Academic Minute Podcast

Gay Ivey, University of North Carolina-Greensboro – Teens and Disturbing Books

Should we restrict what books children can read?

Gay Ivey, William E. Moran distinguished professor in literacy at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, tells us why not.

Gay Ivey is the William E. Moran Distinguished Professor in Literacy at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She studies reading engagement among children and young adults and the consequences of meaningful literacy experiences on their academic lives and wellbeing. She is a recipient of the P. David Pearson Scholarly Influence Award, a past president of the Literacy Research Association, and an elected member of the Reading Hall of Fame.

Teens and Disturbing Books

Recent reports raise alarming concerns about the state of adolescents’ mental health and wellbeing, including rates of depression, loneliness, suicide, bullying, and chronic school absenteeism. School reading engagement may hold unique potential to reduce these problems.

My colleague, Peter Johnston, and I studied the experiences of 8th grade students whose English teachers prioritized engaged reading. Instead of holding students accountable for assigned books, teachers invited them to choose from a range of young adult books, gave them time to read, and encouraged them to talk about their books. Students reported improvements in peer and family relationships, self-regulation, empathy, self-narratives, moral development, reading ability, and happiness, which they attributed to the books they read.

Engaged readers experience characters’ thoughts and feelings, expanding their ability and propensity to imagine others’ thoughts and feelings, the source of many social and emotional benefits including reduced anxiety and depression, increased optimism, resilience, and wellbeing. Student’s preferred books offered moral and relational dilemmas around race, drugs, relationships, sexuality, abuse, and societal inequities. Unsettled by these narratives, they needed to talk with each other, with parents – whoever would listen. The conversations led to new friendships, a more robust support network, even improved family life. Some found the books helped them cope with personal trauma like the death of friends or family.

Our research suggests that teens need not read “the classics” to reap the benefits associated with them. Their preferred books, though disturbing, resonate with a broader spectrum of readers. Efforts to ban such books should give us pause.

Read More:
[Teachers College Press] – Teens Choosing to Read

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