High school student Mickey Catalan has a passion for softball. When she is injured in a car accident just before softball season, her ability to continue playing is jeopardized. To deal with her injuries, she is prescribed pain medication and becomes addicted.
Mickey is the main character in Mindy McGinnis’ 2019 book Heroine. The young adult novel won this year’s Missouri Gateway Readers Award, which aims to “promote literature, literacy and reading in Missouri’s high schools.” Students across the country vote for the winner.
The Edgar Award-winning author was in Columbia this week to speak at Douglass and Hickman High Schools, as well as places like the Columbia Public Library.
“Heroine” was challenged in the 2021-2022 school year at the Rockwood School District near St. Louis. According to the Challenged Materials Committee report, the challenger was concerned that the book encouraged drug use and contained material unsuitable for high school students.
“I was amused in part because it’s probably my tamest book,” McGinnis said in an interview Monday. “I thought, ‘Oh, if you don’t like this, wait till you read the next one, you’re going to get really upset.'”
In the end, her book was allowed to remain in the Rockwood schools without restrictions.
McGinnis, who worked for 14 years as a librarian at a school serving grades 6 through 12, is familiar with attempts to remove titles from shelves. Her first question to those who raise concerns about a book, she said, is whether they’ve read it. The answer was often no.
“If they say this book isn’t appropriate for their child, that’s their choice, and that’s okay,” McGinnis said. “If they say that this book is unsuitable for all children and that no one can have it, that’s censorship – and that’s where we have a problem.”
McGinnis said that although her books might be viewed as young adults, she “doesn’t pull any punches.”
“I write about violence, and I write about murder, and I write about rape, and I write about drug addiction,” she said. “And if you don’t think that sort of thing happens to teenagers, then you probably haven’t been outside lately.”
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, there were over 100 non-heroin opioid overdose deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds in 2020. In Missouri, drug overdose is the leading cause of death among adults ages 18 to 44. More than 70% of these deaths are due to opioids.
“I went to a school where a child was buried, a student who had an overdose. And I spoke to the staff and they said, ‘Yeah, we get about three or five a year.’ And I said, ‘Are you serious?'” McGinnis said. “I walked away and I was like, ‘Man, I really want to write about the opioid epidemic.'”
Another of her books is nominated for a 2022-2023 Missouri Gateway Award. “Be Not Far From Me” focuses on a girl who gets lost in the Great Smoky Mountains. McGinnis, who has written a dozen young adult books and short stories, finds writing isolating.
“You’re alone. And you switch off completely during work and nothing is around you and you know nothing but the inside of your own head,” she said. “So outside of my writing time, I like to be with people as much as possible. And so I still represent the district I used to work in because I miss the kids.”