I am writing in reference to Anna Githens’ letter of February 16. I am a parent of a student at Westfield High School as well as of a 2009 graduate, and I support the inclusion of Sherman Alexie’s 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian' in the ninth-grade curriculum.
The book’s awards include the National Book Award for the most distinguished work of the year for young people, a New York Times Notable Book, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. The author has had an illustrious career writing fiction and poetry for adults as well.
I have been an editor of books for children and teenagers for many years, and I have spent my career evaluating the literary merits of books and manuscripts. When I read 'The Absolutely True Diary,' I found it to be an exciting and groundbreaking work. It is unusual to find an authentic contemporary story about Native Americans, and a book like this was sorely needed. Everyone in my industry, including librarians, reviewers, and educators, welcomed this unique and powerful book.
'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian' is based upon Mr. Alexie’s own life. Born on the Spokane reservation, he attended an all-white high school off the reservation, like the main character. In writing this story, Mr. Alexie was not attempting to be vulgar or salacious; he was showing what life is like for an American Indian teenager who grows up on a reservation and attends an all-white high school. For that reason, the book explores racism, stereotypes, and violence.
I have published several Native American writers, and one of the biggest issues they encounter when they speak to children and teens is that many young people think Native Americans exist only in the past and are people to be studied only in history class. 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian' is an antidote to that sort of ignorance. The ugliest thing in Sherman Alexie’s book—which I have read twice—is certainly not the few four-letter words or references to sexuality. It’s the poverty in which the main character lives and the racism and violence he faces. It is a grave mistake to take short passages out of context without considering the value of the whole.
As a parent, I understand first-hand how difficult it is to raise good human beings in a world that is often vulgar and negative. However, the answer is not to remove from the curriculum an award-winning, distinguished book that can help our young people to become more empathetic human beings. Students in Westfield live in a sheltered, highly homogeneous society.
Reading 'The Absolutely True Diary' broadens their horizons. That is what school is supposed to do for them. One of the values of studying English is to expose students to all of humanity, in its beauty and in its ugliness. Furthermore, the students reading the book are ninth graders—not little children. Let’s give them credit for being thinking young adults. And let’s give our English teachers credit for knowing how to teach this book.
I am a taxpayer, too, and I don’t want other parents dictating to the school board what my children or other people’s children can or cannot read. If a parent objects to his or her teenager reading this book, the parent should speak to the teacher and find a suitable replacement book. (Although I frankly don’t think there is a good equivalent, as the book is unique and groundbreaking.) Why should we shelter children from the portrayal of a world that is different from their own? Without understanding how others live, our young people cannot become productive citizens.