A handful of parents in the West Valley School District are seeking to remove an award-winning young adult novel by a Native American author from the reading list of high school English classes, saying the book contains material unsuitable for young readers.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie of Seattle, tells the story of Junior, also called Arnold, a teenage boy growing up on the Spokane reservation.
The mostly autobiographical book told through Junior displays the endemic alcoholism, poverty and hopelessness he sees on the reservation, as well as the bullies and racism he encounters in school both on “the Rez” and in the nearby white town. The book uses humor and cartoons to show Junior’s lighthearted approach to his often discouraging life.
Some parents feel the sexual references and profanity in the novel are inappropriate for high school students, and say there are better alternatives that teach the same message without being offensive.
“True Diary” was banned by the Richland School District in June 2011, but that ban was rescinded a month later after two school board members said they read the book and changed their votes.
The book was originally approved by the West Valley district’s Instructional Materials Committee for 11th- and 12th-grade classes. Some parents are upset that it was moved down to 10th grade without going through the same approval process. Once the district became aware of the misstep this fall through the parent complaint, the book was put on hold for 10th-grade classrooms.
The next step is a forum scheduled for Jan. 15 with the Instructional Materials Committee, where parents will present their side of the argument and teachers — who say the book is entirely suitable — will have a chance to respond. The hearing will determine if the school can keep the book in 11th- and 12th-grade classes; the teachers are currently working through the process to get the book approved for 10th grade.
Tenth-grade English teacher Josh McKimmy started teaching the book with sophomores two years ago when the department decided to pair it with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in order to examine two very different societies where racism exists, McKimmy said.
“True Diary” is a book that kids can more easily relate to, he said.
“Our job as English teachers is to promote reading and to give kids access to life through reading. If kids are just given the classics all the time — I wasn’t a student like that; I wouldn’t read classics or anything,” said McKimmy, a West Valley graduate. “Then I read some young adult books that I could identify with, and then I’ve become a reader because of those books.”
The book is a gateway for reluctant readers, he said, and more, it deals with issues his students are very familiar with as teenagers.
“They really identify with Junior’s problems,” he said. “One of his main problems is that he exists in the Indian world and the white world. ... Kids struggle with identity; that’s kind of what high school is.”
But parents say the language in the book goes too far.
Alicia Davis, a teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in West Valley, has a daughter in McKimmy’s class. As an African-American family, she said, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was uncomfortable enough, with its discussion of lynching and Jim Crow laws. In “True Diary,” she found a line of dialogue where a bully insults the narrator with a racial slur and a profanity meant to offend both Native Americans and African-Americans. Davis said her daughter was very disturbed by the language.
“West Valley is not very diverse,” Davis said. “And I feel like, when you have this kind of language that comes up, it’s important to make sure that you’re sensitive to other people who are not like you.”
Davis read through the book and made a chart of page numbers with offensive language to support her position. She said the school’s administrators told her the book was meant to offer a different cultural perspective, which she understands.
“I’m an educator, too, and there are many other ways and other literature out there that you could use in order to prove the same point,” she said.
She also said they were not offered the “opt-out” option until the class was almost finished with the book. That policy allows students to read a different book for the same credit.
Davis says the book should be reserved for college students: “I just would not want my 12th-grader reading something like this in public school,” she said.
Davis’ friend, Katie Birley, whose son is in kindergarten in the district, said she joined in the complaint because the teachers didn’t follow the approval process. The book was approved as supplemental reading to be used in literature circles in 11th and 12th grade, not as required core reading.
“I want to know that if I put my trust in the administration and the IMC committee, that when they review a book, the administration is actually teaching that book in the grades it was approved for,” Birley said.
The same committee makes decisions for her son’s class, and she wants to be sure they’re following the correct procedure all around, she said.
Assistant Superintendent Peter Finch said the book’s move to 10th grade was “an honest mistake,” and the teachers didn’t know they needed to follow a separate approval process for that.
“Once we discovered that it was being used in 10th grade, we stopped using it, and ... the English department is going to request that it be used at 10th grade, and we’ll address that request at a later date after the citizens’ request (to remove the book entirely) has been heard.”
McKimmy said the English department made the decision together, and moved the book to 10th grade in spring 2011. All sophomore English classes have taught the book — without approval — for two years now.
“No one in the high school ... knew of this policy; we thought that since it was approved for one class, it was approved for all classes,” he said.
Finch said the district has received four complaint forms about the book.
Mark Burns was the teacher who first used the book in lit circles for his 11th and 12th grade “Athlete in Literature” class. (In the book, Junior becomes a star basketball player.) Many book reviews recommend the novel for eighth to 10th grade, and the department moved it down to “energize” the reading for sophomores.
Burns said the student feedback has been “terrific” over the years, and that he hears kids talking about it and responding to it during the school day — something he doesn’t hear much with other books.
“True Diary” also presents a world different from West Valley, depicting Junior’s life on a reservation where, according to Junior, the math class uses the same books for more than 30 years and where, at age 14, he’s already been to 42 funerals — most, related to alcohol.
For McKimmy, the book is an opportunity to talk about the Yakama Reservation, which most students have had little to no contact with, and they’re “shocked” at the contemporary problems facing Native Americans.
“Even though it’s so close, it’s so far removed from out here,” he said. “What I try to bring into my classroom is awareness, and I think this book does a great job with that.”
Sherman Alexie has responded in past cases to parents trying to ban the book, and last year wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” specifically to address the question.
He said that he receives lots of letters from students who loved the book. But, he wrote, “I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality and murder contained in my book.”
• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.