According to the Idaho Statesman on April 2, after more than two hours of public testimonies, Idaho’s Meridian County School Board voted 2-1 to continue the hold on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little Brown, 2007) keeping it off the school curriculum’s supplemental book list. Library Coordinator for Joint School District #2 in Meridian, Idaho, Pam Juel, said to SLJ in response to the board’s April 2 decision: “I am very disappointed that the board chose to replace that title on the supplemental book list. Mr. Alexie’s book offers a story that resonates with kids. Typically, students like the book, because it’s honest, gritty, and funny. And what a wonderful thing—to have a curriculum book that kids actually really like to read! Even more important, though, it presents a compelling demand that readers experience the world through a lens that, in many cases, is an unfamiliar, and perhaps uncomfortable, perspective.” For the time being, Alexie’s book remains in school libraries, and according to Juel, there was no discussion of (or intent to) remove the book from the libraries. This isn’t the first time that Part-Time Indian has been the subject of challenge and controversy. The title is reported to be the second most-challenged book in the country in 2012, according to the American Library Association. The New York Daily News reported the book was pulled from the required reading list of P.S. 114, a Rockaway middle school in Queens, NY, last year. Alexie’s enormously successful and controversial YA novel won the National Book Award in 2007 and is based on the author’s own experiences. The story follows Junior, an impoverished 14-year-old Native American boy and aspiring cartoonist who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and is determined to make something of himself. Junior leaves the reservation to attend an all-white high school in a rural-farm town, where he finds himself isolated and bullied and the target of racism. Some of the objection to the book has largely been over its sexual content. At P.S. 114 in Rockaway, the book was removed from the required reading list for incoming sixth graders—who’d originally been required to write a graded essay on the book—according to a report from the New York Daily News article. Parents objected to lines in the book, such as:
Kelly-Ann McMullan-Preiss, parent to an 11-year-old boy in Rockaway, had refused to allow her son to read the book and referred to it as “Fifty Shades of Grey for kids.” Amy Armstrong, a teacher librarian at Heritage Middle School in the Meridian school district, had testified for reinstating the book as supplemental reading material at the April 2 Meridian school board hearing. Armstrong been introduced to Alexie’s work when she was an undergraduate at Boise State University and told SLJ that removing the book from the supplemental reading list was a form of censorship. “A group of people decided that parts were inappropriate and didn’t want it as a supplemental option for sophomores. They want to remove it because it doesn’t fit their ideal of an uplifting read. They want to remove the option to read it for every future sophomore student, not just their own children. It is censorship.”
In Armstrong’s testimony before the board, she spoke of how she, like the book’s main character Junior, had grown up in poverty—and how the book resonated with her, as it did with many kids. “[Junior] has a disability that causes him to be the butt end of jokes and the punching bag of other kids on the reservation. He lives in poverty. He endures constant bullying and when he transferred to a white school endures racism and bullying. Yet he does not let these things get him down. He survives. He thrives. He is able to find hope in education even though the bleak reality of reservation life tells him otherwise. He rises above his circumstances.” At the hearing, Armstrong she spoke of how she herself had used a college education as an escape from her own poverty and how the reason why Alexie’s book was on the high school curriculum was not only to “allow kids to read about how education is an escape from poverty, but inspire kids from all backgrounds to reach for goals that may seem unattainable.” Matt Edwards, a sophomore English teacher at Meridian’s Mountain View High School, also believed in the power of Part-Time Indian. Edward told SLJ he believed the book had “the power to make people who are not typically empathetic—high school students—feel extreme empathy for a character in which they never thought they’d see themselves.” Censored or not, Alexie’s work conjures strong response, often a key ingredient in opening lessons geared toward critical thinking. Or as Juel put it, “Education is not about confirming what we already know and believe. Instead, education should be about increasing our capacity to understand, problem-solve, explore, create, and contribute to a complex world.” Story update, April 24: In response to the Meridian School District putting a hold on the book, the publisher Little Brown is donating 350 copies to be handed out without charge to Boise-area students with valid school identification in the next week according to an April 24 article in Publisher’s Weekly.