Despite public calls to do so from a group of parents, Sherman Alexie’s critically acclaimed YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007) will not be pulled as required summer reading for 400 incoming freshmen students at Antioch (Ill.) Community High School, located in a predominantly lower-middle-class Chicago suburb halfway between the Windy City and Milwaukee. In a closed meeting on Monday night, school district 117 superintendent Jay Sabatino and the seven-member school board voiced their strong support for the book as an educational tool that engages young readers, but also decided to write a letter to all parents of incoming students, addressing any concerns they might have. An alternate required reading title also is being offered, upon request: Down River (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007) by John Hart, a novel given a starred review by Publishers Weekly, about a young man who returns to the hometown he was run out of five years previously after being acquitted of a murder charge.
Alexie’s semi-autobiographical account of a 14-year-old Native American boy who leaves the reservation where he’s grown up to attend an all-white high school received the National Book Award in Young People's Literature in 2007. It was selected this past spring by the English faculty at the public high school as required reading for incoming freshmen. Last week, however, seven parents both petitioned the school district’s school board to pull it from the reading list and contacted regional media to air their complaints. According to a report in the Daily Herald, a newspaper serving suburban Chicago, the parents objected to the book’s “descriptions of masturbation, racist language, graphic depictions of sex, and references to bestiality.”
Antioch high school English teacher and department chair John Whitehurst told PW on Tuesday morning that, although there has been opposition in the past to books selected by faculty for required reading by students, “talking to the parents about the selection and offering an alternative has always defused the situation. But it didn’t satisfy them this time around."
Melanie Chang, executive director, publicity and communications at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, said that to her knowledge, Alexie’s novel for teen readers has sparked controversy only once before, at another Chicagoland high school, where “some objections, some issues were raised." In a statement, LB said it "applauds the school board’s decision to have the book remain on the Antioch High School summer reading list for the incoming freshman class. Based on his own experience of growing up, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is ultimately a story about hope, resilience, and self-discovery."
To date the book has sold more than 400,000 copies in both hardcover and trade paper.
There was a very different ending to a similar controversy that unfolded in a New Hampshire school district last week. After a group of 25 parents and community members objected to short stories they found objectionable that had been assigned to high school English students in an elective course, the Litchfield school superintendent and school board publicly apologized, and assured the group that the state-approved textbook containing these short stories will be immediately removed from the course curriculum. The short stories, which address such themes as homosexuality, rape, murder, drug use, and abortion, include “Why I Like Guys” by David Sedaris, “”The Crack Cocaine Diet” by Laura Lippman, “Survivor Type” by Stephen King, and “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. The Litchfield, N.H., school board decided in a meeting on Wednesday night to form a "cross-functional" group surrounding the "appropriateness" of the current curriculum for 11th and 12th graders.