When it comes to books, how dark is too dark? It’s no secret that dark themes permeate culture, and literature is hardly an exception.
It might be explicit content in the form of vulgar language, sexualized characters, and profane imagery. Or perhaps more subtle messages hidden between the lines. However the content is presented, it can be difficult to navigate literature’s darkest themes.
In most cases, the books school districts assign for English and Humanities classes contain problematic content. Because of this, there are ongoing conversations about whether educators should shelter children from life’s unpleasantries or allow kids to discover for themselves.
Before we explore some guiding principles to help navigate dark themes in literature, let’s discuss how we arrived here.
History of Banned Books and Their Dark Themes
But the general consensus is that these books promoted explicit content through their dark themes and imagery.
At one point, the following popular books were banned or withheld from publication:
- Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms
- J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
- J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
One particular instance is worth noting. In 1963, multiple schools across America banned Maurice Sendak’s children’s book: Where The Wild Things Are.
Why…might you wonder? Because the depiction of an unruly boy disobeying his mother was viewed as damaging to younger audiences.
After a lengthy legal battle, the book was no longer banned. This discussion involving what is appropriate for children is certainly not a new one. Most recently, the conversation centers on how literature can broaden a child’s imagination, boundaries, and promote new ideas.
Yet, there is still purpose in thoughtfully considering how literature with dark themes might negatively impact its readers.
Dark Themes in Literature Within School
In a recent article, author Anne Crossman said, “Our teens are often assigned books with dark themes when they already are struggling with [other] ups and downs…” It’s difficult to adequately understand the depths of what someone is going through. And it can be tricky to know what might trigger an unpleasant memory or elicit an unexpected action.
So, what do you do when your school assigns a book containing dark themes to your child?
Across most school districts, students interact with literature containing dark themes at a very young age. Middle school readers might trudge through the grimy world of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. In this novel, they encounter disobedient behavior, arson, foul language, and murder. Moving to high school, students might read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Homer’s The Odyssey. Both books contain dark themes involving murder, adultery, and witchcraft. Even a troubling book like Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why has increased in popularity among some school districts.
Though these books might contain elements that promote educational discussion and learning, we can’t ignore the effect these dark themes might have upon our kids.
Entering the Classroom
Last year, I taught English in ninth-grade classrooms. Over the year, I observed the effects literature can have upon impressionable minds. Our classes read texts such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Homer’s The Odyssey. On multiple occasions, there were certain scenes, language, and references in these books that the students encountered for the very first time.
Conversations involving topics such as sex, murder, and assault quickly spread across the grade. Throughout our reading, I watched as certain students grappled with difficult ideas a bit better than others.
There are multiple explanations for why some students found success in navigating these dark themes. But one common thread these particular students shared was parent involvement.
Through various conversations, I learned that these students’ parents asked questions about their students’ learning experience. Also, these parents prioritized communication with me throughout the year. In doing so, they maintained a connection to the material their students consumed. Because of this, they developed conversations with their teen about problematic topics and dark themes.
Over the year, I watched as these students answered questions in class by referencing insight from their parents. The dark themes that were once unexplored terrain and perhaps frightening had become conquerable because of intentional guidance from their parents.
How to Guide Your Kids through Dark Themes in Literature
Know Your Kid
It’s likely that hardly anyone knows your kid better than you! Let your relationship and understanding of them guide your approach to literature containing dark themes.
Your kids live within a world surrounded by problems. Life happens and they take part in that. So, consider the effects a particularly emotional or violent book might have upon them.
If your kid has directly struggled with a particular topic, find a way to appropriately discuss that topic with them. When you learn that a book they might read contains sensitive or dark themes, proactively address or support your kid for interactions with those ideas.
Do Your Research
Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God…” Raising your child with strong discernment requires careful attention. You can model that discernment in how you approach certain topics.
With that in mind, become a reader! Or at least become knowledgeable about the books your kids might read. Whether it’s researching the author on Wikipedia and Goodreads or even buying your own copy to read alongside your teen, try to directly engage with your kid and their books!
Through research or reading, you might find that you can point out certain topics or themes that they might not otherwise discover. Also, in researching you might find discussion questions to use within conversations with your kid.
Build Trust with Your School, Teachers, and District
As I mentioned earlier, parent involvement directly translated to student success. And this didn’t necessarily end with an A+. But when parents developed trust with me as a teacher, their kid benefited in their own relationship with their parents.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you become the obnoxious parent at a school board meeting. But you can develop trust with your child’s teachers through emails, phone calls, and committing to help your child outside of the classroom.
Try to avoid only talking about grades or performance. Instead, find ways to discuss your child’s growth within and outside of the classroom. Do your best to center the conversation around your kid as a student, rather than a grade.
Explore Alternative Book Options
Once you’ve built trust with your teacher and school district, there might be another option you could pursue. If an assigned book contains an excessive number of dark themes, you might be able to request an alternative book or assignment for your kid.
This could be a delicate process, so remember to maintain positive communication with your kid’s teacher. Thoughtfully present your feelings to the teacher and ask caring questions that focus on your kid. Exploring alternative book options directly with the teacher can maximize the relationships between your kid and their school.
Even though your kid might be assigned a book with dark themes, there is hope for guiding them along in their journey. Commit to creating time for intentional conversations. Focus on the relationship between you and your kid first, so you can approach those difficult topics together!