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.