Why The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Is So Controversial (and Why You Should Read It Anyway)

parttimeindianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
Art by Ellen Forney
© 2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award in 2007.   But I didn’t hear about it then.  Before this past summer, I’d never heard of it.  I first read about it in this article on The Atlantic Wire.  It made the news in August, because the book, once required summer reading for incoming sixth graders, had been banned by a New York public school.

Fox News’s fair-and-balanced headline read: “Complaints reportedly force NYC school to remove book on masturbation from summer reading list.”  According to New York Daily News, which first reported the story, the mother who complained about the book said, “It was like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for kids.”

I used to be a public-school teacher.  And I can tell you from first-hand experience that a “book on masturbation” would never make the cut for a public school’s required summer-reading list.   So, I was curious.  And skeptical.  I decided to do a little more research.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is no stranger to controversy or to  being banned in schools (for a detailed description of some of the bannings and the purported reasons therefor, click here).  Since 2010, it has been on the American Library Association’s list of the ten most frequently challenged books every year.  Last year, it was the #2 most banned and challenged book.  Why?  “Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group.”

And that’s not all.  In 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity.  Why is this considered a good idea?”

Here is her thesis:

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Gurdon has obviously been blessed with a life of flowers and rainbows, as seen through her delightfully rose-colored glasses.  Apparently, she is unaware that “damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds” are the reality for some kids (and not “hideously distorted portrayals” thereof).  She throws around the word “depravity” as only a clueless, middle-aged, ultra-conservative lady would. 

Gurdon’s article is relevant here, because, in her bitchy rant, she takes potshots at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and its author, Sherman Alexie:

Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books. A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling “Hunger Games” trilogy and Sherman Alexie’s prize-winning novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” “It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power,” Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; “There’s nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then. Except that it isn’t. It is no comment on Mr. Alexie’s work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that’s a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing.

Five days later, the WSJ printed Alexie’s response: “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?

[. . .]

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

With this as my introduction to the book, my interest was piqued.  I didn’t know anything about the content of the book (other than the masturbation bit), but I immediately added it to my to-read list.

From the get-go, (this will come as no surprise to you) I was more on Alexie’s side of this battle than Gurdon’s.  But I was trying to keep an open mind.  I wanted to understand what it is about the book that strikes people as so horribly offensive, so inappropriate, so evil, so . . . depraved.  And I wanted to assess, as objectively as possible, whether those things were reason enough to keep it out of a high-school library.

So, I took careful notes while I read.  The following is a fairly (but probably not entirely) comprehensive list of what could be considered questionable content.  I will break it down according to the categories listed on ALA’s website of why the book has been banned or challenged:

Offensive language

The book is written as the diary of a fourteen-year-old boy living on an Indian reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  He talks like—you guessed it!—a fourteen-year-old boy.  There are definitely a handful of “bad” words, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t hear in the halls of any middle school (and certainly not anything new to a kid old enough to read the book).

I have a notorious potty mouth, so if any of these four lists is incomplete, it is probably this one (I wouldn’t be surprised if I read a word that could be considered offensive without thinking twice about it and, thus, failed to make note of it).  But, as I was reading, I used my maternal grandmother, who once reprimanded me for saying “jeez,” as a guidepost.  I tried to include on the following list any word or phrase that appears in the book that would have offended her:

  • retard (“And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you become the biggest retard in the world.  Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day        . . .”)
  • sucks (“It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor.”)
  • dickwad
  • ass
  • retarded fag
  • bitch
  • asshole (used multiple times, including: “The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.”)
  • nigger (see below)
  • faggot
  • tree fag
  • bite my ass
  • pussy
  • eat me

Racism

The book is about Arnold “Junior” Spirit’s decision to go to a better school that is twenty-two miles from home, off the Indian reservation where he lives.  He is a Spokane Indian, and his new school is attended almost entirely by white kids, so racism definitely plays a role in the book.  There are both explicit and subtle references throughout the book to the tribe’s reaction to Arnold’s choice to go to school off the reservation (suggestions that he has abandoned the tribe, is trying to be white, etc.).  Racism is not condoned or glamorized.  Instead, it is portrayed realistically and used to introduce themes of tolerance, acceptance, perseverance, and self-confidence.

  • Page 64: Racist joke, bullying (“Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?”)
  • Page 131: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.”
  • Page 162: “We’d expected this white guy to be original.  But he was yet another white guy who showed up on the rez because he loved Indian people SOOOOOOOO much.”

Sexually explicit

The claim that the book is a Fifty Shades of Grey for kids or that it is a “book on masturbation” is pretty hilarious.  There are three mentions of masturbation in the entire book (two of which are in passing).  There are also a few mildly sexual references appropriate for the diary of a pubescent boy.

  • Page 25-26 (the passage that is cherry-picked and presented to school boards for banning):

I spend hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars:

Naked woman + right hand = happy happy joy joy. 

Yep, that’s right, I admit that I masturbate.

I’m proud of it.

I’m good at.

I’m ambidextrous.

If there were a Professional Masturbators League, I’d get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Well, you really shouldn’t be talking about masturbation in public.”

Well, tough, I’m going to talk about it because EVERYBODY does it.  And EVERYBODY likes it.

And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.

  • Page 95-97: Figurative use of the word “boner” (“[Y]ou should also read and draw because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.”  “I am rock hard . . .” “When I say boner, I really mean joy . . .”)
  • Page 136: Vague reference to adults having sex (“[Y]our mother helped me get a drink from the water fountain last night, if you know what I mean.”)
  • Page 172: Reference to masturbation (“grief  . . .When you feel so helpless and stupid that you think nothing will ever be right again, and your macaroni and cheese tastes like sawdust, and you can’t even jerk off because it seems like too much trouble.”)
  • Page 190: Mildly sexual reference and use of the word “boner” (“I waved at her; she blew me a kiss.  Great, now I was going to have to play the game with a boner. Ha-ha, just kidding.”)
  • Page 202-3: “Miss Warren was, like fifty years old, but she was pretty hot. . . . So I sort of, er, physically reacted to her hug.”
  • Page 217: Says he is in the “tribe of chronic masturbators” (He is also in the tribes of bookworms, cartoonists, beloved sons, and small-town kids).
  • Page 225: Sexual reference (“I’m not a tree fag . . . I stick my dick in the girl trees . . .”)

Unsuited for age group:

This one was a little tougher for me to gauge, because it’s so broad.  Barnes & Noble suggests that the book is appropriate for kids ages 12-17.  Scholastic says the reading level is 3.4 (the AR level is 4), but it is appropriate for grades 9-12 (so ages 14-18, or thereabouts).  I’m pretty sure kids in that age range have seen and heard it all.  But I used this as a catch-all for things about which I could imagine Gurdon complaining:

  • Page 32: Reference to violence/disrespect/insubordination (“Of course, I was suspended from school after I smashed Mr. P in the face, even though it was a complete accident.”)
  • Page 54: Reference to his father’s drunk driving (“His breath smelled like mouthwash and lime vodka.”)
  • Page 105-107: Discussion of bulimia (“Penelope gorges on her pain and then throws it up and flushes it away.”)
  • Page 155: Reference to gay marriage (“My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.  ‘Jeez,’ she said. ‘Who cares if a man wants to marry another man?  All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?’)
  • Page 169: Reference to alcohol abuse and murder (“Way drunk, Eugene was shot and killed by one of his good friends, Bobby, who was too drunk to even remember pulling the trigger.”)
  • Page 171: Reference to suicide (“A few weeks later, in jail, Bobby hung himself with a bedsheet.”)
  • Page 173: Following his father’s best friend’s death: “I was mad at God; I was mad at Jesus.  They were mocking me, so I mocked them:

Cartoon by illustrator Ellen Forney

[. . . ]

“More than anything, I wanted to kill God.  I was joyless.”  

  • References throughout to his father’s alcoholism and the frequent abuse of alcohol on the reservation.

There is, without question, a lot of heavy stuff in the book.  Arnold gets ridiculed and bullied by both the white kids at his new school and the Indian kids on the reservation for his choice to go to high school off the reservation.  He deals with the deaths of several friends and family members.  He talks about the rampant problem of alcohol abuse on the reservation, including his own father’s alcoholism.  He is very poor and ashamed of being poor and scared that the people at his new school will find out that he is poor.  He finds out that the most beautiful girl at his school is bulimic.

All of this, I’m sure, is what Gurdon finds ugly and depraved.  She wants to cover kids’ eyes and put earmuffs on them and “protect” them from all of these “distorted portrayals.”

But, whether we care to admit it or not, this is the reality.  Show me a kid in any public high school, and I’ll show you a kid who knows someone with an eating disorder, has witnessed or participated in or been the subject of bullying, and knows someone with a problem with alcohol.  This book is not an introduction to those things.  It’s true that not every high school student has had to deal with murder or suicide or poverty  . . . but many (too many) have.  The book offers an example of a way to navigate those issues.

This is not a dark book.  And it is not a dangerous book.  It is a book in which the positive messages FAR outweigh the “offensive” language or the mentions of masturbation.  And that is why the book is worth reading.  That’s why it got the National Book Award in 2007 for Young People’s Literature.  In the author’s words:

[T]here are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

I can’t make a list of all the great themes and messages in this book (I wrote those down while I was reading, too, but the good list was four times as long as the “offensive” list . . . and this review is already way too long).  And, I don’t want to ruin the book for you, because it is definitely worth reading.  So, I will summarize: the book tackles (in a positive, approachable way) rough topics like bullying, poverty, racism, domestic violence, death (including murder and suicide and manslaughter), loss (of a pet, of a friend, of a family member), grief, depression, loneliness, fighting with friends, alcoholism, and bulimia.  In relation to those rough topics, the book emphasizes the importance of good friendships, parental support, tolerance, education, courage, initiative, and perseverance.  The book provides an extremely relatable protagonist who is a positive, smart, courageous kid.  Arnold makes good decisions, even when those decisions aren’t the easy choices to make.

The thing that makes me the angriest when I read articles about banned books is how frequently the people banning the book or seeking to have the book banned obviously haven’t read it.  Language is taken out of context.  People hyper-focus on inconsequential details and somehow gloss over important, poignant themes.  I have a feeling this happens frequently with this book in particular.  In fact, one school board that was provided only the masturbation passage immediately voted to ban the book.  But, after the board members read the book in its entirety, they reversed their decision (for additional details, read this).

Rating: 4/5 🚫

photo-9The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is written as a high-school freshman’s diary.  It is heavy on dialogue and cartoons (which are by artist Ellen Forney and, like this one at right, are DELIGHTFUL).

There is some “bad” language and there are some references to sex, yes, but that is one of the reasons the book is both realistic and relatable.  A book about a high-school kid without any of those things would come off as silly, young, and trite.

What makes this such a good book is that it shows you a kid in a pretty shitty situation, who is determined to do something positive, to use his intelligence for good, and to remain confident and tolerant and strong in the face of difficulty.  He deals with realistic problems in a thoughtful, positive way.

If I were still a teacher, I would tell my kids to read it.

Who should read it: Aidan in a couple of years (i.e., kids, especially boys, between the ages of about 12 and 17—give or take, depending on reading and maturity levels); parents and grandparents (I’m talking to you, Mom!) of kids in that age range as a reminder of (or maybe even an introduction to) what life is like at that age.

One final note: I know there are loads of people out there who disagree with me about this book.  STRONGLY.  If you are one of them, please know that I welcome your criticisms and disagreements  in the comments below, but I ask that you please make sure they are constructive and respectful.

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27 thoughts on “Why The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Is So Controversial (and Why You Should Read It Anyway)

  1. Great post! I may read it for Banned Book Week next year!

    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. This would be a great book to read during Banned Books Week, along with The Great Gatsby, The Kite Runner, The Color Purple, The Hunger Games trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, Beloved . . . (the list goes on and on!).

  2. Thanks for this review. I’m a first year teacher in a small, ultra-conservative town and I’ve recently come under fire for teaching this book in my Freshman English classroom. I will be sharing your review with everyone who requests more details because it expresses my thoughts very well and does a phenomenal job of listing all the “offenses” and explaining how they work in the novel. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • You’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome! With a book like this, it is crucial to understand the context of the purportedly “offensive” material. I am certainly happy that I could help provide that context to people who haven’t read it. I will keep my fingers crossed that your students’ parents and your school’s administration will keep an open mind about this book. It’s a fantastic choice for freshmen, and I applaud you for teaching it.

      Good luck with your first year of teaching (next year will be easier, I assure you!). Sounds like your kids are lucky to have you.

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  4. Thanks for your thorough article on this book. I think grade 6 may be a bit young, especially if the kid is immature, but it could be a good lead in for some good parent-child talks around 12-13… especially for boys.

    I wish I had read something like this in my teens.

    • A kid’s maturity level is always an important factor when evaluating whether a book is age-appropriate. In this case, the language used is certainly familiar to almost all ‘tween and teenage kids. As far as the subject matter is concerned, I think upper-elementary and middle school kids should be exposed to frank discussions of sex, masturbation, racism, eating disorders, death, and violence (outside of what they are exposed to on TV or in music). This book presents those topics in a way that is accessible (and may be familiar) to kids. But you make an excellent point–parent-child or teacher-student discussions regarding the themes in this book are essential.

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  7. Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful discussion. This is a great (and I’d add important) book, and you’ve done a great job of showing why.

    • I agree that this is an important and, in many ways, helpful book for kids . . . which is why it’s so horrifying that it has been banned from so many schools.

      Thank you for your kind words!

  8. I am a huge fan of Sherman Alexie. He’s right, ya know, those “dark and dangerous” books could save a life someday. I need to read this book!

  9. I read it. I was not impressed. The reading level is low, Arnold is bullied, but has protectors and a supportive albeit flawed family. He became a hero at the new school fairly quickly. It reminded me of being an episode of Glee. He suffered loss, but none of it was written in a manner that captured the readers emotions. You forgot the part about getting an erection when he heard his sister died. I just wonder what the educational literary value is to it. Do you feel like you have a more heartfelt connection to reservation life? I don’t. Wonder is a better book for the money. And given this is one of the only times kids will read classics, I question why this would make it lieu of books that will be referenced and have analogies drawn to characters for a lifetime.

    • Thank you for your comment. I appreciated the opportunity to read your take on the book.

      It’s been nearly a year since I read the book (and it was a library copy, so I don’t have a copy to review), but if you provide a page number and quotation for the erection scene you reference, I would be happy to review it for accuracy and add the reference to my post. I tried to be as thorough as possible, but I read the book only once, so things were bound to slip through the cracks.

      From my reading, I don’t think the goal of the book was for readers to have “a more heartfelt connection to reservation life.” I think the goal is to provide kids (not adults, mind you) a relatable character, someone who has gone through adversity, but who remains confident and tolerant and strong in the face of difficulty.

      Sure, classics are great. But I remember reading The Great Gatsby in high school (which, for the record, is replete with adultery, alcohol abuse, manslaughter, and stalking) and not being able to relate a bit to the characters or the plot. And how could I? I was a middle-class seventeen-year-old, attempting to relate to upper-crust twenty- and thirty-somethings. What did I know about relationships and married life at that point? That is a book from which I gleaned next to nothing in high school and which I appreciated much more upon a re-reading in my early thirties.

      I believe there is significant educational worth in providing kids a realistic and relatable character who is experiencing problems they will likely face (from death of loved ones to bullying to eating disorders)–like Arnold–along with a way of navigating those problems in a normal, emotional, and largely positive way.

      Plus, a book that gets people’s ire up and provides plenty of fodder for respectful discussion (like this one) is worth its weight in gold. Students should be given the opportunity to explore controversy, to develop opinions, and to learn to defend those opinions reasonably and analytically.

    • PLOT SPOILER ALERT: to volley the comment he never receives an erection when his learns of his sister passing he discusses that he had one from hugging his attractive guidance councilor hard before she tell him of the tragedy then stating something like “yep i had an erection when i found out my sister died.” putting more sense that is was a normal day. For a young boy this is a very common thing to happen in the course of a day.

      SO he didn’t get one when he found out. He unfortunetly had one before.

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  12. I agree that there are powerful messages in this book, but I’m sure there are other books that relay the same messages without the vulgarity and sexual content. This is an appropriate read for “some” teens, but I think it should be the parents decision, not the school’s, as to when and if this is appropriate for their teen to read, not required reading in 8th grade, as is being forced on my 8th grader. There is a wide range of maturity levels at this age. Of course teens are exposed to this language, but when did it become acceptable in school?? Or to be used by a supposed role model/teacher? I could go on and on, but bottom line, this should be a “choice” not required reading in any school system.

    • I posted a reply on 1/13/16, but I just realized that it posted as a regular comment, not as a reply! Am reposting it as a reply now:

      Thanks for your comment. As a former school teacher, I am appreciative of parents who are deeply committed to and involved in their children’s education (it seems like that would be a given; I assure you it’s not). I also understand the desire to protect our kids and to try to keep them innocent as long as possible. But, as you concede, teenagers are all exposed to “bad” language. This book provides an opportunity for frank discussions about the power of words, why some words are considered offensive, why the context surrounding words can turn seemingly innocuous words into weapons (like the word “apple” in this book), and the impression one may convey when using certain words. I would expect these lessons to be a part of any classroom discussion of this book (and such discussions could–and should, when a parent has particular concerns, as you do–be supplemented at home). I would also expect a role model/teacher only to be using “bad” words in the context of such lessons; if s/he is using them gratuitously in front of eighth graders, then that is another issue all together (one that has nothing to do with this book).

      Confronting, discussing, and arming our kids against the “evils” they will face out in the real world is part of the responsibility of educators, who often spend more waking hours with our kids than we do. This book provides a great vehicle with which to do that. Eighth grade may seem young, but it is a pivotal developmental age. I personally think it’s a great time to discuss sensitive (and sometimes offensive) topics. After all, these same young kids are about to be thrown into the same school with eighteen-year-old kids!

  13. Do you think sexual references are necessary in order to give junior an authentic voice?

    • This sounds like a high school essay question! 😉 Generally speaking, are sexual references necessary to give a character an authentic voice? Certainly not. Are sexual references necessary in order to give this character an authentic voice? Absolutely. This character is a high school freshman who masturbates for hours every day. It’s as much a part of his character as the fact that he is a Native American. And this book is his diary. If he didn’t talk about sex and masturbation in his diary, he would cease to be the same character.

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  15. Christi, you say you are a former teacher. I am disappointed that you are not teaching now as you bring to the surface controversial issues that are very necessary for our young people today. To put them in the blind to what is really out there is doing them a disservice and trying to protect their innocence by keeping them ignorant.
    I am a teacher and I have been looking for something to capture an indifferent audience. I have 21 grade 9 boys who don’t like to read or write or cannot read or write. They have been turned off and now have tuned out.
    Our school is fifteen miles from the Six Nations Reserve. Our student body, 950+, consists of mostly white farmers, some natives and 12, yes 12, students of different colour, not far from representing a chocolate chip cookie.
    I found this book buried in the back of our school book room, a complete class set, and wondered why no one in the department had used it in their classes. Curious, I read it over the weekend and couldn’t put it down as I wrote over 50 post-its in the pages with discussion questions and topics that would engage a reluctant reader. I was actually excited to get started with this class in the next semester.
    Reality and anxiety set in as I anticipated offended and angered parents reacting to the content. In addition, the thought of administration once again siding with overly protective parents who have not read the book, and still believe in the musty dusty canon of literature that they read, caused dread. I almost gave in to another semester of an archaic book that no one can relate to, not even the teacher! ( I too endured many books beyond my years, including The Great Gatsby which I still didn’t like as an adult)
    Then I read your posts. I am inspired and armed with the assurance that my initial assessment of the book was the right reaction. It is an excellent piece of literature that most can relate to at some point, especially if the reader is a teenager.
    Thank you.

    • Patti, what a kind comment! It made my night when I read it yesterday.

      I can’t think of a better book selection for your students, considering the circumstances you’ve shared.
      I am honored that you found my post and comments inspiring, and I strongly encourage you to stand your ground. Other teachers have preemptively shared with parents and administrators a link to this post, and that has seemed to help nip some issues and complaints in the bud. Please feel free to do the same.

      You can contact me directly via email through the “Contact Me” page above. I hope you will let me know how the book is received.

      Thank you for being a dedicated, creative teacher who is willing to take risks to provide her students the best possible education. We need more teachers like you.

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