Sherman Alexie’s Young Adult Novel Pulled From Curriculum in Idaho Schools

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Last week, the largest school district in Idaho removed Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from its curriculum in response to parents’ complaints that the book referenced sex and masturbation, contained language that some found offensive and mocked Christianity.

Even though history tends to frown on censorship, we ban a lot of books. Between 2000 and 2009, the American Association of Libraries (ALA) reports, Americans “challenged” over 5,000 books — meaning that a particular group with an objection sought to remove them from the shelves of a local library. And that number represents only challenges that the Association is aware of; it estimates that the actual number of challenges is four to five times greater. According to the ALA, Alexie’s novel was the second most “challenged” novel of 2012, the most recent year for which the association released a report on controversial books. The Captain Underpants series, by Dav Pilkey, came in first.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is semi-autobiographical, chronicles a 14 year-old Native American’s attempt to escape generational poverty by switching high schools. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 and was described in a New York Times book review as the “best work yet” from the already acclaimed Alexie.

“The book is widely taught in high schools across the country because of its appeal to reluctant readers,” the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote yesterday in a letter to the Meridian, Idaho, school district, located near Boise. The letter was also signed by publisher Little, Brown Books. “The novel addresses vital issues such as the struggles of young adulthood, the search for personal identity, bullying and poverty. It is ultimately an uplifting story of triumph by a boy with few advantages.”

“Decisions about school materials should serve all students in the school,” the letter continued. “This can best be accomplished if decisions about what to include in libraries and classrooms are based on sound educational grounds, not because some parents or board members do or do not agree with the message or content of a particular book.”

The Idaho Statesman reported that the school board meeting where the decision was made was attended by roughly 100 people, many of whom spoke against the novel. But a high school student delivered a petition to the board signed by 35o students who wanted to keep it. The board voted 2-1 to pull the book from the curriculum, where it was part of an optional, “supplemental” reading list.

Gretchen Caserotti, director of public libraries in Meridian, spoke out against restricting the book during public meetings. “Reading about another person’s life can help teens understand another individual’s experience as well as possibly see a piece of themselves in the book,” she told “Indeed, Sherman Alexie’s book has been read by thousands of teens who identified with the alcoholism, the bullying, the puberty as well as the actual themes of identity, family and friendship. The objections from these well-meaning adults are not about the themes of the book, but rather specific instances that are part of the narrative.”

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Since the controversy started, she said, the book has been in high demand in Meridian.

In 2012, Alexie’s novel shared the ten most-challenged list with Toni Morrison’s critically acclaimed Beloved; in 2011, it shared the list with classics To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Bestsellers like The Hunger Games and the Twilight series, as well as Fifty Shades of Grey, also made the list.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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