Proposed Sherman Alexie Book-Ban in Chicago Suburban High School (Updated)


Chicago Tribune reports today that parents in the Chicago suburb of Antioch would like Sherman Alexie‘s National Book Award-winning book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, banned from freshman students’ summer reading lists.

The novel tells the story of a 14-year-old Native American boy who leaves his school on a Washington reservation, attends an all-white high school, and:

…faces many of the same challenges the
incoming freshmen will face when they start school in the fall, said
John Whitehurst, chairman of the English department at Antioch High

The book sounds like the perfect story for a freshman reading list by most accounts. One might think so, anyway. But, and this is a big but, some parents are not having it, citing racism, swearing and sexual topics, and have taken to the school board, presumably, out of fear and their own discomfort with given topics.

Jennifer Anderson said she was one of seven parents who attended the
Community High School District 117 School Board meeting Thursday to ask
that the book be banned from the curriculum, or at the very least be
accompanied with a warning about the content.

Anderson also said she’d like to see this through to a national level to help push through a national book rating system and that she read the book in order to help her son understand it. “I began reading, and I started to cross out sections that I didn’t
want him to read,” she said. “Soon I thought, ‘Wait, this is not
appropriate; he is not reading this.’ “

You know where else that happens? Jail. Prison. Communist countries. 

“I can’t imagine anyone finding this book appropriate for a 13- or
14-year-old,” said Anderson, whose 14-year-old son will be a freshman
this fall. “I have not met a single parent who is not shocked by this.
This is not appropriate for our community.”

And, that statement right there is, from my view anyway, the real crux of the issue. By implying that the book isn’t appropriate “for our community” the subtext is that it is appropriate elsewhere, in some other community. How very us and them. And, coming from a parent in 95.19% white and largely Republican Antioch, I think her message is loud enough, thanks.

Would be be to awful to, say, allow her son to read the book and (gasp!) discuss potentially too-adult or diverse topics with him rather than shrouding it in mystery? Or, better yet, allow the boy to read the book only to realize that perhaps he can even identify with some issues facing the Native American kid? Or, even allow him, this boy in Antioch, to see for himself that maybe the character of the book’s characters does not jive with him own? Or are his parents under-confident in the values they’ve instilled in their son to be indeed enduring ones, to the extent that a diverse reading list could thwart their best efforts? Really? Racism and swear words exist, as does freaky sex, and this young man will turn out for the better for having discussed that and more, and will venture out into the world on his own one day, aware such thing exist with confidence in his ability to make wise decisions concerning such matters.

I realize that’s asking a lot of most people.

Whitehurst said the book is filled with positive, life-affirming messages and has an especially strong anti-alcohol message.

Anderson said she understands kids use profanity, but if it is part of
the curriculum, the students will believe the school condones it.

The Tribune article continues with Whitehurst making an excellent point to this end, too: 

“That is like saying that because Romeo and Juliet committed teen
suicide, we condone teen suicide,” Whitehurst said. “Kids know the
difference. Like it or not, that is the way 14-year-old boys talk to
each other.”

School Superintendent of District 117, Jay Sabatino, has not yet read the book, but will do so in preparation for rendering a decision on the book today. You can bet I’ll keep tabs and report back. Admittedly, I fear the poor book doesn’t stand a chance.

Meanwhile, on the heels of the remark Alexie made about the Amazon Kindle, I’m sure this mega-flurry of press will make Alexie and his publisher, Hachette/Little-Brown, extremely pleased.

And, I can’t help but wish Ms. Anderson the best in about a year and a half when her son begins to flourish in his rebellious phase.

UPDATE: Chicago Tribune reports later this afternoon that after reading the book, District Superintendent Jay Sabatino has announced Alexie’s book is to stay on the summer reading list at Antioch High School. The conversation about a parental advisory system for books, however, will be continued. Readers? Thoughts on a rating system for books? 

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Tags: chicago suburbs


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  • Good god! It blows my mind when people *still* try to ban books. Ya know what, 'concerned' parents, go ahead and cause a huge ruckus over this, maybe peak your kids' interest in why this is such a big freaking deal. I hope that book will be checked out like crazy (or purchased in secret online) and read despite what you'd prefer. Fourteen-year-olds are grubby, inquisitive, smart little scrappers. They aren't delicate and sheep-like. They'll think what they want and parents freaking out may just push their rebellious state further.

  • My mom is a grade school librarian, so I'm quite familiar with hearing about how parents didn't like this book or that book, etc. It's frankly a no-win situation because someone isn't going to like the decision that has been made.

    That said, given that Antioch is a public school (I assume), I think they have less of a basis to be banning the reading of certain books than say a private institution that may impose their own rules and restrictions.

    Given some of the elements cited as for why the book isn't liked, I'd say those same attributes could be applied to any number of literary "classics"... but you don't see those getting the boot.

    As for a book rating system, no thanks.

  • I've never been terribly comfortable with the idea of school-recommended reading lists for other reasons, but I don't think a ratings system is necessary for all but the most transgressive fiction. I wouldn't hand a copy of "American Psycho" to a fourteen year-old but neither would I necessarily think the sky was going to fall if my son (who is two, so this is purely hypothetical) happened to bring it home one day.

    Some of the most voraciously bookish kids I run into these days (yes, they exist) are not so unlike I was. They keep their heads down, dutifully swallow their Sophocles with a curriculum-required chaser of something race-conscious, contemporary, and trendy in circles of adults who talk ten feet over their head, before quietly introducing themselves to whatever takes their interest. The teenaged girl that sometimes babysits my son always brings books with her. The last time she came, she had a copy of "A Storm of Swords" (which Amy did a So Far Review of back in May) and in one of those moments that really hit home for me, I happened to look up and see her with a pen and paper writing down the names of the books on my office bookshelf. I can remember when that was me. I told her I had gotten several of them recently at Printer's Row from the Open Books tent, and she said she always buys used books. I asked her if she goes to the Evanston library because I know they have a fairly exhaustive fiction collection and she said she didn't "because I owe them like fifty bucks."

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