April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Alexie’s ‘Part-Time Indian’ Pulled from West Virginia School Curriculum

Sherman Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007) can no longer be taught in classrooms at West Virginia’s Harpers Ferry Middle School, English teacher Dawn Welsh—who had assigned the book to approximately 120 eighth graders—tells School Library Journal. The often-challenged National Book Award-winning title was removed from the curriculum at Jefferson County Schools after parent Misty Frank objected to its profanity and sexual content.

“It was not on the state-approved list of books, so it should have gone through the process for approval in the county. But that didn’t happen,” Pat Blanc, an assistant superintendent who oversees the county’s curriculum and instruction, told The Journal. The state list has not been updated in about six years.

According to The Journal, Frank’s challenge also raised the point that the book was assigned to students without advance warning to parents about its graphic nature. However, school principal Joseph Spurgas counters that he provided Frank’s son with an alternate reading assignment and extended that same option to other students.

But the book was still stricken from the school’s offerings last week because its inclusion in the English class didn’t adhere to county policy. The process for using a book not on the state-sanctioned list includes submitting an approval request form to the school’s principal, then forwarding that paperwork to the central office for a final decision. Blanc said the situation is an opportunity to remind county teachers “about the appropriate procedures to follow in a case like this,” The Journal reported.

The paperwork [PDF], available on the County website, was given to Welsh last week after the book was pulled, and she tells SLJ that it’s an archaic form that is mostly used when a school wants to add a new class—not for adding a book to the curriculum. To the best of her knowledge, the state list had always been seen as a suggested list.

Welsh says that she had considered using the novel in her classes before, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to the National Museum for the American Indian, where the title was included in its gift shop, that she finally decided to test it out in her classroom.

“I was aware of the book’s content and as mother of a 13-year-old, I thought about its appropriateness, but I felt that the message far outweighed a few mentions of masturbation. I wanted to test-drive it first, to see if it was worth it to put it through the adoption process,” she explains. “I wanted something that the kids would buy into and really like. I wanted to see what pace they read it at and what their reactions would be like. Their involvement and participation in class was off the charts.”

She adds, “The students read it independently for silent reading and they had typical 13-year-old reactions at first. But then we had informal discussions referring to the study guides and they were able to connect with Arnold and the decisions he had to make.”

SLJ’s requests for comment by the principal and the district were not returned, yet Welsh tells SLJ that Spurgas has been supportive of her, as have most of the parents, staff, and her small community.

Part-Time Indian ranked second on ALA’s 2013 list of most banned books, and has already met with controversy this year in Queens, New York in July and Billings, Montana last month. The story about Junior, a Spokane Indian who transfers from his school on the reservation to a rich, white school, received a starred review from SLJ, and is recommended for a grade 7–10 audience.

“The shining star of this book is that it appeals to struggling readers because it’s written in a roughly fifth-grade Lexile reading level,” Welsh shares. “They can read, enjoy, and feel successful after finishing it. And it also has social economic topics and coming-of-age issues that my honors students can discuss. They realize that Arnold has a tough decision to make in leaving the ‘rez,’ but he takes the chance and does it. For 24 years, that’s the message I’ve tried to put forth to my students: life is a series of opportunities and you have take advantage of what comes your way.”

The English teacher stands by her decision to introduce the book to her students, and likens herself to Hester Prynne. She tells SLJ, “I would rather be vilified for putting a piece of artwork and good literature in kid’s hands than for doing something actually criminal.”

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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