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Disturbing Themes In Reading Assignment

Every week, I meet with and mentor a 14-year-old through a program at my church. We work on homework or assigned readings together, and over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been reading through a novel for her English class.

I have to admit that I get excited when I see a kid diving into a book, particularly a good sized novel like the one she’s brought with her the last couple of weeks. I’m always hopeful that kids will come to love books as much as I do. I’m also aware that some books I read in high school continue to impact me today. Books can be powerful.

But as we’ve read this particular book over the past couple of weeks, my excitement has been mixed with concern. This is a book selected from a list provided by her English teacher, but the book’s themes are intense and disturbing – white supremacy, hate, abuse, violence, patricide, and trauma. And there’s been a lot of profanity that we’ve awkwardly skipped over as we read.

The difficult themes in this book aren’t glamorized. On the contrary, most of the book seems to focus on the main character’s struggles as he confronts his violent, racist upbringing. That doesn’t make the descriptions of his thoughts and feelings any easier to read. Indeed, that discomfort is part of the point. I’m sure the author set out to make her teenaged readers uncomfortable and to challenge them to think.

Still, I have some concerns. First, I wonder if this is really the best way to engage kids with these issues. Given the nature of this book, the themes with which it’s dealing, and the violent content, it seems like the sort of book that might be appropriate for some 14-year-olds, but not for all. Even for the most mature kids, these are themes that probably need to be discussed with an adult and put into some sort of context. But in this particular classroom, kids are reading lots of different books. Not everyone is reading this novel, so there’s no broader conversation about it or the themes presented. Kids are left to process all of this on their own.

Second, I’m inclined to think that this is the sort of book that parents probably need to opt into for their kids. That didn’t happen here. I’m told that the teacher sent a list of books home with vague directions that the students should let her know if their parents objected to any of the books on the list. Of course, the kid I mentor didn’t bother to show her parents the list. Perhaps if teachers are going to present their students with this sort of material, they should require a parent’s signature saying that it’s okay. It doesn’t guarantee that parents will pay attention to what they sign, or even that kids won’t forge a signature, but it would be a step in the right direction.

Third, I’m concerned about the language. I think there’s a place for heavy books dealing with difficult themes in the repertoire we present to our kids. But I worry a lot about the flippancy with which we expose kids to profanity. It seems reasonable that kids would conclude the language in books given to them by English teachers is probably appropriate, mature language.

So maybe we should be a bit more concerned about trying to raise the bar. Maybe, instead of reinforcing the basest language they hear around them, schools should attempt to elevate their vocabularies, expose them to better, more precise, more sophisticated ways of expressing themselves.

Books have enormous power. They teach us language, vocabulary, and grammar. We learn how to write and how to craft narratives. But we can also learn about the darkest parts of our world and have our worldviews challenged and turned upside down. Good books can help us to question our assumptions, to see things from the perspective of a protagonist who is very different from ourselves, and to make us think. But it is precisely due to this power that we need to be thoughtful about what our kids are reading. Parents and grandparents need to pay attention to the books children are bringing home to read, and should talk with them to process the ideas, values, and challenging themes that may be presented.

And schools need to be mindful about the books they’re offering to kids or requiring them to read, erring on the side of caution when it comes to questionable or sensitive themes and language. That’s only likely to happen if schools hear from parents. So, it’s important that parents take the time to familiarize themselves with the books assigned and give feedback to teachers and administrators about which books they believe are appropriate and which ones are not.


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