The inclusion of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—winner of the 2007 National Book Award—on a required summer reading list for sixth graders has raised the ire of a group of parents in Belle Harbor, NY, who have successfully called for its removal, the Daily News has reported. Bowing to pressure from the outraged parents (and after inquiries from the paper), the principal of Public School/Middle School 114 in Rockaway Park announced that the book is no longer required reading.
The lauded young adult novel—a story about Junior, a Spokane Indian who transfers from his school on the reservation to a rich, white school—received a starred review from School Library Journal, and is recommended for a grade 7–10 audience. In the original review, Chris Shoemaker says, “The teen’s determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message.”
Nevertheless, Queens parent Kelly-Ann McMullan-Preiss stepped forward last week with the support of about eight other parents to request that an alternative assignment be given to their children. McMullan-Preiss cited the repeated discussion of “masturbation” as the main reason for her complaint, according to the Daily News.
Attempts by SLJ to reach administrators and school library staff for comment were unsuccessful, however the original story has since made the rounds on several news outlets and through social media, and on Twitter, the author has responded personally. Alexie, after a banning of his book unrelated to the Queens controversy, also said recently in an interview on the National Coalition Against Censorship blog that, “I have no objection to a parent not wanting their kid to read my book. But when they try to control a school’s curriculum, that’s when the fight is on. So the second they try to make it a policy, no, I can’t think of when it’s acceptable because whatever the text, you can teach and learn from it.”
Alexie’s publisher echoes those sentiments. Megan Tingley, executive vice president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, tells SLJ that, her company is “proud” to be the publisher of the book, and that the company is “opposed to censorship of any kind.”
She adds, “We are dismayed about the recent decision of a middle school in Queens, NY, to remove the critically acclaimed book from its required reading list.” The book, she says, “is a story about hope and resilience. We applaud Sherman Alexie’s triumphant work of contemporary fiction, which shares a Native American experience that is both poignant and uplifting and has enlightened and engaged countless readers.”
The NCAC has also come out in support of Alexie. Its Kids Right to Read project coordinator Acacia O’Connor notes that, “Studies have shown that students who have some semblance of choice, read more. Alexie’s book is often selected for reluctant readers because it’s so popular and kids really feel that the characters and their experiences speak to them.”
She also says, “The message of this book is entirely positive and uplifting. I’m sure it was selected because highlights a teen character that has confronted adversity. If the parents have some objection to reading a specific title, we always encourage that an alternative is offered instead. If the book was selected by the teachers or school media specialist, it was for a reason.” The NCAC plans to honor Alexie in November 2013 for his work on free speech.