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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seeking Redemption

Okay, what's the best Christmas present ever? Having a boy who happens to be your stepson tell you that a book you gave him is pretty cool.

"I read like 40 pages last night," he said. Then a day later, "I finished."

I bought Heavy Metal and You by Chris Krovatin off Amazon after reading some reviews, then read it myself before I wrapped it (or sent it back). Each time the F word appeared, each time drinking occurred, each time the possibility of sex was mentioned, I made a mental note. Where is this going? How will the character's choice be handled? The jury was still out.

I finished it and deemed it worthy of boy consumption, especially by one whose first choice of music is thrash metal. This story of a heavy metal-obsessed youth was now authorized for his access. Why, despite all the aforementioned flaws? Because the tale was redemptive.

With teens in that strange, limbo stage of kid one day and young adult the next, you can tear your hair out wondering if that R movie or that less-than-savory language in a classic piece of literature is doing unspeakable damage to heart, mind, and soul. English teachers wrestle with this before they crack open a book with a class; how will we get through this hypersexual language in the repartee between Mercutio and Romeo? Do we explicate it, or do we ignore it? How about the mention of rape and incest in To Kill a Mockingbird, never mind the "n" word in that or Twain a dozen other canonical works on the yearly American Lit lists?

Here's my checklist of how difficult words, difficult themes, and difficult character behaviors redeem themselves:

1. Does the character struggle with issues of conscience? Does he act wrongly but reflect at some point about mistaken actions? Is there internal as well as external conflict?
2. To what degree are wrong actions glorified--such as taking drugs, cussing, etc.?
3. Does this character or a foil evolve in any way? How static and trapped are the characters in a one-note stance or attitude?
4. Does the plot and its resolution challenge the darkness--and by darkness I mean hatred, hedonism, narcissism, racism, sexism--or is it merely stated, as in, "People make terrible choices, terrible things happen, and well, there it is." Is the plot merely a mirror of human misery or is it a discussion of human misery? By discussion, I mean, is there interesting action that explores our journey through misery, with sparks of light somewhere, giving some kind of hope?

When we talk about the book, I raise these issues. I also treat the plot seriously--those choices by the characters, analyzing them without immediate judgment, trying to get to the root of the evil all humans seek. How else do we train youth to listen to the angels on their shoulders?

There is always the risk that exposing youth to the existence of bad choices can preach an unintended message of, "Well, he did it, so why not me? He survived it, so why not me?" True.

I feel safer knowing as a stepmom that I am in charge of the discussion that occurs before and after. This is not a simple pitch in the dark, hoping the ball will hit some target; it's a throw within your control. He knows I already read it, and he knows what I think of cussing and underage drinking.

As a stepparent, I'll take different risks than I would as a teacher pitching to 100-some students; the audience is much more diverse, and thus your argument has to be sure and solid--often erring on the side of canon rather than contemporary--in order to justify a choice. You want to talk with colleagues who've taught the work before, besides having read several critical reviews. And if you're pioneering a choice, listen carefully to all the feedback you get. Risks I've taken in the past include Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen. I still stand by these works as worthy and redemptive.

As you build your reading list for children or students, do the works meet the four-question test? Can you add some questions to the quiz?

If you feel you can argue the case for this book in front of one of your parents or grandparents, your favorite English teacher, and/or your partner, chances are the work is redemptive. Then you can head off to the child with work in hand, and gamble that he, too, will see all the light shimmering through the darkness.

4 comments:

Appalachian Authors Guild said...

Bravo! We're all living in a world of multi-fold choices, and sometimes making choices can be difficult. Sometimes, when the choices are difficult, we even wish someone would make them for us.
But teaching a teen to face choices, to make discriminating ones, to choose, perhaps, the lesser path traveled (read: the unpopular path) when it's right for them, then we're not leaving them as much to the vagaries of chance when they're on their own.

Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...

Thanks, Bob. Yes, I've recently learned the term "straightedge" from both the novel and my stepson--meaning no drugs, no drinking, and other good choices--while still being hip, rad, edgy. That's perhaps the new popular path for some Millennials raised in a world where Paris Hilton glam is waning and Harry Potter ethics are waxing. Let's hope!

Brian said...

Good one Lyn! Brought two things immediately to mind. First, the dysfunctional district "Instructional Materials Committee" on which I serve. Invariably the vetting process is reduced to risk management and taste. I say things like "but the girl who killed herself isn't the protagonist!" and they say "I just didn't like it." Humph.

And, second, the time we overlooked a library book and the five-year old got it. It was the one about the dog that waited for its master at the Japanese train station every day even though the man has died. Mom went to tuck her in and the poor thing literally has a puddle of tears under her chin. Oops.

Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...

Oh, Brian, I do feel your pain--not only as a former head of an English department but also as someone whose curriculum was once questioned because an underage child read an essay in the course reader her parent couldn't process with her. The first irony--my lessons were being used in a homeschooling situation, which I would imagine is ideal for processing the more challenging issues. The second irony is that I as an English teacher sometimes have had more confidence and trust in my students to maturely discuss issues raised by the literature than their parents have. I think a mother helping her daughter understand a tough line in the middle of an otherwise innocuous read is a perfect situation for the child. But the reluctance to deal with these issues is fueled by deep, unreasoning fear. Fear of discomfort, awkwardness, or fear of a child encountering evil in the world. Far better through a literary lens than in your own back yard...and many times, what is deemed "evil" is actually evil choices by a character in a context where the character evolves, learns from the mistake, and makes better choices soon after. How can these readers miss that context? Wonder who their English teachers were. :-)