In a 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post, Sherman Alexie explains why YA books that address real issues of violence, death, sexuality, and other horrors need to be available for teen readers.
Alexie was responding to an earlier WSJ article, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, decrying the prevalence of “dark” themes in YA lit and positing a troubling dichotomy:
This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new.
While I find myself (gasp!) agreeing with two of Gurdon’s points (books for teens are more explicitly violent and sexual than they used to be, and parents ought to be aware of what books their children read — as well as what shows or films they watch, and what video games they play), and while I will probably never read most of the books she references, I want to argue with her analysis of the options.
Gurdon doesn’t mention Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a bleak novel of racism and child abuse set in the late 1940s that I’m sure she would qualify as a novel of despoliation (it’s been frequently challenged as a book of “child pornography”). “It does not end happily,” as Gurdon would put it. Cruelty, incest, rape, violence, racism, sexuality — Morrison doesn’t flinch from the lives she’s portraying. Yet the book is beautifully written, with the precise and poetic language we’ve come to expect from Morrison, and with characters who feel real even in their most troubled moments. Would I want my child to read it? Yes, but I’d want to read it with her, to be an informed listener if she wants to talk about what happens to Pecola Breedlove and the other characters. I don’t expect this book to teach how to “deal with horrors”; few of the characters use successful strategies for getting through life. The “lessons” of this book are much larger, too complex to put into a quick summary. They grow from the consequences of a long history of slavery and racism into a web of failed relationships and hopeless self-images that traps each character.
This is something Gurdon doesn’t recognize: great literature will often be troubling and end unhappily, but that isn’t where its value lies. Think Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet. Yes, of course such literature is less explicit in its sexual references, but the violence is as vivid and graphic as anything in current YA lit. But that’s not the point. These are good books, “classic novels”, because the writing is good.
So, where’s the problem with current YA lit? It may lie in an idealization of innocent childhood, or in a yearning for a blissful ignorance of the awfulness many people must face. I don’t think Gurdon wants to deny the existence of evil in the world, and she absolutely does not imply that good literature can’t also include scenes of violence and sexuality. She may just be taking on the problem of bad writing.
And we know there’s plenty of that out there.