Several times in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord implores His people to seek wisdom out of “the best books” (D&C 88:118, 109:7,14, see also 90:15). The scope of knowledge we should pursue is broad – nations, languages, kingdoms, scientific matters, etc. (see D&C 88:78-80; 90:15). How are we doing in this category? More specifically, parents, how are your kids doing? Are you paying attention to the type of books that are being used in schools these days? It was bad enough when I was a teenager, reading depressing books like Johnny Get Your Gun as part of my high school experience (though some “depressing” books, like those by Kafka, I found to be brilliant and worth reading – in fact, reading Kafkas’s The Castle was a highlight of one of my teenage summers, though now I’m not sure it was the best choice for summer reading). Insight into the trends in books selected by the schools comes from a recent article in a publication for teachers: Barbara Feinberg, “Reflections on the ‘Problem Novel’,” American Educator, Winter 2004/05, pp. 8-19 (an excellent publication of the American Federation of Teachers).
As a lover of literature, Ms. Feinberg is worried about the trend in our schools – particularly for classes of pre-teens – of focusing on dark, depressing novels that simply fail to serve as the kind of books a reasonable society should encourage its youth to read.
She first suspected a problem when she noticed her kids began to dread reading their assigned books from school. As another 10-year-old she knows put, “They give me a headache in my stomach.” Literary critics call the genre “problem novels” and acclaim them for their ability to help children face the “honest realities” – you know, things like suicide, abandonment, physical and sexual child abuse, child prostitution, atrocities in foster care, self-mutilation, and so forth.
Many such books are recommended by the American Library Association and many are Newberry Medal winners. Parents may see their grade-school kids reading award-winning books and conclude that they are being exposed to great literature. But parents may be surprised what their children are being fed. “A desolate feeling in many of the novels prevails. In virtually all of the [‘problem novel’] books I’ve read, the character’s mother is dead, missing, or nonfunctional.”
While the narrator of these depressing, humorless, traumatizing tales is frequently a child, Feinberg notes that the voice is not an authentic child’s voice. There is none of the “magic” and imagination that flavors a child’s experience. Instead, the books simply focus on grim facts and reality in a way that is utterly unlike the way real children deal with life (except perhaps in cases of extreme pathology). “The child protagonist, while presented with the darkest and most upsetting situations imaginable, is denied what in real childhood would exist in abundance; recourse to fantasy…. Children also do not play in problem novels. Or if they do, the play sequences are never woven seamlessly into life, the way, for example, Huck in Huckleberry Finn describes his playing life…. But while the children in problem novels don’t have rich imaginations, they are given mood states: They are depressed, nervous, worried. And often they feel very guilty. One child I know remarked, ‘In those books the kids always hate themselves.'”
Too many of the books I’ve seen my kids reading for homework in recent years (especially at the high school level) do not fit in the “best books” category, and many appear aimed at causing despair, criticizing Christianity and Western society, stirring distrust for family, promoting Marxism, or pursuing other questionable agendas, such as fomenting negative attitudes about the Revolutionary War and founding of the Republic. Some school districts and teachers seem unable to recognize their bias and see the agenda they are pushing as simply advancing truth – who could be against that? But as parents, we should do our best to make sure that we and our children seek wisdom from the best books, and learn to distinguish the best books from gutter trash.
On a very positive note, I’ve been delighted with the selection of books that some of my kids have encountered at Appleton’s Classical School – a K-8 charter public school that employs the incredible Core Knowledge curriculum. Great classics have been a major part of their fare. While such novels do contain some troubling scenes (something found in many of the best books, including the Book of Mormon and the Bible), they create inspiring vistas with their art and often do much to make a person wiser and better prepared for the future – something the popular “problem novels” of today may fail to do.