I posted some poetry last month by Native American writer Sherman Alexie, but that one post didn’t even scratch the surface of his gifts. Alexie is a prolific poet and author of fiction, but his real strength is as a truth-teller, both via his storytelling and his acerbic cultural criticism (my personal favorite until now has been his blistering Los Angeles Times review of Ian Frazier’s book On the Rez, a review tellingly entitled “Some of My Best Friends.”). Last week, in an essay for the Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog, Alexie—author of a much-acclaimed young adult novel, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—took on a pearl-clutching WSJ critic who claims that today’s dark, violent, dystopian YA novels are corrupting our youth:
So when I read Meghan Cox Gurdon’s complaints about the “depravity” and “hideously distorted portrayals” of contemporary young adult literature, I laughed at her condescension.
Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?
When I think of the poverty-stricken, sexually and physically abused, self-loathing Native American teenager that I was, I can only wish, immodestly, that I’d been given the opportunity to read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”…Or any of the books that Ms. Gurdon believes to be irredeemable. I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.
Alexie’s essay—you should read the whole thing, because it’s truly outstanding—reminded me of why I read as a child and teen. For me, reading widely was a kind of vaccination against the evils of the world. Books gave me perspective on things like sexual abuse, addiction, depression, misogyny, and anger. They bolstered my psychological immune system so that I was better prepared to handle those things when they touched my own life. Reading made me more empathetic and less ignorantly dismissive (still does, I hope). As Alexie points out, there are far, far too many kids who have first-hand experience of violence, abuse, and depression, so hand-wringing over whether kids might read about those things is downright offensive, especially when coming from the lily-white, well-heeled WSJ:
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
Even if your kids are fortunate enough to have an easy, sheltered life, keeping them ignorant about the hardships other people face ain’t going to help them in the long run. I’d also argue that these days, the internet has already shown them plenty of ugly realities by the time they’re 18, often without any context or discussion. Books, at least, provide that context and discussion. Controlled exposure is the key. By all means, give you tween or teen a book about violence, abuse or unhappiness, especially one that’s been written specifically for their age group. They will be better for it, as will the kids who personally identify with the darkness of those books, who vastly outnumber the sheltered ones anyway:
And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.
The Speakeasy ran a poll at the bottom of the essay asking “Are dark themes in youth fiction helpful or harmful to teenagers?” So far the voting is 90% in favor of helpful. What do you think?