Dear Aunt Debbie,
I need to figure out when I'm going to see that movie. Like you, all of my students, and thousands of other people in the interestingly wide demographic that has become obsessed with the books, I whizzed through the Hunger Games trilogy. I'm not sure at what age I'd want my kids reading it, but I have two good friends with 9 and 11-year old daughters who loved the series. I do know that it's the kind of book I'd want to read with my kids, so that we could discuss the issues involved: both the intense violence, which gets quite graphic at times, and the larger social issues raised by Katniss's struggle.
Later this week, I'll be introducing a similarly fraught text to my ninth-grade students. Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone contains all kinds of intense content: drug use, sexual abuse, child pornography, murder. Every year, before I give it out to my freshmen, I have a moment of doubt: is this material too controversial? Is it damaging to expose students to some aspects of the shadier sides of our culture that some of them may, so far, have escaped? Then I bite the bullet, hand out the book, and spend the next month leading intense, real-world discussions of a text every one of my students finds gripping.
Rule of the Bone is narrated by Chappie (a.k.a. Bone), a 14-year-old pothead who lives in upstate NY. Chappie's voice is informal and full of attitude -- lots of long, run-on sentences that feel breathless and realistically teenage-y. In the first chapter, he steals from his mom and stepfather to buy pot, smokes, and holds his stepfather's rifle up to the window to imagine shooting people walking by. It's not hard to tell that he's been through something bad, though the details of what's happened to him don't emerge immediately. There's a lot of anger in the narration, but Chappie is also an appealing anti-hero. He's been called a next-generation Holden Caulfield, and I think the comparison is apt.
As the story progresses, Chappie undergoes a series of transformations: he is presumed dead after a fire, and runs away with a friend; together, they get tattoos, and Chappie reinvents himself as Bone because of his chosen symbol (see book cover). Other major characters emerge: Froggy, a.k.a. Rose, a little girl who Bone tries to save, sort of; I-Man, a Rastafarian illegal immigrant who takes Bone under his wing. Much of the second half of the book takes place in Jamaica. Because of the journey aspect of the book, and the racial themes which become prevalent as Bone grows close to I-Man and tries to emulate him, Rule of the Bone has been likened to Huckleberry Finn as well.
Teaching Rule of the Bone allows me to break open conversations with my students about identity, race relations, drug use, abuse, sexuality, what it means to be a family, and all kinds of juicy symbolism. Given the TV and movies they watch and the video games they play, I'm pretty sure that most of the content we address, while shocking, isn't out of the realm of what they've seen before. The difference is that we're analyzing it in a community. By bringing these subjects into the classroom, we can identify and explore them -- it's a kind of safe space.
I introduce Rule of the Bone by providing my students with a list of the most frequently banned books of the last decade. (I'm stacking the deck here: the #1 banned book is Harry Potter, which elicits immediate shock waves.) Using this list as evidence, I ask them to debate the statement:
"Student exposure to controversial material should be limited in some cases."
I give them rules for the debate: one person at a time, direct opposing arguments, etc. Then I sit back and watch them make all the arguments on both sides. In the last five minutes of class, I tell them that the book we're about to read contains controversial material. I encourage them to think about all of the arguments they've made for allowing mature students to handle complex and touchy subjects. I ask for their maturity. I ask them not to read ahead, but if they do, not to spoil the plot. Then we read a really excellent, complicated book -- together.