Basye, D.E. (2008). Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go. New York: Random House.
Heck follows the well-named Milton, his pet ferret and his goth sister, Marlo on their journey through the first level of Heck after their deaths in the first chapter. The book is humorous and Basye creates an interesting and detailed world in his first novel. The book’s subject is entertaining and would be attractive to reluctant readers, especially kids who chuckle at or make fart jokes.
Basye’s version of Heck has some similarities to the movie Beetlejuice’s version of the underworld in that bureaucracy is perceived as one of the great evils. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Basye implies bureaucracy is evil, not me. If I hadn’t fallen in love with children’s literature so early, I totally would have become a bureaucrat. You hear that bureaucracy? Please don’t lose my social security number)
Much of the book feels like an extensive inside joke, filled with references to the works of Donne, Dante, Milton etc. Fallowing Dante’s example, Basye’s version of Heck includes nine levels and real deceased people portrayed as the teachers in Heck’s school. If the students do not have knowledge of Watergate or the killings of Lizzie Borden then a number of the jokes will escape them. But at the same time, many teachers would probably be unwilling to formally teach Heck, since it assumes life after death, the existence of souls, a Judeo-Christian worldview, and includes a lot of gross details and descriptions.
While geared toward middle grade students, if I were to teach this book, it would be to high school student and only in I was conducting a parent-approved extensive examination of the portrayal of Hell in literature and other media first.
Of course, Heck (like so many other books) is being turned into a series. All I have to say is that if I’m expected to read nine books to discover how Milton and Marlo find peace and/or escape Heck, I’ll declare that I have discovered my own, personal, hated circle of Heck.
Activities to do with the book:
Discuss fun topics like the way Hell (or Heck) is portrayed by different authors and in different media. The book also lends itself to discuss the lives of some of the real people who are featured as teachers in Heck, including Lizzie Borden, Typhoid Mary, former president Richard Nixon, etc. This book could also be used to discuss the nature of death and loss.
Students could also make illustrations or dioramas of what Heck looks like or they could create their own versions of Heck. Which behaviors cause a person to go to Heck? What are the punishments for those behaviors?
“ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE (AS WELL AS ALL CAMERAS AND ELECTRONIC RECORDING DEVICES)” (p. 14).
“So I’m facing eternal…darnation…for a tube of kiwi-cantaloupe lip gloss?” (p. 25).
“Just because you cease to be doesn’t mean you cease to learn” (p. 77).
“This was simply a case of mind over fecal matter” (p. 133).
“It was joy with an edge. Happiness with a hunger to it, an appetite that ached, that could never be filled. It crackled all around him, making him itchy and agitated” (p. 168).