Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal took a series of hits for this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Her argument is that Young Adult Literature is DARK: “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.

A great many people have already gone off on this article and its overarching condescending tone toward today’s young adult literature. For the most part I agree with the bulk of the article’s dissenters, though, and I’m only going to say this so that you guys know where I’m coming from completely, I can see Gurdon’s argument if I look at how the subject matter is treated. Sex is a big deal. Cursing and language and expression are big deals. Violence is a big deal. Books and movies are currently how kids and teens learn to address their world and a blasé attitude towards these things is not to be lightly tolerated. And, quite frankly, I was unimpressed with the ‘gravity’ given to sex in the Twilight books – which millions of teens ate up – just an example, and just my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but LOVE Sherman Alexie’s response to this article. (He was called out in it.) In his own Wall Street Journal reaction Alexie says that it’s too late to protect the kids. By the time kids read the teen books, the trouble has already hit them in real life. How do you tell a teen mom to not read about sex? Alexie says: “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.”

Sounds a lot like the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reminds me of those fairy tales. Here is the boogey man, come to slaughter a family, and only the chosen/blessed/selected child escapes. Sure, it’s dark. Sure, it’s scary. But I don’t think that anyone gets through life without suffering, without being frightened. By the time kids are old enough to read this book and understand what’s going on, they will have heard about horrible events on the news, they will have experienced fear of something. What’s beautiful about this book is that the main character, Bod, is raised by the very ghosties and ghoulies children fear when they are very young. Bod, a child, is given gifts that make him like them – he can see in the dark, he can Fade, he can Haunt.

And when he is strong enough, he must face his greatest threat – which is not a ghost or a ghoul, it is a man named Jack. A man. A person who is just like Bod. Living, breathing, and violent.

Not to give away the end or anything…but Bod defeats him.

So, as stressful as it may be to be a parent and have darkness facing your child from every bookshelf, it is a necessary thing. There are monsters in the world. That is real. There are problems in the world. That is real. But you always have to remember there is light on those bookshelves too – the dark is defeated, its power is negated.

The darkness facing a parent on the bookshelf isn’t real darkness. It’s like a dark bedroom. When the light goes off, you can’t see anything but the dark. But if you stay, if you keep your eyes open, if you pay attention to the dark, your pupils dilate, growing wider, larger, to capture the light that is hidden – a streetlamp, or the moon, or stars. Then you can make out the shape of the bed, a bookshelf, pictures on the walls. You see in the dark. And the things that were frightening, like the monster in the closet, turn out to be a pile of clothes spilling out of their basket. (I know, frightening in its own right!) There was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

Contest, Alexie, and Others

First off, a big ole congrats to Julia — the Boudreau Birthday Bash Contest winner. It’s kind of crushing to know that I was so close to her word count and bathroom construction took over that last day. (I’m sorry, I love writing, but I love my bathroom too…and you don’t know what you have until you can’t use it anymore, right?)

Next off, I went to hear Sherman Alexie speak as part of the All Pueblo Reads program. And I have a huge author crush on the Mentor. I’m going to go see him again, because he’s making one last presentation at the college before heading off to home (or where ever else he may be needed), and I’ll give you the overall impression in a little while.

But, before I go off to presentation-land, the question of questions came up as I was hanging out with John, Ali, and Ali’s +1 after the Alexie reading. Namely: if you could ask your favorite author one question, what would it be? And, conversely, as an author, what quesiton would you most like to be asked?

Countdown to Alexie

Oh yeah. The Man-His-Own-Self will be in Pueblo, Colorado, this next weekend. This means nothing to those of you who are not in or around Pueblo, Colorado, but for those of us who are….YIPPEE!

I’m very excited. So far Alexie has been my reading list for the last couple months. Partly because I’m in a class dedicated to contemporary Native American writers–and I have to say that I’ve never, ever enjoyed the reading for any class as much as I have for this one. Perhaps Native Americans are considered expert oral storytellers…but they sure know how to write one down too.

I know there is something to that. If you are raised with wonderful stories and legends, if you are inundated with tales from a young age, then there is no possible way that you can be a lousy writer if you choose to go that way. Thank heaven Alexie did.

I just finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and it was fantastic. I also just finished reading/watching Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Plus a load of short stories and poems. All amazing.

Yep. This post is just to gush. And to let you know that you’ll know more once I’ve seen the man in person…Soon!

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Grounders

In the introduction to the anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which I do not have in front of me and therefore all ‘quote-y’ type things are from my questionable memory, Alexie talks about the headiness of being labeled one of the great lyrical voices of his generation. He comments that whenever someone criticized him for months afterward that the thought would float in his head: “Don’t you know you’re talking to one of the great lyrical voices of my generation?”

Apparently his wife did something like ask him to put the dishes away and he did answer with that. She snorted and told him to put the dishes away anyway.

I wish I had critical acclaim that I could use in conversation like that, but I’m left with my dreams of grandeur. I can’t put the dishes away, I’m working on the Great American Novel. Laundry? Nope, gotta write the rough draft of my Nobel acceptance speech.

To which my husband, knee-high in homework grading, snorts and says do it anyway. Not in some Neanderthal way, just in the “You can’t ignore real life” kinda way. Plus there’s a couple children that will die if I don’t feed them, maybe.

It’s called being grounded. Stable. Many people assume that great writing/art/whatever comes from being wild and spontaneous and floating high in the clouds. Some of it absolutely does. You have to be able to let your mind wander and go exploring and do all kinds of interesting things, or you won’t have anything to create ‘about.’ You know?

But let’s say you go to that mountain top and you float around and you find that brilliant something-or-other that you were looking for. Mountaintops are not good for composing. There’s wind. Snow. No where to plug in your laptop.

Eventually, you have to come home. A home that is cluttered, piled high with stinky dishes, and rigged with trip hazards is no more conducive to creation than the mountain top. Where the hell is my laptop, anyway, right?

Am I saying that your place should be spotless? Hell no. Come visit me sometime. But your chaos needs to have some order. If you’re lucky, you have someone to help you control that chaos. You have to have a grounded place that works for you and that includes people too. Someone to tell you–“Um, maybe you should straighten XYZ.”

But laundry?

Write naked.

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Genre Mix-Ups as a Way to Expand Your Audience

In War Dances, Sherman Alexie won prestige by mixing up poetry and short stories and a whole host of other writerly things. He’s written for teens and adults. He’s written poetry, short stories, novels, and he’s mixed up subject matters in those (an Indian serial killer for one!).

He did follow the advice many agents and editors give and waited before switching it up. He started with poetry and short stories–which is not to difficult a jump, especially since his poetry reads like his fiction: lyrical, brief, and with some really startling comment at the end that makes everything click into place. It was directed toward adults. So, to start, he established his audience and captivated critics. (Most of us will never hit this first step.)

He moved from stories to novels, again not a gigantic leap, except for one of his major novels is Indian Killer. Moving from the sorta-autobiographical fiction of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to John the Indian Killer is not only a brilliant artistic move, it’s also a brilliant commercial move. After all, James Patterson sells plenty of books about serial killers and there’s an audience out there who wouldn’t mind mixing it up a little. Add in the elements of race, self-loathing, and the gorgeous writing that Alexie executes (no pun intended) and there’s no way Indian Killer wouldn’t grab him loads more attention.

Okay, now he’s written for adults, gotten their attention. Next? Teens are the wave of the future. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, now the selection for Pueblo’s (Colorado) All Pueblo Reads, was created. It fills one of those gaps for teens: adolescent boys. The books openly displays all the awkwardness boys go through and adds racial and class elements that kids are aware of but don’t alway have the vocabulary for. Then it went and won the National Book Award and became required reading.

Now Alexie’s audience is not only adult, it’s hit that magical below-twenty crowd and their teachers.

Am I saying that by following this formula of mixing up genres that we’ll all be bestselling authors? Hell no. We’ve got to be good at this writing gig first. Like I said, most of us will be lucky if we manage to reach our initial audience, let alone expand it.

And I don’t think Alexie himself thought coldly at his desk: Now I have X, I’ll go after Y. I think he wrote what he thought would be interesting or necessary to himself first, and the rest just kind of followed.

Do you think that mixing up the genres can expand your audience? Or do you think that if you dance around too much you’ll never have a consistant audience? How much do you mix up genres?

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: From Jenny’s Major Writer’s Class

Sherman Alexie. I’ve written about him before, briefly, when War Dances won the PEN/Faulkner Award. His book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian won the National Book Award. Plus, Ali named her dog, Sherman, after him (even though the dog is a girl).

All of these are wonderful compliments to a writer: awards, acclaim, and dog-name honorariums. But what I consider one of the highest forms of Compliment to a Writer is being taught in a college classroom.

This may sound a little high-brow academic, but I think that if a teacher is so moved by a writer’s words that they would choose to teach said writer, it means that they are willing to dedicate an awful lot of time and effort. After all, the teacher will be grading students writing about the writer’s writing, listening to presentations on the writer’s writing, reading the writer his/herself over again, taking notes on the writer’s writing, etc. That’s an insane amount of work to put into an author that you just feel lukewarm about.

Now I’m attending a class on the studying the major, contemporary Native American Writers. Alexie is head of the class in that department. I am relieved, as a student, that the class is focused on these works. Alexie is great because he’s a Stephen King fan, writes with language that is easily accessible yet still musical, and he has a sense of humor about himself. There’s also enough meat in the stories to justify hours of conversation about his characters and settings and ideas.

More on his writing itself a little later, but for now a question:
Would you like your work to be taught in a college classroom? Do you think that your work falls into that academic category at all? (While keeping in mind that Stephen King and JK Rowling are also taught in various classrooms across the country.)