High School Literature... So Bad, It’s Depressing!
Why do we have to read such depressing books in school? I believe books should inspire rather than depress. It’s time we seek a balance of classic literature and depressing literature and start to read things with an uplifting message in middle and high school English classes. Reading is the cornerstone to all aspects of education. A lifelong love of reading affects every area of your life positively. Teenagers would read more if the books in school were not so depressing. Some of these novels contain adult material that young people simply are not emotionally equipped to assimilate. Sad and depressing books cause an increase in anxiety and depression in teenagers. Who decided that these incredibly dark themes were going to be on these school reading lists? Parents who would never allow their children to play violent video games allow them to read violent books every day.
During the summer of sixth-grade I read a few Harry Potter’s and I was totally absorbed in a brand-new world. No one had asked me to read four books that summer, I wanted to, because I loved them. I showed up for the first day of school in seventh grade, and the teacher plops down Where the Red Fern Grows. That semester was all about the metaphors and symbolism of death in the family dog. It didn’t take long before I stopped looking at books as wonderful presents and started looking at them as a sort of low level PTSD experience.
Since the beginning of seventh grade the most depressing books I’ve ever read include: Where the Red Fern Grows, The Kite Runner, Ann Frank Diary of a Young Girl, Of Mice and Men, My Sisters Keeper, A Child Called It, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Fences, The Outsiders, The Pearl Diver, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, 1984, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Raisin in the Sun, Tuesdays with Morrie, The Sun Also Rises, Black Boy, The Whipping Boy, Medea and The Grapes of Wrath.
I did not choose to read a single one of these books, and I have read them all. I believe teenagers would read more if kids enjoyed the stories. I do not believe we should strip depressing books out of the curriculum completely. When just about every single book on the reading list is depressing, kids begin to equate reading with sadness. I believe this kind of negative experience is why less than 40% of American adults have read any novel in the past year. There are plenty of books out there that can touch your soul with inspiration rather than desperation and depression. I believe that the English classes of America need to delve into the human condition of man. Sometimes the human condition is not positive, happy or optimistic, but sometimes it is. We need to strike a better balance.
I believe we need to keep in mind that we are dealing with children. Children have tender souls and they need love, comfort, acceptance and reassurance. Frankly, children need hope. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are realities that children turn to when they lose hope. Approximately 20% of teens experience significant depression before they reach adulthood. According to suicide.org, a teen takes his or her own life every 100 minutes in the United States. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people age 15 to 24. Only 30% of depressed teens are being treated for it. A study at San Diego State University found that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with significant anxiety and depression as youth of the same age who were studied during the Great Depression era. It might surprise you to know that on the checklist upon leaving the hospital after a suicide attempt parents are asked to remove depressing and sad reading material from their home. It is the third item on the checklist underneath removing guns and knives. As a society, we should not have to wait to remove depressing reading material from anxious teens until after their failed suicide attempt. There is an old adage that goes: “When you’re trying to learn how to swim, you don’t read books about drowning”. The same holds true for reading, when you want to teach about hope and love you do not read about rape and incest.
I have a friend, whose parents do not allow him to play Halo on the Xbox. The rationale for this is that it is too violent and he learns nothing from playing. The same parents allow him to read the middle and high school reading list. In the game Halo, US military forces protect the citizens of the United States and abroad from an alien invasion. So is my friend protected, safe and warm in his upper-middle-class home with parents who adore him or is he just missing out on a fun video game? He had read To Kill a Mockingbird , where a black man wrongly accused of rape is set up and murdered. He had to read The Kite Runner where a boy is brutalized and raped. The plot of the next book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings actually made me physically ill. The plot of this little gem involves an eight-year-old girl being repeatedly raped by her mother's boyfriend. I had nightmares about this book for weeks. Saving the world from aliens isn’t sounding so bad, is it?
Who actually decides what is fine literature and what is filth? I believe the school systems insistence on making our children wake from the dream of their childhood and turning them into adults, too soon, have caused significant depression and anxiety in today’s youth. By ninth grade children have become hardened and immune to further trauma. It is as if unless a book makes you cry, it cannot possibly be considered literature.
All books can teach you something. A book can teach you about solving problems, dealing with conflicts, history, bravery and perseverance. Books can also teach you narcissism, greed, violence for violence sake and sadistic torture. Some adults believe that the end justifies the means. It is a complex moral dilemma. If you allow children to make some of their own choices it could become a teaching opportunity. If instead of simply assigning a book you gave kids a list of choices I believe that would be a good start. The matching of a child with the perfect book is a formula for making a lifelong reader. Not every book is right for every person, but providing a wide range of reading choices is vital to learning and imagination. I believe giving kids choices will allow them to become more resilient and capable adults. I implore all parents to speak openly with their children about the effects of depressing books. I also implore children speak openly with their English teachers about allowing more choices in novels.