Summer Reading - Should 'Part-Time Indian' be Banned?

Filed under: Opinions

Some Chicago parents think this book should be banned. Image: fallsapart.com

When I was 13, I spent my summer rereading V.C. Andrews books -- they weren't great literature, more like junk food for the brain, so to speak. So it always surprises me when someone wants to ban good, quality literature from a summer reading list. But it seems like every summer, there's at least one book on the list that gets everyone talking.

This summer it's Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a National Book Award winner. It's the story of Junior, a young teen living on the Spokane Indian reservation, as he makes the move to an all-white high school and into adolescence. The "New York Times" described the book as "a gem" and said it may be Alexie's "best work yet." "Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home."

But not everyone agrees.

Parents -- a handful, really -- in a suburban Chicago school district raised concerns about "Part-Time Indian" at a recent board meeting; they claimed that the subject matter of the book wasn't appropriate for kids just entering high school. Jennifer Andersen -- who pre-read the book before her son -- is one parent who objected to the book. "I began reading, and I started to cross out sections that I didn't want him to read," she tells the Chicago Tribune. "Soon I thought, 'Wait, this is not appropriate; he is not reading this.' "

Andersen and other parents took issue with the book's strong language and sexual content. "I can't imagine anyone finding this book appropriate for a 13- or 14-year-old," says Andersen. "I have not met a single parent who is not shocked by this. This is not appropriate for our community."

Andersen, who has a teaching degree herself, claims not to be promoting censorship in asking that the book be removed from the school. But she does not want her 14-year-old son reading it. "How can we look past the vulgarity?" she asked.

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Vulgarity aside, is "Part-Time Indian" appropriate reading for high school students? The District 117 school board thinks so. After two members read the book, the board made a compromise: The book will stay, but a committee -- with some parent members -- will be formed to help approve books for future lists. "I appreciate the parents who came and had concerns," says school board president Wayne Sobczak. "But the tone and flavor of the book is positive for children this age, and shows someone trying to do the right thing." The district's book list has always contained alternative books that parents can choose instead.

Sandi Dezelah, program manager of a Title IX Indian Education program, says she's read the book and is comfortable having it on the shelves of her classroom library. "Would I check it out to a fourth grader? Absolutely not," Dezelah tells ParentDish. "But to a teenager, sure. It's a very real story, real in the sense of what life is like on a reservation, but also what life is like for a struggling 14-year-old boy."

When I was 13, my mom wasn't looking over my shoulder pre-reading all of my books for me. And thank goodness, because she never would have let me keep my V.C. Andrews collection. But I also might have never learned to experiment, to try new authors and new genres, to take her books off her bookshelf and learn the difference between a trashy novel and a really good book.

I think that we need to learn to trust teens with things like vulgar language and sexual content, to remember that sometimes the story is more important than the details. They're already dealing with that stuff among their peers on a daily basis, anyway. A book like Sherman Alexie's -- or like "The Catcher in the Rye," which also often lands on both summer reading lists and banned book lists -- gives teens a safe place to experiment and try adult situations on for size.

And besides, Junior might just be a good role model, too. Says English chair John Whitehurst, "While there is graphic language, keep in mind that Arnold uses this language to express his own feelings to himself or to exchange taunts with his best friend. He never uses this language in front of girls, to his family or to other adults, and he doesn't act on such thoughts. He is consistently polite." The book also contains a strong anti-alcohol message.

Have you read Sherman Alexie's book? What do you think? And are there any books that are "banned" off your teen's summer reading list, or do you think parents should have an open mind when letting teens choose books?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.