Why Can’t Teachers Assign Happy Books?

convention bookmarkIn 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon in her now infamous Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible” set off a fire storm of response from YA authors and book lovers everywhere. Maureen Johnson refuted Gurdon’s article and initiated the #YAsaves hashtag that had thousands discussing via Twitter.

One thing for certain even in 2016 is that book challengers often accuse books of being “too dark” or of dealing with subject matter they don’t want kids to encounter in their reading. They argue as Gurdon said,

“…It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

Michael DiCicco and Paula Taylor-Greathouse note in a 2014 English Journal article

“Moral outrage has been used to censor literature as far back as literature has been incorporated into the classroom. People who challenge on the basis of moral content do so for reasons such as language, sexual situations or innuendos, inferences to drugs or alcohol use among a novel’s adolescent characters, and even sexual orientation. As history demonstrates, the moral debate regarding YA literature is one that may never be resolved.”

They add,

“Young adult literature is guilty of only one thing— being realistic. For some, this realism is a hard pill to swallow. As such, the voices of those who oppose this reality tend to be the loudest and most often heard.”

Certainly, Gurdon’s suggestion that we adults prevent students from reading certain books is in direct opposition to NCTE’s The Students’ Right to Read while, at the same time, the idea that knowledgeable adults select books for classroom use with students is a pillar of the NCTE Principles for Intellectual Freedom in Education which note,

“As trained professionals, educators are qualified to select appropriate classroom materials and resources from a variety of sources given their teaching goals and the needs and interests of the students they serve.”

Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay, made a most important argument for our students in Time Magazine last year (bold mine):

“I think about teen-reader me a lot when I hear about adults bemoaning the dark material in Young Adult books… Because the concerns seem partially predicated on this idea that you become what you read. By that logic, I would’ve become a cocaine-snorting groupie years ago, or a lunatic or a murderous Russian. Because by 10th grade, it was Vonnegut and Dostoyevsky I was obsessed with…

“The other concern with dark YA seems based on a worry that these intense stories—which sometimes deal with issues like self-harm and addiction and abuse and even death—could irrevocably damage fragile minds…

“Reading about everyday fictional teens rising to the occasion (and, spoiler alert, in YA books they almost always do) allows actual teens to imagine themselves doing the same, within the lower-stakes conflicts and contexts of their own lives. This is empowering, and hopeful, words that I would use to describe many YA books. Even the dark ones. Especially the dark ones. These “dark” books may seem to be about death, about illness, about pain, but really they are about life. The kids get that, even if the adults sometimes, do not.”


About Millie Davis

Millie Davis is Senior Developer for Affiliates, and Director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). In addition she works on NCTE’s communications efforts, particularly on social media. Millie's passion is working with literacy teachers across the country and beyond whose passion for their students and their students' learning is their reason for going to work each day.

5 thoughts on “Why Can’t Teachers Assign Happy Books?

  1. As a teacher, I do think that in middle school and high school we can begin to overwhelm kids with books that deal with intensely negative experiences. I think there is a bias in our culture that “serious” literature needs to be about violence, destruction, etc. and that “happiness” is light and not worthy of our attention. To counter this bias, I put together a “happiness” unit for my 7th grade class featuring the latest scientific research on happiness. We watched the documentary “Happy” and read The Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”). Students had a choice of books to read, including: Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver; A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, and Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. We talked about how characters overcame difficulties, and we learned about specific habits and behaviors that have been found to promote happiness. I think it’s important to realize that happiness is also part of reality, and that ultimately, as our founding fathers pointed out, all humans are engaged in a quest for happiness.

  2. As my older son said when my mother objected to my letting him read Harry Potter when he was in 2nd grade, “You know we know the difference between fiction and reality.” That, I think, is something many adults forget.

  3. As a high school English teacher and, later, as a elementary and middle school principal, my position was that students should be reading high quality fiction and non-fiction books that fit their learning needs, level of maturity, and interests, and, if possible, mesh with current studies in other academic areas.

    I believe that teachers are capable of making appropriate choices for their students, but I think they should also keep in mind alternative books that students, whose parents object to their choices, could read instead. It might be a good idea for teachers to let parents know ahead of time which books are coming up for study, so that anyone deeply concerned about such books can request an alternative for their child.

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