Arnold Spirit, Jr. was born with an excess of spinal fluid in his skull. The brain damage that resulted, and the surgery he underwent to correct it, left him skinny, with less teeth, an over-sized head, hands, and feet; not to mention poor eyesight, seizures, stutters, and lisps. Because of this, Arnold is regularly beaten up, and given such nicknames as “retard” and “globe”.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian details Arnold’s life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and his decision to go to an all-white high school in another town.
This is the story of a boy struggling with a decision to leave everything he knows behind in pursuit of a decent education. This is a story celebrating a love of learning, and the struggle that we all face between making others happy and finding a life worth living; about a young boy trying to find a better life than the one he is destined for.
The young adult novel by Sherman Alexie was released in 2007 to immediate acclaim. It won the 2007 National Book Award and the 2009 Odyssey Award for best audio book.
Something so positive must be bad, right? In its barely 4 years of existence, it has also catapulted (naturally) to the forefront of America’s most banned and challenged books.
A parent in Crook County, Oregon in 2008 copied pages referencing masturbation and took it to the school board. Upon reading the copied pages out of context, the board immediately removed the book from shelves. Crook County High School Principal Jim Golden said he was disappointed by the district’s choice.
“I’ve been directed by the board to pull the book, and I will comply with their directive, but I respectfully disagree with what they are doing. It’s a slippery slope if you take one or two pages out of context; I mean ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about two teenagers who are having a relationship. It’s a dangerous precedent”.
In June, 2009, a parent group at Antioch High School in Chicago demanded its removal from a summer reading program calling it “racist”, and “vulgar” for its language, descriptions of masturbation, sexually-themed jokes, and subjects such as alcoholism and violence. An administrator for the school stated that the challenges faced by many of the characters are the same that incoming freshmen face.
In 2010, the Stockton, Missouri school board voted 7-0 to uphold its decision to ban the book and 7-2 against a proposal to return the book to the high school library with restrictions.
Just last week, on June 19, 2011, the Tri-City Herald in Washington State reported that the Richland School Board voted 3-2 to prohibit its use in classrooms of any grade level. The book had been piloted in a ninth-grade English class last fall and the original question before the board was whether or not to use it at the freshman level, but the final vote took it away from all students. None of the board members had actually read the book, they conceded, but banned it anyway.
Also last week, Alexie exchanged comments on the Wall Street Journal’s website about the book being appropriate reading for young teenagers. The reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon, had included Absolutely True in a list of young adult books that “reflect back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.”
“Not so”, countered Alexie. “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that.”
Sources: American Library Association, Yahoo News, Tri-City Herald, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions