Hank Moss was sitting at his kitchen table when he picked up the book his son was reading for his freshman English class at Crook County High School.
The Prineville father of three said he wasn’t prepared for what he read.
“I was appalled,” Moss said.
“I didn’t feel the book was appropriate for a required reading assignment for a 14-year-old,” he said. “It had a lot of references that I didn’t feel comfortable with.”
Moss photocopied some of the book’s pages and went to the Crook County School Board meeting Monday night. On Wednesday morning, the book was removed from the classroom.
A New York Times best-seller and a National Book Award winner, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” written by Sherman Alexie, is about a boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
The book’s front flap reads: “Determined to receive a good education, Junior leaves the rez to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Indian is the school mascot.”
Crook County School Board Chairman Jeff Landaker said although Moss didn’t follow the proper procedure — because he went straight to the school board and skipped speaking with his son’s teacher and the high school principal — he agreed with Moss’ complaint.
“Personally, as a father, I felt it was inappropriate,” Landaker said about the book. “I was comfortable as a board member giving (Interim Superintendent Rich) Shultz direction to look into this matter and how this book came about being used as curriculum.”
The protagonist in Alexie’s book discusses masturbation.
“There are people who agree with the book and think it’s OK to talk about this stuff openly, and I really don’t,” Moss said. “And it’s certainly not a teacher’s place; it’s a parent’s place if they choose to (discuss it).”
Backing the book
Crook County High School Principal Jim Golden said he was disappointed by the district’s choice.
“I’ve been directed by the school board and the superintendent to pull the book, and I will comply with their directive,” Golden said. “But I respectfully disagree with what they are doing. It’s a slippery slope. … If you take one or two pages out of context, I mean ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about two teenagers who are having a relationship. … It’s a dangerous precedent. … Part of what you are going to do is discuss ideas not proselytize kids. You want them to come to their own conclusion.”
Alexie said his book is being used in hundreds of classrooms across the country, and he has only heard of a handful of instances of the book being challenged.
“The book is actually a celebration of the compassion a small town of white conservatives showed … an Indian boy, they ended up loving,” Alexie said of his autobiographical book. “It’s funny, a book about accepting others is being challenged in the kind of town it celebrates.”
Alexie — who Golden called “one of the best writers and poets in our country right now” — said his book is mainstream and in no way controversial or graphic.
“It’s about following your dreams. … It’s the story of an Indian kid dreaming of a bigger life. It’s very American,” he said.
Jefferson County School District librarian Catherine Sergeant said the book is currently on her order list. “I haven’t read it, but I’ve read a lot of reviews, and it’s been recommended to me by a lot of people,” she said.
Linda Bilyeu, the Bend-La Pine Schools information technology and library media specialist, said the book is currently being used in all the district’s high schools, and she has yet to hear a complaint.
Both Jefferson and Crook county school officials said when a book is challenged, a committee reviews the book and decides what action will be taken.
In Bilyeu’s 13 years at Bend-La Pine Schools, a book has yet to be banned, she said, although there have been a couple of books parents found inappropriate and challenged, including the Harry Potter series.
“I’m sure there are parts of Alexie’s books where they may find the language offensive, but if they read the whole story, it’s a great discussion for students about diversity and how to escape from the cycle of alcoholism,” Bilyeu said.
Moss said he did read the entire book.
“It seemed pretty trashy to me,” he said.
Moss said he wants to make sure his two younger children never read a page of Alexie’s book. Since he spoke at the school board meeting, Moss said, several parents have approached him thanking him and voicing similar concerns.
Too graphic, or just realistic?
Shultz said the decision isn’t necessarily a permanent one.
“The decision was to pull it and then go back and look at how we are choosing the curriculum for our classroom,” he said. “We will look at this book as one of the specifics of our investigation. … We’re a pluralistic public school, and we have to deal with a pluralistic society that has a wide range of values.”
“The book is graphic,” Shultz said. “And the unfortunate part of that is the book isn’t really about those graphic pages. It’s unfortunate those kind of graphics have to be used in a book that has good lessons to learn.”
Alexie said his book is indicative of reality.
“Everything in the book is what every kid in that school is dealing with on a daily basis, whether it’s masturbation or racism or sexism or the complications of being human,” he said. “To pretend that kids aren’t dealing with this on an hour-by-hour basis is a form of denial.”
The high school English teacher who assigned the book didn’t return calls for comment.
“The world is an incredibly complicated place, and our literature must match that, especially literature for our kids,” Alexie said. “The book is incredibly positive about the world we live in, and people from vastly different politics and groups end up being friends. … If they read the book, it’s a celebration of the values of what they (parents who oppose the book) hold dear.”
10 most challenged books of 2007Most challenged authors of 2007
The American Library Association received 420 challenges last year. A challenge is a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school asking that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.
1. “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Reasons: Anti-ethnic, sexism, homosexuality, anti-family, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
2. “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Sexually explicit, offensive language, violence
3. “Olive’s Ocean” by Kevin Henkes
Reasons: Sexually explicit and offensive language
4. “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman
Reasons: Religious viewpoint
5. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
6. “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
Reasons: Homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language
7. “TTYL” by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group
8. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
Reasons: Sexually explicit
9. “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris
Reasons: Sex education, sexually explicit
10. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group
Off the list this year are two books by author Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved,” both previously challenged for sexual content and offensive language.
1. Robert Cormier
2. Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
3. Mark Twain
4. Toni Morrison
5. Philip Pullman
6. Kevin Henkes
7. Lois Lowry
8. Chris Crutcher
9. Lauren Myracle
10. Joann Sfar
Source: The American Library Association