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Advanced book banning in Idaho: Calling the police on Absolutely True Diary

parttimeindianfavicon Friend and loyal Iserotope reader Sarah (Logan, UT) sent me an article today that boggled my mind (a little bit).

Apparently, the folks in Meridian, Idaho do not like Sherman Alexie and his extremely popular book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Earlier this year, parents complained about the book on moral and religious grounds, and the Meridian School Board pulled the title from the district’s 10th grade supplemental reading list. According to the Idaho Statesman, trustees said they would try to find a replacement similar to True Diary but at a higher reading level.

So far, nothing is surprising. There are tons of school districts that ban books. A few years ago, Tucson infamously censored a large list of books by and about Latinos. My second year of teaching, district officials in Fremont, California pulled Richard Wright’s Native Son right before my co-teacher and I were about to teach the book.

But the story gets weirder. Teens in the community protested the decision, and a local bookstore raised enough money to purchase 350 copies. High school student Brady Kissell then distributed the books in a public park as part of World Book Night on April 23.

Brady is awesome. Here’s a picture:

brady kissel
OK, just one more aside before I get to the weird part of the story. World Book Night looks pretty much awesome. I think I’m going to help out next year. Here’s its mission:

World Book Night U.S. is a celebration of books and reading held on April 23, when 25,000 passionate volunteers across America give a total of half a million books within their communities to those who don’t regularly read.

All right, let’s proceed. So apparently, Brady was giving out books, tons of them, and teenagers from Meridian were snatching up copies, so many that the books nearly ran out, and there likely was joy.

Then an adult called the cops.

According to a Boise news station, the police said that “someone [was] concerned about teenagers picking up a copy of the book without having a parent’s permission.”

This is just strange. And ludicrous.

And sad, really, for a number of reasons, including: (1) Diary is a fantastic book, one of the best for high school students, especially ninth grade boys of color, (2) I haven’t met a student who doesn’t like the book, (3) It’s superbly well written, partly because of the themes Mr. Alexie explores, and partly just because the writing is so incisive, (4) There are many more reasons.

Please, one more aside: If you haven’t yet, Please read this essay, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” in which Mr. Alexie explains how True Diary and other books with challenging content can transform young people’s lives. (The article is also on Iserotope Extras, where I share my favorites.)

I understand that parents are afraid that their children are going to be exposed to values antithetical to their moral and religious beliefs. It’s tough to be a parent who, say, doesn’t want to discuss topics like masturbation with your child, and then your son or daughter, maybe at the dinner table one night, busts open the page of True Diary where it’s discussed and goes on to tell you the book is required reading for English class.

That might be stressful, but the answer, in my mind, is never to censor — not in schools, and definitely not in a public park. (The police were confused, by the way, by the emergency call. Handing out free books is not a crime.)

The story ends well. No one was arrested; no books were detained. In fact, Hachette Book Group, the publisher, bought 350 additional copies to distribute in Meridian.

This is sort of a rambling post, but I just wanted to get some of my ideas out there. There are also several unanswered questions. For instance, I’d love to know more about the process by which the parents raised their concern. Was the book even being taught in the schools? If so, did the parents approach the teacher first?

What are your thoughts? In what cases, if any, should books not be allowed in schools? Should books with controversial themes stay out of the classroom but maybe be allowed in the library? I’d love to open this up (in the comments!) for a spirited and respectful conversation.

One last thing: Thanks, Sarah, for the article! Got me thinking. favicon

8 comments

  1. Tony

    WOW. I’m curious about the adult in the park who felt that seeing the Alexie book being distributed to other teens warranted calling the police (who may have other, more pressing responsibilities) – as if what was being passed out was drugs or weapons. Of course, a case could be made that a great book like the Alexie novel is a drug and a weapon, of sorts. The sort of books we need to arm teachers and students with.

  2. Sarah (from Logan)

    One way or another, it looks like the young people of Meridian will be reading Sherman Alexie. Wouldn’t it be fun if this were the goal of the district all along?

  3. micheleg

    Sarah – (hi!) I LOVE that idea! Wouldn’t it be amazing if this was really just a stunt by the district to get students excited to read a book. How wonderful would that be? So often, I am disgusted by the kind of spectacle that dominates the media. What if this was a New Kind of Spectacle, a Spectacle For Good and Not Evil? My heart explodes with joy just thinking about it!
    Alas, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
    Not intentionally, anyway. Let’s see how many Meridian kids end up reading this controversial book and thank that bored adult in the park for calling the police. Thanks, Bored Adult!

  4. Lee Ritter

    I can’t imagine why someone would feel the need to call the police about books being handed out unless we were in the dark ages of book burning. Makes no sense to me but I know there are people who feel books that don’t agree with their own way of looking at things must be evil. Makes me sad.

  5. Mark Isero

    Thank you for sharing your brilliant insights. Tony, Sarah, Michele, and Lee: You are brilliant! You are insightful!

    One thing I take from this story is that young people will leave their homes (and their video games, and their scary Internet, and their drugs), make their way to the public park, and gladly accept a great book to read.

    It’s because young people like to read, no matter what adults think, especially if the books are (a) new, (b) relevant, (c) well-written, (d) accessible (not too hard or easy), (e) free.

    We can replicate what happened in Meridian (the good part, not the calling-the-cops part) with classroom libraries, school libraries, and public libraries, as long as we gather the right people and right resources.

  6. Sejal Patel

    My 7th grade son read this particular title, and loved it. I am baffled by this adult’s actions! I’d like to say I don’t think books should be censored – but maybe I’ve not come across something egregious enough that would change my mind about it? I do know that our elementary school has “Hunger Games” well-stocked, and I did ask the librarian if she lets any child check it out…it raised an interesting question for me, as I thought the themes are way too dark, even if a child in 3rd grade has the language/reading ability to digest the words (and to further complicate, many parents at our school are first generation and would probably not know if they felt comfortable with having their child read it or not). I have censored my 7th grader from reading things because I wanted him to wait a year or two based on content, themes, etc. But I do think that libraries should keep them available. At this point, I no longer really censor what my oldest son reads, but he also doesn’t seem to be into books that would raise alarm bells for me as his parent.

  7. Trisha Zakon

    I love Sherman Alexie and I love The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As a resource teacher who works predominantly with struggling readers, I am always looking for books that have a more accessible reading level, but content and themes that are appropriate and engaging for high school students. Part-time Indian has both, and I have found that students really like the book and that it brings up good discussions about identity, racism, stereotypes, grief, and resilience.

    I agree with Sejal, that yes, sometimes as parents we may need to censor certain reading for our children, especially when they are younger and we don’t feel they are ready for the content of a particular book. That is good parenting. However, at the high school level, I don’t think there’s anything in Part-Time Indian that warrants the reaction in Meridian. It does remind me that as teachers we need to have a strong rationale for the books we teach, so that if a book is challenged we are ready with an explanation for why we chose it.

    Thanks Mark for sharing this!

  8. Trisha Zakon

    I just read “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”–excellent article! I may use it with my class next year.

Please share your brilliant insights!