Lately I read two books for teens, one fiction and one nonfiction, that conformed to time-honored, even classic, storylines. The novel, A Step toward Falling, follows a comedy-of-manners pattern that goes all the way back to Pride and Prejudice. In fact, P&P plays a significant part in the story. Granted, the premise is a bit edgy: the lead couple, Emily and Lucas, separately witness an attempted rape against Belinda, a developmentally disabled (possibly autistic) fellow student. Neither Emily nor Lucas rush to Belinda’s aid, which is why they’re thrown together in a community-service project as a way of atoning for their neglect. Emily’s first impression of Lucas isn’t favorable: because he’s on the football team she assumes he’s a soulless jock. At the very least he seems standoffish and arrogant.
As for Belinda–fortunately the rape attempt didn’t succeed, but besides dealing with trauma she has her own relationship problems with Anthony, who has Down syndrome. The two couples work through a touching version of Pride and Prejudice as the author sensitively explores how they relate to each other and to those they regard as different. Setting aside the rape scene, and the foul language that goes along with it, the novel is rather sweet and old-fashioned–except when it comes to secondary characters, particularly Emily’s best friend Richard, who is gay.
Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World fits the mold of “great inventor” stories. Jack Andraka was already an award-winning science nerd in eighth grade, when a close mentor and friend of the family died of pancreatic cancer. Driven to do something constructive with his grief, Jack learned that the fatality rate of the disease is high because it’s hard to detect. After teaching himself the basics of body chemistry and pathology (deftly explained to the reader), he overcame a series of obstacles and setbacks before finding a solution that satisfied all the laboratory protocols. Jack’s amino-based test for early detection won top honors at the most prestigious youth science fair in the world and is now undergoing the approval process at the FDA. It could, literally, save thousands of lives—well done! Except that while telling his story Jack also has to tell us about coming out as gay.
I say “has to” deliberately: according to Jack, his sexuality is who he is and his ill-advised decision to come out in middle school led to depression and a suicide attempt. I get that it’s important to his story, but it turns his story into something more than a beating-the-odds narrative: it’s also a plea for acceptance. A truly inspiring tale draws at least half its inspiration from a gay kid coming out of the closet. Check the Amazon reader reviews if you don’t believe me.
We’re going to see more of this—a lot more. The LGBT spectrum is no longer confined to issue novels, where alternative sexuality is the central theme. Instead, it’s working its way into all genres and themes, even wholesome relationship stories and achievement narratives.
How should a parent respond? Many Christians need to revise their view of homosexuals: these are human beings created in God’s image and prone to sin just like the rest of us. They are the neighbors we are called to love—sometimes literal neighbors, or even family. But our culture is trying not to love homosexuals but to normalize homosexuality–which is clearly not “normal” in terms of obvious physical design or percentage of the population. If it were, Jack Andraka would not be devoting pages of his memoir to his sexuality and the author of A Step toward Falling would not have felt the need to include an obligatory gay friend (who contributes little to the plot).
Parents may choose to censor all books that have a gay character, and given their child’s age and maturity, they might be right. However, they won’t be able to recreate a 1950s home. It’s by God’s providence that we live now. We are called to “such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Rather than totally shielding our kids, we need to start teaching them how society thinks, and how and why it differs from the way we are called to think. Part of that teaching may involve memoirs or novels with LGBT characters—but we must equip ourselves with good books that compassionately explain the biblical view, and then discuss with our kids how they might respond to Emily or Jack.
Is there really any alternative?