August 13, 2010

Teachers protest True Diary censorship

A good statement by the National Coalition Against Censorship on the attempts to ban Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian:

Kids' Right to Read Project Defends a Sherman Alexie Novel in MissouriNCAC sent the following letter to Stockton School District in Missouri concerning the challenge to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The novel was used during the 2009-2010 school year as the all-school read for grades 9-12, and challenged because the content did not reflect "community values."The arguments:To get to specifics, there can be no doubt of the literary value of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This award-winning novel received the 2008 Book Sense Book of the Year Children's Literature Honor Book, the 2008 Pacific Northwest Book Award, the 2008 American Indian Library Association American Indian Youth Literature Award, The New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2007, and the Los Angeles Times Favorite Children's Books of 2007. The book was cited in Best Books of 2007, in Barnes & Noble 2007 Best for Teens, as The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon Winner, in Kansas City Star's Top 100 Books of the Year, and as Literature for Today’s Young Adults Honor List 1980-2007. The novel received accolades in numerous reviews, including USA Today (October 18, 2007) which said the novel is "Sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years to come" and in Publishers Weekly (August 20, 2007) whose reviewer praises The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as emotionally gripping and a thrilling encounter with a teenager struggling with his identity.

As we understand it, the challenge to this book centers on some content in the book, suggesting that the content of the novel is inappropriate for the students and because it does not “reflect our community values.” It is clear, though, that the language and situations in this work, as in any text under study, must be seen in the context of the entire work. The ethical and literary value of a work is distorted if one focuses only on particular words, passages, or segments. An author's broad moral vision, total treatment of theme, and commitment to realistic portrayal of characters and dialogue are ignored when protesters focus only on aspects that are offensive to them. Unfortunately, there is shock value in isolating and listing selected passages from a book; but this does not reveal anything about the fundamental message or theme in a work and it does not provide insight into its literary quality.

In our experience with school curricula, we have found that there are few instructional materials that do not include something that is offensive to someone. If literary works that are duly selected by English teaching professionals are removed because the works offend particular individuals or groups, there will soon be little or no literature left to teach in our schools. Further, it would be wrong to assume that the disturbing scenes, profane language, negative events, etc., portrayed in a work are being endorsed by the author, the teacher, or the school. In fact, classroom study provides a fertile ground for students to interpret surface aspects of literature and to exercise critical thinking as they discuss the characters and issues in a work. The novel was chosen specifically for the high school English classes because its complex themes are appropriate for study at that level and because it is a young adult novel that students can draw upon when answering the “critical lens” questions pertinent to literature study in grades 9-12.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Absolutely True Diary Challenged Again and Absolutely True Diary Still Banned. For more on Sherman Alexie in general, see All About Sherman Alexie.

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