OPINIONS ON THIS TOPIC
On this page are people's thoughts about high school reading assignments.
On the Home page of this site, I linked two articles about depressing high school literature that were published in the English Journal; one was an intro by Chris Crowe, and the essay was by author Kristin Randle She is the author of several YA novels, including Breaking Rank (Morrow 1999) and The Only Alien on the Planet (Scholastic 1996) - ( Please see the Home Page link for the entire article. On this page, I will take a few excerpts from Randle's essay and post them below:
Regarding reading literature when she was in high school: "But I wasn’t interested in reading about pain. I had enough problems to deal with in my own life. It really galled me that I should be “required” to read about wimpy characters with impotent lives, who waste their stories whining and eating each other and dying deaths of despair—as if I had something to learn from this."
Perhaps part of the problem is that we’ve become such a youth obsessed culture, when kids who are fourteen, sixteen, eighteen tell us they aren’t kids anymore, we buy it. (Actually, I think we’re eager to buy it.) When all the time, they really are children—tender people who need love and safety and comfort and acceptance and reassurance and who sometimes give up completely when they can’t get it."
"Anybody who is being honest about it has to admit: although “reality” can mean that marriage ends in divorce, that children suffer all kinds of horror and abuse, and people can be selfish, cruel, violent and utterly dishonest, “reality” also can mean that marriage is not only workable, but can be very, very good, that children are treasured and guided, and people can be selfless, kind, worthy of trust—that folks not only care about each other, but actually do their best to take care of one other. Although it may seem unlikely to the people who seem to have become our cultural gargoyles, this second reality is still alive and well in the world.
"Bleak” books allow only one focus, often claiming that they do so in order to offer comfort to the wounded and introduce compassion to the uninitiated. But the solution to drowning has never been, to my understanding, to push the face of the struggling swimmer deeper into the water. (“Misery loves company,” out of my mother’s mouth was a pejorative and a warning; now it’s a political platform.) Truthful storytelling has to allow that both aspects of reality exist, and that there are bridges between them, ways of moving from one to the other. Our own choices cannot always determine our circumstances, but we can choose our responses. We are not lost. We can choose to go another way. People do it every day."
And the last excerpt of hers that I pulled is a quote from another children's author who put into words much of what I feel:
"In her 1962 Newberry acceptance speech for The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth Speare said, "I believe that all of us who are concerned with children are committed to the salvaging of love and honor and duty. Not only our own faith, but the children themselves compel us. Young people do not want to accept meaninglessness. They look urgently to the adult world for evidence that we have proved our values to be enduring. Yet perhaps never before have they looked so clearly, so despairingly, at the evidence we offer. They demand an honest answer. Those of us who have found love and honor and duty to be a sure foundation must somehow find words which have the ring of truth."
During my search about positive literature, I also came across a terrific article in The Chicago Sun Times by Marianne Goss, a PR professional and former newspaper reporter. The article is entitled, "Literary fiction doesn't always have to be downbeat", and here are some excerpts:
"Why can't serious literature have a positive outlook? There is joy in life as well as sorrow, laughter as well as tears, hope as well as despair. I'm not looking for novels without moral dilemmas, loss, struggle, and conflict; I'm looking for novels that leave me feeling that there's reason to go on living."
"It isn't just personal taste that drives my quest of hopeful fiction. I am prone to depression, along with more than 10 percent of the population, if estimates are accurate. Does it make sense for people like us to take Prozac and struggle to keep a positive attitude, then turn around and read fiction that presents life as even worse than we've feared?"
Goss also has a webpage regarding her opinion about there being too many depressing novels, and it also includes an excellent list of books that are more positive than others (not just for high school but adults too).
What novel were you forced to read in high school? (click the underlined words for link) is the title of blog post by romance author Penelope Marzec. She even mentions Ethan Frome here, the novel my middle son was reading when his severe anxiety began.
And in Sugar Coat It, Baby!, Santa Monica high school student Chelsea Brandwein writes about her joy in hearing that a Shakespeare comedy was the next English class assignment rather than another depressing novel.
Ethan Zack, a student at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, VA, wrote a fantastic article in the school newspaper. Excerpts: "Contrary to what the writers of English class curricula apparently believe, maturity is not always synonymous with tragedy. A book doesn’t have to be relentlessly depressing to tell a good, thought-provoking story. This isn’t to say that a story should be without conflict—that’s what makes it interesting in the first place—just that a terrible, upsetting ending isn’t always a necessity. Adult life and ideals are complex, and the literature that young adults are required to read should reflect this.Some aspects of life are sad or difficult, and that’s where books like Night by Elie Wiesel and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck are necessary: to illustrate these facts by depicting heartbreaking losses or horrible events. But there are other aspects of maturity, such as identity or learning to overcome obstacles, that should be explored alongside the aforementioned themes."
And here's a blog post from another student lamenting the hopelessness of AP literature class curriculum. Excerpt: "Almost all the books that the AP English classes made us read, have all had one thing in common. Almost always having a bit of hope in the beginning and then crushing it under its little dirty pages."
This next blog post was posted in Cracked by Christina H. and is entitled, "4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading". Here's an excerpt:
"So one summer you are reading A Wrinkle in Time or Fantastic Mr. Fox or whatever, and then you show up for your first day of school and BAM, The Scarlet Letter. And get on that pronto, kid, because we are going to talk about metaphors and symbolism in Chapter 1 tomorrow.
I opened these books thinking they would be great and rewarding, like the books I was used to, but it was like biting into a delicious-looking cake and finding a bear trap. After my face had been so destroyed by so many bear traps (to continue the metaphor) that the greatest reconstructive surgeon in the world could do nothing to save it, I stopped looking at books as wonderful presents I couldn't wait to open and started looking at them with a sort of low-level PTSD.
Let me be clear: I still love reading good books, but since experience has taught me that there's about a 95 percent chance that a random (adult) book I pick up is going to be unenjoyable, I spend more time researching a book before I read it than I spent researching my house before I bought it. It's crazy to have to be so scared and wary of something I used to look forward to so much."
One of My Favorite Quotes of Encouragement
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at a rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it.
Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.
-- Jacob August Riis
The Suicide Novels
The Death of Nathan Austin
There have been many YA novels in the recent past that deal with the death of friends (such as John Green's The Fault in Our Stars) and have received immense popularity -- with some being made into movies. I do think The Fault in Our Stars had that element of hope that is so essential, even though it was extremely sad. There have been other YA novels about suicide such as those listed here and here . While such stories do let teen readers know they are not alone in such struggles, these same stories could also trigger depression or anxiety. Please read/assign these books with caution and sensitivity to the differences in teens (perhaps letting them choose whether or not to read these novels).
A novel called It's Kind of a Funny Story is another novel about teen depression, and its author is Ned Vizzini. This was written in 2006, and in 2013 Vizzini actually committed suicide. Thus, this book has an eerily haunting feeling to it. Just FYI.
One novel, 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, found extreme popularity, primarily because of the TV series that became available in the spring of '17. I wasn't a fan of the series of 13 shows because of 1. The main character was upset because she was treated unkindly by some, while she herself, didn't seem to be the nicest person to me 2. She blamed people for her death, living them with a huge burden to live with for the rest of their lives, and 3. the way teen boys were portrayed in the movie was alarming and ridiculous. If all or most of teen boys act like that, then we have a huge problem. I am the mom of 3 sons, and I know that they and their friends never acted like that in high school. The depiction was almost laughable, some extreme stereotype. One of my high school son's friends even said, "And who wears letter jackets like those guys do? Maybe in the 1950s or 60s." But the show was still amazingly popular, and it does discuss issues of interest to teens and has some points that should be highlighted (like really bad decision-making about going back somewhere even though you already had a bad experience there). If teens or anyone else for that matter watch this series about the book, please use caution. Below are several links about this:
My concerns about depressing literature in high schools are that 1. it can contribute to or help to trigger depression or anxiety in teens during a stressful and hormonal time in their lives (especially for teens who are prone to this biologically) and 2. it can turn teens off to reading in general. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is a 'perfect storm' of sorts when there are a number of triggers in a teen's life that can lead to depression/anxiety and possible suicidal thoughts or even suicide attempts. This appears to be what happened to a young man named Nathan Austin. After his suicide, his parents realized that he'd been reading some very bleak literature in class, including one play and one novel that included suicides as major plot points. In World Magazine, Emily Whitten of Redeemer Reader, an education blog with a Christian point of view, wrote Hello Darkness, which is an -- article about the suicide death of Nathan Austin
Books | Teenagers and the literature of hopelessness and suicide
By Emily Whitten
Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014
Posted July 25, 2014, 01:00 a.m.
Does dark or graphic material in literature harm teens? Never? Always? Sometimes? Among authors, librarians, and teachers, asking that question often starts an ideological battle, with some focused on protecting against censorship and others focused on authors’ and teachers’ worldviews.
But is that debate the whole story? When Texas high-school senior Nathan Austin committed suicide on April 2, 2012, his parents, Paul and Karen, examined new research on the biology of depression and suicide prevention, and saw that reading about death and suicide may have contributed to the mentality that led to their son’s death.
The Austins knew their son had been struggling with depressing thoughts, but they didn’t know, until soon after Nathan’s death, that his Advanced Placement (AP) English course, intended to help high-school students earn college credit, included many books that dealt with death and suicide, such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
Thousands of students, of course, read these books and don’t kill themselves, but among the depressed they may contribute to bleakness. A classmate of Nathan later told the Austins, “The books we read our senior year of high school were dark. It seemed every book we read told us that life was meaningless and in the end nothing matters. … These books all together made life seem hopeless.”
When the Austins asked teachers and administrators why such bleak books would be chosen for teens, teachers explained that, among other reasons, the AP exam frequently has material on such works. Beyond that, the people behind the AP exam choose their books based on recommendations from top U.S. colleges, so these books represent a consensus view within the literary community about what is good for teens. (Officials at Westwood High School, where Nathan attended, declined to comment on this point.)
Paul Austin says, “For one who is healthy or naïve, these books may offer a glimpse into a darker world.” In Nathan’s case, though, Paul believes reading so many dark books “was like filling his pockets with lead before a swim in the ocean.” Part of Nathan’s summer reading assignment asked him to research the method of suicide used by Willie Loman, the protagonist in Death of a Salesman. Nathan later used a variation of this method to end his own life.
Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) says the inclusion of detailed or how-to information is one of the most detrimental things a writer can do for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. News stories often lead to copycat suicides, and in some cases suicide “contagion” has been reduced up to 80 percent simply by taking simple steps such as not focusing on the methods used or romanticizing the act.
Juli Slattery, co-author of Pulling Back the Shades, points out that biological factors among teens make them more at risk from dark, graphic stories: “The last area of the brain to fully mature is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is used in decision making, weighing consequences and suppressing emotional and sexual urges. This is why even ‘good’ teens can be impulsive. … They can get lost in their own emotions and experiences without taking into consideration the larger truths around them.” She adds, “For a depressed teen, I would never suggest dwelling on the depravity of man but on stories that demonstrate the greatness of God.”
Following the publication of this artice, Emily wrote a four-part article on the Redeemed Reader blog about the Christian perspective on the depressing, discouraging literature used in most high school curricula. Here are links to each part along with excerpts that are thought-provoking:
"And for all the scrutiny I’ve given Hunger Games and Harry Potter, the reality is that the problematic material in these books pales in comparison to the books I was asked to read in high school. Native Son by Richard Wright is a book I remember quite vividly having to read in my public high school, and it is basically the tale of a young black man who kills someone, stuffs her in a furnace, and leaves the scene of the crime. Oh, it resonates, and has lots of noble themes about the suffering of main character, but it’s also a really gruesome tale of an evil act done by an evil man who has suffered at the hands of other evil men.
I could list other books I remember–The Red Badge of Courage, A Scarlett Letter, etc.–that had very disturbing, problematic content. But the point is, my mom knew I was reading these books. She was concerned that the messages of the stories didn’t reflect her values, and she put the time in to actually read ALL of them along with me. But she still didn’t know how to counteract them, other than to say, “That’s not what we do,” and “That’s not what I think.”
"As Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) explained to me in an interview last July, people don’t usually commit suicide for one or two reasons. There is usually a convergence of many factors, including two which are critical in pushing someone over the edge: 1) exposure to how-to information and 2) a trigger.
And while factors like Nathan’s grandmother’s death undoubtedly played a part, Paul Austin believes his son may have gotten both the how-to information and trigger from his AP English course.
AP English Literature’s Role
I will post the entire list of books eventually so that you can judge for yourself the cumulative effect of those books. For now, let’s look at these two critical factors. First, the how-to information. The summer before 12th grade, Nathan was assigned to read Arthur Miller’s play, The Death of a Salesman. In his list of questions to answer about the book, Nathan was asked to answer, “What hidden object has Linda recently discovered and why does it concern her?”
Since the story implies that the father commits suicide, in order to answer the question, Nathan likely searched out information on how the object might have been used for that purpose. Given that Nathan later used a variation of that method himself, it is very possible that while doing his homework assignment, Nathan found the how-to information for his own suicide. It’s worth noting that the book did not have to be studied this way. Instead of asking kids to research on their own time how certain objects might be used for suicide, that information might have been presented in class with limited detail.
Second, concerning the trigger, as best his parents have been able to piece together, the last book that Nathan read was The Awakening by Kate Chopin. At the end of this book, a woman decides that suicide is her best option and the reader follows the character as she drowns herself. In this case, as in The Death of a Salesman, the author does not call to mind all the people the woman leaves behind, all the people she is hurting. Chopin doesn’t show other options that the woman might have taken. Romanticizing the act and not putting suicide in its full context (including the pain felt by those left behind) are critical risk factors for copycat deaths.
Harkavy-Friedman pointed out in our interview that teachers don’t have to ban these books–they can often bring a bigger perspective to the conversation themselves, even if an author doesn’t. They can hand out suicide lifeline numbers, and remind teens that suicide isn’t a romantic answer to life’s problems. The school can also host a More Than Sad training program to help bring awareness to faculty and students.
Reading and hearing stories about suicide—whether journalistic stories or books read in the classroom—has been well-documented to cause copycats or “suicide contagion.” As early as 1774, the phenomenon was originally called the Werther effect after a character in a Goethe novel.
Why then do schools like Nathan’s ignore the problem? One reason may be that society simply does not realize how many teens are at risk. Among teens like Nathan, suicide is the third leading cause of death. A 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed that 15.8% of students in grades 9-12 had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months. And for every 1 who succeeds, over 100-200 more teens attempt to take their lives."
from Tony Reinke, author and cultural critic at Desiring God:
"Despair is not good existential art; despair is a powerful force of hopelessness in a fallen world that can take root in the heart of any self-aware human. Mix despair with a frequent dismissal of the Church in these books, then top that with a postmodern context that denies religious absolute truth, and you end up with a potential disaster. In my opinion, any study of despair through dark realism, if simply left as despair, is like studying fire in a science class without a fire extinguisher on the wall. We must be careful. Using literature to awakening despair in the heart of a child or teen, without the hope of the gospel, is spiritual ignorance or spiritual negligence, or both."
from Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University:
"For most healthy young readers, reading works that deal with doubt, pain, and darkness can serve to concretize the normal fears and anxieties of growing up, offering a way to examine such at an objective distance as a part of a healthy coping and maturing process. Obviously, there are fragile exceptions to this that no one might be able to predict.
Most important, however, is how such literature—any literature—is presented. No literary work should be expected or understood to be presenting total truth. But hope can be revealed even for the unseasoned reader and even from as dark a work as Death of a Salesman when the great truths beneath the dark surface of the play are brought to light. Such is the role of the teacher. "
"Strangely, though, I hear critics and teachers talk sometimes about sensitive readers as if they were stupid or mentally ill. Oh, this book of sex and gore is FINE for most readers. But sensitive readers might not be able to handle it. Sensitive readers might not be able to live with scars. Honestly, I talk that way too often myself because there is a grain of truth there. Some amount of deadness of heart is required to function in this world, and that includes reading.
But let’s be honest: highly intellectual, sensitive readers like Nathan Austin often see more than everyone else. More of what is really there. More of what was in the heart of the author when he wrote the piece. To belittle a sensitive reader as for being depressed about depressing literature is a bit like saying, “Oh, that doctor is just pessimistic about your terminal cancer because he has so much training and experience.” And it’s that seeing, that knowing that becomes a heavy burden for students like Nathan. They understand more of an author’s sin and doubt, and because so many parents and educators are blind to the spiritual impact of these books, too often, it’s a burden sensitive readers bear alone
Without going too far into critical theories, I think it is helpful to think of literature in terms of the questions it poses. Questions like: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why do we suffer? And that’s one reason I love literature as a human endeavor: these are questions we as human beings ought to be asking. English literature classes aren’t wrong to push students to ask them. But these are spiritual questions. And whatever answers we supply—whether they have anything to do with Jesus or not—are spiritual answers."
Whitten also says that there certainly reasons for teens to read and be challenged by darker literature, that some would not be detrimentally affected by such novels: "Sometimes, to keep them from drowning, we keep kids in the kiddie pool all their lives." However, we have to do this with caution.
Janie in the comment section of this article, writes: "I don’t have a problem with high-schoolers reading books like The Awakening, but the problem seems to be that the stories about suicide, murder, abuse, etc., aren’t balanced by more hopeful works. And the deeper problem is that as our culture has become more secular it has banished the only real source of hope, which is Christ.