Sherman Alexie Defends Young Adult Novels with Dark Themes

A detail from the cover of Sherman Alexie's young adult novel 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian'

Sherman Alexie Defends Young Adult Novels with Dark Themes

In an editorial piece posted to The Wall Street Journal‘s arts blog ( Speakeasy: “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”), author Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) responds to an article that appeared in the Journal that was critical of the state of young adult fiction.

In “Darkness Too Visible,” Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote:

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18. Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it. If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Alexie writes that he “laughed at [Gurdon’s] condescension.” He describes his younger self as a “poverty-stricken, sexually and physically abused, self-loathing Native American teenager” for whom a book that painted a rosy picture would have been meaningless. Those who wanted to protect or even rescue him from his circumstances were too late:

They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

Alexie concludes that the darkness in his own young adult fiction—he is the author of the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won a National Book Award—isn’t there simply for its own sake. “I don’t write to protect [kids]. 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.”

Both essays are interesting and worth a read.