By: Sarah Hicks
It seems the upper Midwest has a problem with Sherman Alexie. Within one month, his 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been challenged in two school districts. The first challenge occurred in April, in Prairie du Sac, Wis., while the second challenge occurred earlier this month in a northern Minnesota school district.
In Prairie du Sac, parents challenged the book, which was part of Sauk Prairie High School’s 9th grade curriculum, by arguing that it was unsuitable for classroom use. One parent cited “shocking words of profanity, sexual innuendo and violence” as their reason for wanting the book banned. Some argued that the book — which includes references to masturbation, profanity, sexual innuendo, violence and several slurs — “sends a very dark message that promotes disrespectful and immoral behavior.”
The challenge to the book in Minnesota’s New London-Spicer school district is based on similar concerns. Two written statements were submitted at a public meeting that called for removing the book from the 8th grade curriculum. One statement argued that the book “contain[s] passages that conflict with the traditional family values held by many in this community.”
The Minnesota challenge is still ongoing, and a date for the decision has not yet been set. Thankfully, in Wisconsin, the book has been kept in the curriculum. Many in the community saw value in Alexie’s novel. One freshman at the school said the novel “showed ways to express yourself through art, reading and sports, which is stuff we can all relate to. Today kids express themselves a lot through social media. But this book showed there are lots of other ways to do so.”
Several parents also argued in favor of the book, saying that it’s important for students to gain an understanding of issues facing other people. On May 22, the superintendent decided in favor of the book, so for now it’s staying in the curriculum. We can only hope that the same happens in Minnesota.
Alexie’s 2007 novel, a semi-autobiographical story about growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is a frequently challenged book, regularly included in annual lists of banned books (it topped the list is 2014). It’s been removed from plenty of schools, so the fact that these challenges occurred isn’t overly surprising. I’m far more concerned by the fact that both challenges happened within a month or so of each other. While I can’t pretend that this is the first time the novel has been challenged twice in quick succession (it was pulled from the Meridian, Idaho school district in April 2014 and then challenged in June 2014 in North Carolina), it could be indicative of a larger problem.
It’s unclear yet whether more books are being challenged or banned now, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case. The ideological distance between different groups right now is not being helped by our current political climate or news media. As always, if we are to bridge these gaps, the answer is not to isolate ourselves from the experiences of others, but to actively seek out voices that differ from our own.
The current challenges to Sherman Alexie’s novel do not involve libraries directly, but I would hope that we are all working against challenges like these, challenges that only seek to separate us more. Being aware of attempts at banning books (and standing against them) is obviously something we should all be doing as librarians. But hopefully, we are also working toward expanding the horizons of our patrons, introducing them to issues that they may not be aware of and helping them find the humanity in those they don’t know.
Sarah Hicks is a current MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh, and works in a local public library. She has long been passionate about issues regarding intellectual freedom, and believes that these issues are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially those related to privacy, surveillance, and censorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as certain stereotypes about librarians are not wholly untrue, she is both an avid reader (of many genres) and a total cat lady. Sarah can sometimes be found @exactlibrarian.