'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' is the semi-autobiographical novel of author Sherman Alexie. The first-person narrative details the protagonist’s quest to take his future into his own hands, leaving his school on the Spokane Indian reservation to attend an all-white high school and combat the challenges that accompany his decision.
The coming-of-age tale earned Alexie the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but its content has also lead at least three school districts nationwide to ban or limit its presence in student curriculums.
And now it is the most controversial book in Westfield.
The book – certain passages of which include graphic sexual, discriminatory and violent language – is required reading in at least three freshman English classes at this year. As parents have grown more familiar with its content, the voices criticizing the book – as well as the process that lead to it becoming part of the curriculum – have begun to grow louder.
“This book doesn’t represent the standards of Westfield High School,” parent Leslie Barmakian told the Board of Education at its Feb. 7 meeting. “This book is completely inappropriate.”
“I believe that we can do better,” parent Nancy Murray told the Board. “I’m not saying the book should be banned, but that it should be age-appropriate.
Opposition to the book has grown in recent weeks. An email circulated among parents last week, encouraging them to write letters to Superintendent Margaret Dolan and other faculty members expressing their concerns.
“The issue is that there is some very sensitive material in the book including excerpts on masturbation amongst other explicit sexual references, encouraging pornography, racism, religious irreverence, and strong language (including the ‘f---‘ and ‘n—‘ words),” read the email, signed by parent Nancy Maurer.
“Most parents were not aware of the content of this book, and many of the students were reluctant to tell their parents about it. There is now a growing public outcry by the parents to a) require teachers to notify parents of the content of this book and/or b) to remove this book from the required reading list.”
Maurer said the book has some merit and is thought-provoking, but also that it has placed many children in a “moral dilemma” because they are required to read it for school yet are reluctant to talk about the book with their parents.
Not all parents share such a sentiment. Board member Mitch Slater told the Patch that he read the book and that it is not only deserving of the acclaim it has garnered, but is certainly one he would allow his freshman daughter to read.
“It’s a great book telling the true story of an injustice,” Slater said. “I would gladly let my ninth-grade daughter read the book and I am not surprised the book won so many awards.”
At last week’s Board meeting, Dolan detailed the process that leads to books being accepted into the curriculum. Though neither Dolan or the Board said there is any plan to remove the book from the district curriculum, Dolan encouraged parents to send their concerns to teachers as well as to her.
“We do listen,” she said. “We understand that children are different and we respect that.”
In her email, Maurer explained that this is not an issue of censorship or of trying to have the book banned. Rather, concerned parents view the issue as one stemming from a parent’s right to have a say in what their child in required to read at school.
“To make this required reading for ninth graders, I believe, crosses a line that denies parents their right to make these determinations as to whether their children are mature enough to read this kind of material,” Maurer said. “Without notifying parents of the content of controversial books such as these, it also denies the right parents and students have of opting out of such books.”
Though they were particularly upset with the book’s content, the parents addressing the Board last week were most concerned with the way the district did not consult more parents when approving the book for its curriculum. The result was parents being shocked by the book’s language and students being unsure as to how to react to the material.
“This is our responsibility,” parent Anna Githens told the Board last week. “It’s not [the students’] responsibility to determine what they are to learn in the classroom.” She said that books, like children, are unique and must be assessed individually.
David Crenshaw said teachers and administrators have an obligation to include parents when deciding what books will be required reading.
“We are disappointed and disgusted with the decision to keep the book,” he said.
Crenshaw also read a few particularly alarming passages from the book to ensure the BOE and public knew what language was causing the
“The language is, quite frankly, offensive,” he said.
Dolan pointed out that it would be possible to single out passages of a number of books that – out of context – appear similarly gratuitous, but acknowledged that Crenshaw and the other parents have the right to oppose the book’s content.
“You have a right to disagree,” she said.
Near the end of last week’s meeting, Board President Richard Mattessich said that parents have had the Board’s attention throughout its decision-making process and said that the Board’s final decision had nothing to do with a lack of regard for public opinion. He also suggested that parents were perhaps not giving the district’s teachers enough credit for being able to take controversial materials – such as the book in question – and teach it in a way that enables students to learn valuable lessons from them.
“We have strong educators in Westfield,” he said. “It’s important not to lose sight of that.”