Three years ago I was heavily involved in the YA blogging sphere. At that time a discussion sprang up around an article Meghan Cox wrote for The Wall Street Journal criticizing what she perceived as the presence of too much “darkness” in current YA publishing. One of my favourite responses to her argument was Sherman Alexie’s Why the Best Kids Book Are Written in Blood, an article I returned to after reading his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The Absolutely True Diary is a fantastic book. It follows Junior, a fourteen year old boy living on the Spokane Indian Reserve when he decides to transfer to a high school off the reservation. There’s a lot to recommend the book: Junior is an incredibly likeable character with a funny honest narrative voice and the cartoons he uses to illustrate his thoughts are fantastic. What really impressed me though was how Alexie addressed a lot of what Cox would term ‘dark’ content — poverty, racism, death, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse, among others. Listing out those issues makes it seems like The Absolutely True Diary should be a depressing novel. It’s not. Junior goes through a lot of difficult events in the year of the narrative but the realizations he comes to are ultimately compassionate and hopeful. I think it’s incredibly important to have books like The Absolutely True Diary in a YA collection, books that validate the experiences of teenagers facing difficulties and give them the tools to deal with their lives.
Sherman Alexie puts it beautifully in the conclusion to his article:
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.