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BANNED: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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Published in 2007, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells the story of Junior, a 14-year-old growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation whose frustration with his poverty-stricken school district leads him to attend high school off the reservation, at an all-white school 22 miles away. Sherman Alexie’s partly-autobiographical novel takes readers on an illustrated journey through a year in the life of Junior, chronicling his experience as the only Indian at his new school (with the exception of the school mascot). The details of his day-to-day life are laid bare — everything from bullying to his crush on a popular girl to a rift with his best friend on the reservation. Junior also writes about the tragic repercussions of alcoholism, including the death of some family members.

The coming-of-age novel, which is often taught at the middle and high school levels, has been a fixture on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books. Its “excerpts on masturbation,” and “vulgarity, racism, and anti-Christian content” have come under fire. Others have claimed that the book is “encouraging pornography.”

Lynn Frick is a high school English teacher in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. In 2016, her teaching of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in her freshman classes was challenged by several parents in the school district. Ultimately, the school committee voted in favor of keeping the book in the curriculum. American Experience spoke with Frick about teaching the book.

Why do you think this book should be taught in schools?
For me, it’s a book that deals with resiliency, the power of education, and the power of community. It’s one of the things that I have always believed in: that education is the way out of your circumstance. That’s beautifully illustrated in True Diary, and I wanted that message out there loud and clear.

I also wanted students to have a role model — this is what resiliency looks like. This is what being beaten down by society, being beaten down, literally, by so-called friends and people in your community looks like. But you get up and you try again and again. Those are the two primary reasons I wanted kids to read this book.

Many novels that land on the list of banned or challenged books are what we call “coming-of-age” novels. Why do you think that is?  
I think that when we are teaching novels that deal with sexuality or gender, any number of issues really, they can be difficult for parents to try to grapple with. Then the school dives into the issues, and that’s where the clash comes into it. But I think that the reason these books are just eaten up by kids is because they can relate to the topics and can understand some of the emotions that the characters are feeling. It all really resonates with them.

What was the reaction within the school when this book was challenged?
As always happens when there’s a challenge to a book, it flies off the shelf. So kids were reading it, and passing it to other kids to read it. Parents were reading it. Various book clubs were reading it. When it became public knowledge in the school that this was happening, teachers were pulling the book off my shelf to read themselves. It has this groundswell. Overall, the book was very well received by my students.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Read an interview with Robert P. Doyle, editor of the American Library Association’s Banned Books, a collection of thousands of titles that have been subject to censorship challenges.

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Originally published September 2017.

 

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