Breaking Out of the Reading Bubble

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Using Literature to Fine-Tune the Moral Compass

As responsible parents and educators, we choose our children’s reading material with an eye towards guarding their minds and hearts. However, as young people mature to middle school and high school levels, we must teach them to set up guards and guidelines of their own.

One way we can do this is by introducing reading material with problematic elements, stories that present philosophies and situations which challenge the moral precepts we’ve instilled. As we guide readers through these stories, we can help them evaluate the author biases, worldviews, and attitudes that lie below the surface.

Our goal is not to destroy a young person’s innocence but to hone his moral compass. Three novels that lend themselves to this would be Lord of the Flies by William Golding (for 9th and 10th grade level students), A Separate Peace by John Knowles (for 11th and 12th grade level students), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (for 9th through 12th grade level students).

Though The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sometimes appears on reading lists for junior high students, I prefer to teach this novel in high school. Yes, it’s a companion piece to the boyhood tale, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but Huck’s story is much darker than Tom’s. (However, it does not contain the gratuitous descriptions and language found in some contemporary novels that address similar themes.)

At the beginning of the story, Huck is kidnapped by Pap, his alcoholic, abusive father. Huck then escapes by staging his own murder and heads for the river. His traveling companion, a kind, fatherly slave named Jim, is powerless in the South of the 1830’s, and Huck ends up experiencing the world with little protection or guidance. Most of the adults he encounters are either thieves and predators or seeming do-gooders, who ultimately reveal their hypocrisy. To complete this cynical portrait of humanity, self-righteous churchgoers are the ones who bombard Huck with the message that helping a runaway slave is wrong, even sinful.

In spite of these negative influences, Huck’s compassion remains boundless. But the problem with this particular big-hearted hero is that lying—not just lying, spinning whopping tall tales—is the only tactic he knows for handling life’s difficult situations.

Can you see how this novel would provide much to discuss with older readers? How do we respond when society’s policies violate our conscience? How can we identify a trustworthy friend or mentor? Are lying and deception ever justified? What should we—or would we—sacrifice to protect another person? What wrong attitudes lie at the heart of prejudice?

Add in a study of Mark Twain’s life and you can help readers see how all an author’s experiences—love, joy, tragedy, disillusionment—color the world he creates.

Hopefully, your young people will learn not only to analyze complicated novels but also to detect and evaluate the subtle messages pervading their everyday world through television shows, movies, and music.

Renee Ann Smith teaches literature in a Christian high school by day and writes stories by night. She reviews books and shares inspirational posts on her blog Doorkeeper at You can also find her on Twitter at

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