by Wendi Capehart
'Ms. O.' taught Language Arts at my Junior High school back in the mid-seventies. She was youngish, and dressed sort of like the female lead on the Mod Squad. She arranged our desks in friendly little groups facing each other, instead of in regimented rows. She didn't lecture the class from the front of the room, but would 'rap' with us while wandering amongst us in a friendly, personal way. Very personal. One of our classmates had matured a few years ahead of his time. He had broad shoulders and he shaved in the seventh grade, and no matter which direction Ms. O. took as she wove her way through our desks as she rapped with us about verbs and adjectives and Chaucer, she always ended up behind Jay, massaging his shoulders while she talked.
She was our friend, she said. If we ever needed to just chat with somebody about what was going on in our lives, we could come to her. She was open to hearing what we had to say. She was very, very hip, and at the beginning of the year, we all loved her, and thought it was great that we had such a cool teacher.
I still remember the day she read some Chaucer in the original lilting Middle English. She didn't use boring textbooks in her class. We read real books and real short stories, and it promised to be all very heady stuff.
We read books like Flowers for Algernon, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Lord of the Flies. We read short stories like The Lottery and The Tell Tale Heart. There were stories about children who killed their parents and stories about parents who abused their children. I can't remember all the titles anymore, but I do remember that we never read anything that didn't have a sad, tragic, or just horrible ending. Even the Chaucer tale she chose was one of the darker ones. By midyear the shine had pretty much worn off our excitement, and we were all pretty depressed. We didn't look forward to coming to class and opening up a new book or story anymore, because we knew that no matter what we read next, it wouldn't end well for the characters. At lunch we all talked about it together, over and over, commiserating in our misery. Junior high was tough enough, we felt, without this unremitting diet of despair and tragedy. Those of us who loved to read enjoyed this taste of serious literature, but we were hoping to be introduced to serious literature that might sometimes leave us uplifted and encouraged, rather than wanting to slit our wrists.
Still, she massaged Jay's shoulders every day, and continued to tell us she was our friend, and we could talk with her about anything. So we got together a delegation of four to go talk to Ms. O. about our concerns. Four of us girls made up the delegation. Let's call us Alice, Jody, Martha, and Mandi. We were chosen because we were all good students who loved to read. We asked if we could talk to her privately one day at lunchtime. She cheerfully agreed, and met us in her classroom. We explained that we just wondered if it was possible that there was some good literature out there that wouldn't make us all feel suicidal. We said we weren't asking to never read any more dark and dreary titles. We just thought, we said, that once in a while we could read something a little more cheerful in class. She seemed very sympathetic and receptive. She told us how much she appreciated us coming to her with our concerns, and how mature that was, and she was so pleased. She said she'd give it some serious thought.
That afternoon we found out just how much thought. As the afternoon class settled in our chairs, she made this announcement,
"Class, Alice, Jody, Martha, and Mandi have come to me expressing a need for some immature, escapist literature to lighten the class reading assignments. Does anybody else feel a similar need for immature escapist reading?"
Obviously, nobody raised a hand. Equally obviously, we felt betrayed, because we had been.
Now I'm a teacher/mother of my own children, and I choose books for my girls to read every year. I use a wide range of resources to help me find titles I don't want the progeny to miss. This year one of the books I looked at is Best Books for Young Adults, by Betty Carter. It's about the book selection process of the ALA committee that puts out an annual list by that name. This particular volume included the titles chosen from 1966-1993. Reading the descriptions of the books leaves me with the impression that the best way to get included is to write a book about a kid who is abused by her parents, assaulted by a family friend, uses drugs, and runs away from home. According to the author, the young adults are not always pleased with the books chosen for them by their betters, either. In 1967, a 14 year old girl wrote to the selection committee about the booklist,
"...I find it disgusting. I can't see, in the first place, why anyone writes them, in the second, why anyone would publish them, and third, why the American Library Association would recommend them to young people like myself to read and corrupt our minds with. There are enough problems in the world today without creating more . . . "
She said that there were still young people out there who just wanted to read really good books, and she hoped that the committee would think harder about their selections and whether they were really choosing the 'best' in books. The author was dismissive of her complaints, just as my old junior high teacher.
When choosing books I want to encourage my children to read, I don't avoid a book just because it's sad or hard, but I also make an effort to provide a varied diet and include literature that is ultimately uplifting. [A friend] and I were discussing this one day, and she said that she thought that young people of a certain age just wear their books. They carry what they read with them, they are cloaked in what they are reading - and sometimes they can feel smothered by the darkness.
I don't agree with the tendency to dismiss cheerful tales and happy endings as unrealistic, escapist and inferior. It is true that bad things happen to good people, and this is real and tragic, but it's also true that quite often good things happen to good people, and this is also real.