Friday September 20 2013 600 am
September 22-28 is Banned Books Week, that week each when year we celebrate the freedom to read those books other people don’t want you to read. Or, to be more precise, the books a few people don’t want their kids to read–or your kids, or any kids.
It’s always interesting to examine the American Library Association’s annual list of the books that have been challenged the most in school classrooms, school libraries and public libraries. Click here to read the 2012 list, which begins with the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. (Yes, really.)
Each year I like to pick a title from the list and review it here on the blog with an eye to the reasons people have cited for finding it so objectionable. This year, in conjunction with Book Journey’s celebration, I chose a book I’ve long known by reputation but have never read before: Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007. Partially based on Alexie’s early life, it tells the story of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a fourteen-year-old boy living on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Junior was born with hydrocephalus, or excess “water on the brain,” which has left him with numerous physical problems, including an abnormally large head and seizures. He is often picked on by his peers as a result of these conditions. But these are just the beginning of his tribulations.
Like most people living on the reservation–or “Rez”–Junior and his family live in extreme poverty. Junior’s father and most of the adults he knows are alcoholics, Junior’s best friend’s father is physically abusive, and the language spoken between men and boys on the Rez is often characterized as much by punches as by words. When Junior leaves the Rez to attend school at the all-white school nearby, he encounters frequent racism as well as resentment from his best friend and other Indians on the Rez, all while undergoing tragedies in his personal life and the ordinary trials of adolescence. But even as he struggles with having to walk miles to and from school on the days his father doesn’t have enough money to fill the tank of his car with gas, even as his former best friend knocks him unconscious during a basketball game against his old school, even as he loses relatives he loves, Junior learns lessons of determination, of grit, of resilience and of love that give him the hope he seeks at the beginning of the book.
So what’s so objectionable about that?
One of the complaints challengers made about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that it contains racism. This is true. It’s a core concept in the book, in fact, and for good reason. The book casts light on a place many American kids–frankly, many American adults–don’t know much about: what life is like on many American Indian reservations. The poverty is shocking for those who haven’t had cause to experience or learn about it, and the racism faced every day by Indians in some white communities is a reality. This truth is not nice, but it’s real. Prohibiting kids from learning about racism does nothing to change it. I consider it more irresponsible to keep this truth from our kids than to expose them to it, and I can’t understand how anyone can even make a colorable argument to ban a book on this basis.
The other objections to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tend to run along more conventional lines: it includes sexual content–especially discussion of masturbation; it includes offensive language, including the “f” word; etc. Well, all of that is true. The book, after all, is written from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old boy. He writes about things an adolescent boy would write about, using adolescent language to express adolescent emotions.
Alexie gets these notes just right, and this is why the book is such a success. Parents, if you think your adolescent has no idea what masturbation is, think again. Just because you don’t tell them about it doesn’t mean they haven’t heard. Kids talk, and at a certain age, they explore. And if you think they’ve never been exposed to curse words, you are kidding yourselves. Have you ever driven past a construction site? I did yesterday with an open car window and my eight-year-old in the back seat, and she got an earful.
Give your child some credit. A kid who has been taught from an early age how to navigate a world of ideas will understand that not everything she reads in a book is good, not every action is to be imitated. Thinking is required. If you’re not sure how your child will react to a certain book, you can always discuss it. Some fantastic conversations begin this way, and they present excellent opportunities for you to affirm your values to your children. They also allow you to listen–really listen–to what your child is thinking on an endless variety of topics. The kid you may discover is a fascinating human being–unless you don’t allow her the privilege of thinking.
Why are some people so afraid of some books that rather than just close the ones they dislike, they try to prevent other people from reading them? Words, ideas and the catalyst for independent thought. That’s what you find in between the covers of a book. If people are so afraid of certain books that they refuse to let anyone’s kids be exposed to them, then maybe they need to stop and think what it is that truly frightens them. Because books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian show us how kids really live, how they think, how they feel. So if some people are afraid of these books, maybe we should consider the possibility that what they’re really afraid of is our kids.