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How Will Reading Ender's Game Benefit Today's Teenager?
Submitted by NCTE

My worries about the damage it does a book to be required reading have long since been dispelled. Unlike Scarlet Letter, which was never a good book, merely "edgy" and anti-establishment in a long-gone era, Ender's Game seems not to lose much from the onus of being required reading.

One thing adolescent readers gain is that the book does not lend itself to the standard toolset of literary analysis. Find the metaphors and the symbols and what do you have? A few obvious and uninteresting observations, because this book is not about how cleverly the writer has encoded his "meaning." Indeed, few things are more frustrating than the endless letters from high school students pleading with me to tell them the theme of Ender's Game. I'm not distressed by their asking - it's easy enough to tell them "do your own work, please, and good luck." What distresses me is that there are actually teachers of literature who think that that is a useful and meaningful assignment, as if fiction were an essay in disguise, and fiction that is NOT an essay in disguise were not worth a serious reading.

Ender's Game has primary value because the story gives the readers a hero's memories. That is, they have had the experience of dealing with enormously difficult moral issues and deciding to make personal sacrifices, take personal risks, impose self-discipline, and submerge the self in the good of the group. These memories take deep root in those readers for whom the story is especially powerful.

Beyond that, the book does provoke serious questioning. Under what circumstances is war morally acceptable? Ender takes responsibility for destroying the buggers, but is he "guilty" of a war crime? (A two-fold question: given what the humans actually know, WAS there a war crime? And if there was, was Ender guilty of it? Then why does it feel satisfying for him to take responsibility for the consequences?)

There are also many other areas that can be explored which are derived, not from the language, but from the what-happens-and-why of the story: Why is Ender a good leader, and the other toon leaders not so good? What makes a friendship good or bad? (Contrasting Ender and his friends with Bonzo and his friends and, earlier, Stilson & friends and Bernard & friends.) What about the population laws, and those who defy them? Are adults justified in deforming the lives of children in order to win a war? Is it true that children would be better soldiers than adults for the reasons given in the book? And so on.

These are not trivial questions. In many forms, they are precisely the questions that young readers will face or already do face, not in the details, but in the general moral drift. The book does not present one side as purely good, the other as purely evil. Rather it shows the real world: That both sides can have powerful good arguments and yet risk terrible costs; how do you make such decisions? Children need to know.

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