Sharon O’Donnell picked up the paperback from her son’s bed—an assignment for his high-school English class—and her heart sank. It was Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton’s grim tale that begins with a loveless marriage, careens into a double-suicide attempt, and ends in tragedy. Yeah, real cheery.
Remember that scene in Silver Linings Playbook, where Bradley Cooper’s exasperated character—after flinging Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (death in childbirth) out the window—shouts, “Can’t someone say, ‘Let’s be positive’? Can’t the story have a good ending?”
That’s pretty much how O’Donnell felt at the time. But instead of throwing her son’s books out the window, she decided to do something constructive. She started promoting the idea of balancing some of those darker high-school reading lists with more positive, uplifting literature through the perfectly named organization she founded, called UpLit.org. UpLit works with state education departments, teacher groups, and PTAs to raise awareness and promote discussions about the importance of offering alternatives.
More uplifting choices
UpLit doesn’t aim to get rid of grim classics like Ethan Frome or Lord of the Flies, O’Donnell told me. A former writing teacher, mother of three boys, and author of House of Testosterone, she thinks books like those often have important lessons to teach. But she also thinks today’s adolescents are under more stress than ever and are ripe for stories about hope, character, constructive problem-solving, and inspiration.
On top of all the deep, dark classics, O’Donnell points out, contemporary young adult (YA) books have been getting steadily bleaker, too.
Of special concern to her: the impact of these downbeat books on the growing number of kids struggling with anxiety disorders or depression.
“When you’re trying to learn how to swim, you don’t read books about drowning,” she says, quoting a university English professor who shares her beef. “Why can’t we balance the dark with the uplifting?”
Or, as one high-schooler in an AP English class blogged, “Almost all the books…had one thing in common. Almost always having a bit of hope in the beginning and then crushing it under its little dirty pages.” Added another student: “Contrary to what the writers of English class curricula apparently believe, maturity is not always synonymous with tragedy.”
Here’s what O’Donnell suggests if you share her point of view:
- Take a look at your teen’s assigned reading. Are dark stories balanced with books that offer positive messages? Don’t be afraid to ask teachers about the reasons why certain books are taught. Most curriculum decisions are made at the local level, O’Donnell says.
- If your teen has anxiety or depression, and you see worrisome titles on a reading list, let the teacher know your child’s history. Ask how dark material like suicide will be presented. Some teacher coaching programs suggest that they point out how the character had other options, and discuss these, for example. “It also helps when teachers share that they, too, are affected by the sadness and darkness in books, so students don’t feel they’re the only ones who feel that way,” O’Donnell says.
- Read the novels your teen reads. This puts you in their heads a bit, so you can be ready to talk if needed—especially useful if your teen has a history of mood disorders.
- Let your child know to come to you if a book feels overwhelming. Students are sometimes allowed to read a substitute. Or an option gaining interest among educators is to pair the book with another title of a similar theme or plot so the two can be compared and contrasted.
- Try to balance downbeat assigned reading by offering your teen positive books. On her UpLit.org website, O’Donnell lists alternate books for high-schoolers that have been suggested by educators and others. Among them: Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons, and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King. They’re not vapid, Pollyanna-jolly stories, she insists. Take the Steinbeck classic The Grapes of Wrath. The Joad family’s saga in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression is sad stuff, but remember how it ends?
“I’ll be all around in the dark—I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build—I’ll be there, too.”
Says O’Donnell: “It offers hope! Sure, the literature kids read might seem like a small thing. But if it can help make a difference, why not give it a shot?”
Photo at top: Silver Linings Playbook