Yesterday, I finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

As you can probably surmise, I was pretty irritated when I read an article about a recent challenge to this book in the West Valley School District.

Alicia Davis, a parent (and elementary school teacher in the district), expressed her concerns about the book — citing a specific passage in which a racial slur was used against the book’s protagonist. The slur was also offensive to African Americans. Davis read the book herself and came to the conclusion: “I just would not want my 12th-grader reading something like this in public school.”

While I admit, the passage upset me, too…but I realize that was the very point of it. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is classified as a piece of contemporary realistic fiction which is known to focus on tough issues such as suicide, anorexia, racism, and bullying.

Alexie wanted to give the reader a true taste as to what Junior was experiencing in his life as a freshman in an all-white high school — not a sugar-coated one. This is a story about a boy who experiences bullying and who is struggling with his identity — all while attempting to hide his poverty from his classmates. Alexie touches upon at least two major issues, bullying and identity struggles, which I can see high school students nodding their heads in collective agreement.

Three cheers to Joshua McKimmy, the English teacher:

Our job as English teachers is to promote reading and to give kids access to life through reading. If kids are just given the classics all the time — I wasn’t a student like that; I wouldn’t read classics or anything…Then I read some young adult books that I could identify with, and then I’ve become a reader because of those books…The book is a gateway for reluctant readers, and more, it deals with issues his students are very familiar with as teenagers…They really identify with Junior’s problems…One of his main problems is that he exists in the Indian world and the white world…Kids struggle with identity; that’s kind of what high school is.

Earlier today, I worked on my reflective essay (a requirement for graduation) and cited a quote by Lester Ashiem which is very relevant to this situation:

Selection, then, begins with a presumption in favor of liberty of thought; censorship, with a presumption in favor of thought control. Selection’s approach to the book is positive, seeking its values in the book as a book, and in the book as a whole. Censorship’s approach is negative, seeking vulnerable characteristics wherever they can be found – anywhere within the book, or even outside it. Selection seeks to protect the right of the reader to read; censorship seeks to protect – not the right – but the reader from himself from the fancied effects of his reading. The selector has faith in the intelligence of the reader; the censor has faith only in his own (Preer, 2008, p. 79).

My thoughts:
To the concerned parents: Would you rather have your child check this book out at the public library (which is very likely) and read it without the supervision, guidance, and subsequent classroom discussion? This is a teaching moment…an opportunity for growth and perspective taking. USE IT.

I wish that I had something more profound to say about the book, but alas, I am still feeling under the weather. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and wholeheartedly concur with a colleague (Jaema) when she stated that she wished the book was longer. Like Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I found this piece particularly moving and felt empathy for the protagonist. If YA lit, and/or contemporary realistic fiction is your thing, this book should definitely be on your radar.

Relevant links:
American Indians in Children’s Literature: Reviews of Part-Time Indian
Sherman Alexie: Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood
American Library Association: Top Ten Challenged Books by Year, 2001 – 2011
Hermionish: On Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Darkness Too Visible
Gurdon: My ‘Reprehensible’ Take On Teen Literature