On Forcing Teens to Read Depressing Books

May, being a month that bridges Autumn and Winter, brings rain every year the Auckland Writers Festival is on. So it was fitting that the morning of my first festival day the air was heavy with the promise of rain.

As a teacher I get to attend (what I like to think of as) an exclusive, closed to the public programme: the schools programme. Taking a group of teenagers into the city is no easy feat, but it is worth the stress and the endless head checks.

The morning began with a talk from New Zealand writer Jane Higgins about the doom and gloom that seems to dominate young adult literature. With kids killing one another, cancer, war, prejudice, suicide, and mental illness (among many other topics), there doesn’t seem to be a lot to feel good about when reading YA. But it is the hope that shines through these stories, and the promise of something better that allows these books to be so powerful. The talk concluded with a discussion between the teenaged audience about hope – they were asking each other and themselves: is hope real, or is it all an illusion?

A happy book would not provoke a discussion such as this.

As a teacher (and a reader!) I hold the power to choose the texts I teach. The ones that prove to be the most powerful are the texts that are dark and depressing. I have friends (and other teachers) who question why I force teenagers to read books as dismal as Never Let Me Go, The Fault in Our Stars, The Road, or The Hunger Games. The reason I invite melancholy and sorrow into my classroom is because it is these books that raise the big questions that teenagers are always asking:
What is the meaning of life? Is this worth it? Why live if we will all die anyway? Where to from here? How can I find light in the darkness? Where is the hope in all of this?

Yes, I could prescribe a happy-go-lucky feel-good book, but those books don’t teach teens about life, and loss, and love. And I hope that these depressing texts, along with the tears that are shed (including my own), enable my classroom to be a place where students can tackle the big questions and the big ideas.
They may not find the answers, but I hope they find themselves.

One thought on “On Forcing Teens to Read Depressing Books

  1. Beautifully put! My teen just finished the Maximum Ride series, which made him laugh, cry, question his existence, throw the book down in disgust, pick it up again, and read so late at night he couldn’t get up in the morning. He got to practice saving the world vicariously, and I am grateful.

    I followed you here from WWC–totally worth it!


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