Somewhere in my neck of the woods there has been a blip of media coverage over outrage that Sherman Alexie's young adult book The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian was on a reading list for high school students. Same old story: a student tells his or her parents about some bad words and inappropriate content in the book and the parents complain to the school board that the book isn't acceptable for kids to read. Board takes action, book is removed from list. Banned? I don't think so but perhaps. At any rate, it is not currently part of the curriculum of potential books to be studied in a certain course.
Well, I skimmed the news accounts of this incident with great curiosity because my eyes and ears perk up when I hear about people wanting to take books away from kids, or at least limit their exposure to them. And I really zeroed in on this story because I have read Alexie's book—I own it—and I don't want to burn it, throw it away, or lock it up. I admit that I used to want to share it with some of my 8th grade students but I was scared that they would either tattle that the book was "bad" or they would just show immaturity by giggling over the "dirty" parts and wonder why their young lady teacher wanted them to read the book. So I didn't give it to the boys who seemed unloved by their families, unwanted by friends, discarded by teachers. I didn't share it, so I guess in a way I banned it from my students. Hmm.
Right now I'm about to read the book again because it has been years, but I'm wondering: Will I still love it the same? Will I still believe that teenagers should be exposed to this book in school? I think I'm really asking myself this question because now I am a mother, and most especially I am the mother of a boy. (And I focus on boys here, but a teenage girl recently helped give out free copies of this book to many of her classmates. It's not just a book for boys, but the protagonist is a boy and I felt more drawn to share it with male readers because of what this boy goes through.) My husband and I have a precious, innocent boy who knows nothing of racism, bullies, alcohol-abusive family members, death, and sex—all themes in the book. If I fall in love with the book all over again I'm not about to start reading this book to our child for his bedtime story, but what about when our son is a teenager? Will racism be over, bullies no longer punch and taunt, people be done with hurting their children, loved ones not die, and sex, well, just be sex with no more Playboy and pornography? I doubt it.
I'm not advocating that we dwell on these negatives, but how can we love others and help them find love, friendship, and healing if we don't listen to their stories. Alexie's book is fiction but born out of truth from his own life, and his words, in a way, are listening to the hurt in scores of other kids who have been through much of the same storms. As for our son, he's going to have to make his own decisions about how he treats others, and we want him to learn lessons of sympathy and kindness from more than just around our dinner table. He will also go through a lot that—thank goodness for his awesome dad to be there for him!—I won't understand. Maybe he'll be able to read and understand that he's not alone in all that he is going through.
You see, as my memory tells me, Alexie's book isn't just a novel of cursing, alcohol consumption, and dirty jokes. Why did I, a white Christian woman, cry when I finished reading it? And why was I glad, so glad, to cry those tears? Why did I cheer for the boy, the mixed up, messed up boy? It's what connects us all. To be loved, accepted, understood. To rise above. To not give up. Could Alexie have packed the same punch and told the story well if he had censored himself while writing? I don't think so.