MSN posted an article about a recent book banning in an Idaho school district. The novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is written by Sherman Alexie and is a 2007 National Book Award Winner. Having recently read this novel myself, I wanted to discuss this current event.
For those of you not familiar with the book, it’s about a teenager named Arnold Spirit, or Junior, who is growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Life on the reservation is tough and his family struggles to make ends meet. Alcoholism, violence, poverty, and death are things Arnold deals with on a regular basis. Wanting to create a better life for himself, Junior decides to leave the reservation school and attend a high school where everyone is white and seemingly better-off than him. Junior includes drawings and cartoons as he tells his story about not fitting in on the reservation or off the reservation.
I had heard a lot of praise about this novel—some from students themselves—so I decided to pick the book up when I saw it at the Half Price Bookstore. I had a little trouble getting into the story at first, and I wouldn’t say it was my favorite book, but I can appreciate Sherman’s intention and creativity. I can see how teens, especially those with difficult home lives, could relate to the book and find a friend in Junior.
According to the MSN article, parents in the Idaho school district felt that the book was, “was rife with profanity, racial epithets and anti-Christian rhetoric,” and that “the book contained sexually charged material inappropriate for their children, was peppered with pejorative terms for women, people of various races and those with learning disabilities and mocked Christian beliefs.” Furthermore, a mother counted “133 profane or offensive words in its 230 pages.”
In the age of helicopter-parents, are the parents in the article correct in believing the book is bad for their children? Well, there are some swear words and derogatory language, but to me, the parents completely missed the point of the novel. Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye all contain offensive language, yet they continue to be taught in schools across the United States. The reason for this is because parents typically understand that there is a message greater than the language and an educational value in the text. Why didn’t the parents see the value in a story of a boy who tries to improve his own life and faces adversity along the way?
The only time when I feel a book should be challenged is when it is inappropriate for a particular age group or maturity level. But in the case of the Idaho story, the book was being used in a tenth grade classroom. Tenth! Not middle school, not junior high—but real, live, high school students! Tenth graders are entirely capable of having conversations about tough topics. The book is recommended for ages 12 and up. With a Lexile text score of 600L, the book is actually fairly simple to read—especially for high school students. It surprised me that parents of tenth graders got so upset about a book being used in their child’s classroom. I’m curious to know what books are allowed in the classroom.
I love the message Gretchen Caserotti, director of public libraries in Meridian, shared: “Teen fiction is often a reflection and extension of adolescents’ realities. We believe books are a powerful and safe place for kids to see outside themselves and explore a world that is increasingly diverse and complex.” And her comment makes sense. That’s why adolescents have long been drawn to books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower: they’re looking for a bit of truth amidst the chaos of growing up.
What are your thoughts? Was the Idaho school district correct in banning the book from tenth graders? Have you read the book? If so, what did you think about it?