistic portrayal of rape culture and slut shaming; that is, teenagers (and adults) use crude words and phrases in a way the narrative does not necessarily condone but acknowledges as the way many people talk, rightly or wrongly.
I couldn’t help thinking back to the books I read in high school, and I’m fairly certain they were all smuttier than anything Courtney’s written. We studied Lysistrata, for goodness’ sake! The entire play is one bawdy joke after another. And yet our teachers gave these books to 15- and 16-year-olds because the potential discomfort arising from a sexual relationship between an aunt and her nephew or a teenage boy watching his mother with her lover was not considered to overshadow the literary value of these books.
Sometimes I wonder if the school made the right choice. I skipped over a chapter in one of the books I read (not for sex, but for violence), and another one had several rape scenes that could have been triggering to classmates who were survivors of sexual assault.
All of this has gotten me wondering about the responsibility high schools have towards their students when it comes to selecting reading material. Should they protect them from books that cause them distress? Or should they choose books that fit the curriculum’s aims and trust students’ maturity?
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. In the case of my school, I do not think it would have been overstepping its bounds if it replaced one of these books after complaints. There are two reasons, however, why this is different from West Ashley High School’s removal of Some Girls Are.
For one thing, these books were required reading. If they caused us discomfort or even distress, we had no option but to read or confront the school. In contrast, the students in Charleston had the choice to put Some Girls Are down and pick up the other book.
For another, although these books featured sex and sexual violence, they did not do so in a way that addressed age-relevant themes. I’m not saying these scenes were pointless to the books, but for us as teens they were very theoretical themes, and the books could have been replaced with other texts that didn’t feature potentially objectionable material without negatively affecting our education. Some Girls Are, on the other hand, addresses issues that teenagers actually face. Just because one parent decides it’s not the right fit for her daughter does not mean it’s not of benefit to other teens.
Moreover, although there were aspects of the books I studied that made me uncomfortable, they were still valuable books to read, and for the most part I enjoyed them. For me they held merit in spite of the discomfort they cause. On the other hand, Courtney’s books are valuable in large part because they cause discomfort. To dismiss them as “trash” for featuring references to sex is to reject the entire point of the story.
In case you’re interested, Leila from Bookshelves of Doom is hosting a #SomeGirlsAre readathon on Twitter this weekend.
Update: Kelly at Stacked Books is accepting donations of Some Girls Are on behalf of Charleston County Libraries.