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Down With Depressing High School English Books

October 17, 2012 9:39 pm
Written by: Sharon Johnson O'Donnell

Why are so many of the books read in high school English classes so depressing???

No wonder teens don't like to read and more importantly – No wonder there is an increase in teen anxiety, depression and suicide.

In 2010, when my middle son, then a high school junior, was experiencing severe anxiety, I happened to see the novel he was reading in English class lying on his desk. Two of the characters in the novel attempt suicide together. This book didn't cause his anxiety, but it certainly didn't help. Another character in a book my son read last year hung himself at the end.  And I heard of other students who read an assigned novel about a woman who drowned herself.

What?

In this day and age when we're bombarded 24/7 with bad news of terrorism, the economy, natural disasters, and lots of other things – we don't need to make things even more depressing for our teens.  Sure, I know that teens need to be aware of the classics like Romeo and Juliet – and of course, that doesn't end very well; but, R&J is so well-known and almost trite that it doesn't really have the same impact that other books do in which students are reading about characters in more modern times who give up on life. Our teens desperately need some HOPE in their lives.

I recently expressed my concerns to a middle school teacher who responded by saying, 'We have to get students ready for real life."  Excuse me, but I think teens are exposed to 'real life' enough as it is already. Do we think teens are living in some paradise?  Don't think so. There are a lot of pressures and a lot of worries out there. There are books that are about 'real life' that are not so incredibly depressing, and those are some of the books our teens need to read in their high school classes.

I understand English classes delve into the 'human condition', and sometimes the human condition is not very positive or optimistic – but sometimes, it is.  A lot of the classics analyzed in English classes are about the depths of human despair, many written by authors who were living in this despair themselves. These novels seem to be 'accepted' more as literature than novels that are more uplifting – but still about the human condition. Why do books with dark themes seem to be what teachers and administrators deem read-worthy in English classes?? There are lots of books out there that touch the soul with thoughts and feelings that inspire rather than depress. It's time we seek more of a balance in  depressing literature and the uplifting literature read in high school English classes.

Last year when I went to see "Midnight in Paris" at the movie theater, I was awe-struck by one particular line of dialogue in it from actress Kathy Bates, who played Gertrude Stein in the movie:

"The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to

find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."

Eureka!  That's what I've been trying to say!  Can't we find work by some artists who found this antidote for the emptiness of existence and wrote about it in their books?  Sure we can.

In closing, let me leave you with a link to two wonderful articles about this concern of bleakness in literature. The first is by Chris Crowe, editor of the English Journal, and the second is from Young Adult author Kristen Randle. Crowe writes about his son's experiences with bleak literature and then publishes the Randle article below his – one she wrote at his request to address this issue. It's aptly titled:  "Let It Be Hope".
http://www.ponymoon.com/PonyWorkshop/let-it-be-hope-english-journal-2001/

Here's an excerpt from Crowe's introductory article that quotes his son and how he felt about reading so much depressing literature in school and the misconception that only dark literature is deep literature:

"We go to school to learn how to succeed in life," he said. "But we have to read books that aren't uplifting." Then he came up with an apt analogy: "When you're trying to learn how to swim, you don't read books about drowning."

It's time we do something about this. I am in the process of planning a website and a letter-writing campaign, both entitled UpLit (Encouraging uplifting literature in high school English classes)

Wish me luck!



Why are so many of the books read in high school English classes so depressing???

No wonder teens don't like to read and more importantly – No wonder there is an increase in teen anxiety, depression and suicide.

In 2010, when my middle son, then a high school junior, was experiencing severe anxiety, I happened to see the novel he was reading in English class lying on his desk. Two of the characters in the novel attempt suicide together. This book didn't cause his anxiety, but it certainly didn't help. Another character in a book my son read last year hung himself at the end.  And I heard of other students who read an assigned novel about a woman who drowned herself.

What?

In this day and age when we're bombarded 24/7 with bad news of terrorism, the economy, natural disasters, and lots of other things – we don't need to make things even more depressing for our teens.  Sure, I know that teens need to be aware of the classics like Romeo and Juliet – and of course, that doesn't end very well; but, R&J is so well-known and almost trite that it doesn't really have the same impact that other books do in which students are reading about characters in more modern times who give up on life. Our teens desperately need some HOPE in their lives.

I recently expressed my concerns to a middle school teacher who responded by saying, 'We have to get students ready for real life."  Excuse me, but I think teens are exposed to 'real life' enough as it is already. Do we think teens are living in some paradise?  Don't think so. There are a lot of pressures and a lot of worries out there. There are books that are about 'real life' that are not so incredibly depressing, and those are some of the books our teens need to read in their high school classes.

I understand English classes delve into the 'human condition', and sometimes the human condition is not very positive or optimistic – but sometimes, it is.  A lot of the classics analyzed in English classes are about the depths of human despair, many written by authors who were living in this despair themselves. These novels seem to be 'accepted' more as literature than novels that are more uplifting – but still about the human condition. Why do books with dark themes seem to be what teachers and administrators deem read-worthy in English classes?? There are lots of books out there that touch the soul with thoughts and feelings that inspire rather than depress. It's time we seek more of a balance in  depressing literature and the uplifting literature read in high school English classes.

Last year when I went to see "Midnight in Paris" at the movie theater, I was awe-struck by one particular line of dialogue in it from actress Kathy Bates, who played Gertrude Stein in the movie:

"The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to

find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."

Eureka!  That's what I've been trying to say!  Can't we find work by some artists who found this antidote for the emptiness of existence and wrote about it in their books?  Sure we can.

In closing, let me leave you with a link to two wonderful articles about this concern of bleakness in literature. The first is by Chris Crowe, editor of the English Journal, and the second is from Young Adult author Kristen Randle. Crowe writes about his son's experiences with bleak literature and then publishes the Randle article below his – one she wrote at his request to address this issue. It's aptly titled:  "Let It Be Hope".
http://www.ponymoon.com/PonyWorkshop/let-it-be-hope-english-journal-2001/

Here's an excerpt from Crowe's introductory article that quotes his son and how he felt about reading so much depressing literature in school and the misconception that only dark literature is deep literature:

"We go to school to learn how to succeed in life," he said. "But we have to read books that aren't uplifting." Then he came up with an apt analogy: "When you're trying to learn how to swim, you don't read books about drowning."

It's time we do something about this. I am in the process of planning a website and a letter-writing campaign, both entitled UpLit (Encouraging uplifting literature in high school English classes)

Wish me luck!


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Comments (1): Subscribe by Email
I teach high school English in Vermont, and I totally agree that we teach way too many depressing novels. Unfortunately, I am struggling to come up with more uplifting literature titles. Do you have suggestions? Thanks!

Posted By: kris roberts
November 12

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