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Banned from Meridian Curriculum, Controversial Book Lands in More Hands

Two Washington state women buying, shipping copies of Sherman Alexie novel to Meridian high school

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When trustees of Meridian Joint School District No. 2 gathered for a special meeting April 1, it was to answer a simple question regarding author Sherman Alexie's novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Should it stay or should it be removed from a supplemental reading list for high-school sophomores? After nearly two hours of emotionally charged public testimony, the board voted 2-1, with one trustee absent and Chairman Juan "Mike" Vuittonet not voting, to remove True Diary from the five-title reading list and review the list in its entirety by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.

"I'm going to speak from the heart: Please do the courageous thing and remove this book from the curriculum," said Sharon Blair, who lodged a complaint against the title on behalf of her grandson, a Rocky Mountain High School sophomore.

"I do not want our children exposed to explicit filthy, racist things," she told the board of trustees during the hearing.

Just days after the April 1 meeting, Sara Baker of Seattle read an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the removal of True Diary from the Meridian district's reading list. Like Blair, Baker's response to the book was emotional; unlike the grandmother, she was spurred to act on behalf of the book by making it more available to Treasure Valley high-school students.

"I was very surprised that the book would be challenged," she said. "I sort of had a visceral response. I want to buy a copy for a kid right now."

Baker, her friend Jennifer Lott, Centennial High School English teacher Stacy Lacy and school librarian Gena Marker are members of an effort to purchase copies of True Diary and distribute them to Centennial High School students on World Book Night, which takes place the evening of Wednesday, April 23.

"When we heard about the school removing it from the curriculum, we thought it would be great if kids could still read the book in their free time," Baker said.

Currently, the group has about 200 copies of the book purchased from Amazon.com and has raised more than $2,000. If it meets its fundraising goal by Saturday, April 19, it will spend $3,000 on up to 350 copies.

Initially, Baker and Lott had less ambitious goals for the book drive, but interest in their project has been wide enough for them to expand its reach.

"We didn't expect this to be as big as it was. We thought there would be 25-30 books we'd realistically be able to send," Baker said.

Baker first encountered True Diary about five years ago, when she was in her early 20s, and said she enjoyed how it made real-world issues like poverty and racism relatable for young readers.

"To have those issues brought up in a way that's accessible and relatable for teenagers is a really special quality about the book and it broke my heart to see people, many of whom haven't read it, making it out to be something that it's not," she said.

National anti-censorship organizations have identified misrepresentation of challenged books-- particularly on the part of parents--as part of an emerging trend.

"I've seen a lot of cases where the complaint comes from a church leader or someone in the church. We've seen a growing trend in the parents'-concern area," said Acacia O'Connor, of the Kids Right to Read Project, part of the National Coalition Against Censorship.

"In this case, you have school board officials who, notwithstanding the professional judgment of the educators of the district, decided to remove the book from the reading list. We feel that's a censorship issue," she added.

True Diary has been a widely used educational text since its publication in 2007. Semi-autobiographical in nature, it tells the story of Junior, a Native American boy, who attends a mostly white school where he is confronted by racism and bullying, on top of typical teenage challenges like depression and awakening sexuality.

A National Book Award-winner, True Diary is used in schools across the country but has frequently been targeted by parents who find classroom treatment of the issues raised in the novel objectionable. The book is the third-most-challenged text on the American Library Association's challenged books list, which was updated April 13.

Alexie himself addressed these concerns in a 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post. Responding to a piece by WSJ columnist Meghan Gurdon, Alexie noted that many young people are already familiar with issues of sexuality, abuse and depression:

"Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?"

Meanwhile, the challenge to True Diary has raised the book's profile. Since the April 1 board meeting in Meridian, it has become the No. 1 bestselling book of Native American stories on Amazon.com, having sold more than 200 copies so far this month and 258 copies in March. The evening of the April 1 board meeting, there were six holds on a single copy of True Diary in the Meridian Library District. Currently there are more than 30.

"The more publicity something gets, the more people are exposed to the title," said Meridian Library District Library Director Gretchen Caserotti.

The effect of publicity is similar when it comes to sales or check-outs of any book, Caserotti said, but in instances of book challenges to young-adult works, many of the readers are parents.

"I think there's just as many adults [reading True Diary] because their kids are asking to read it," she said.

The popularity of challenged books has a life cycle: Challenges beget recognition, which begets adult readership, sales and check-outs at libraries. When the controversy surrounding True Diary subsides, Caserotti said, so will the rush on copies of the book.

"Otherwise it does not have adult readership. In another year when things are not as contentious, it will not have adult readers," she said. "Books like that sit on the shelf until the right reader comes along."

CLARIFICATION: Centennial High School English teacher Stacy Lacy and librarian Gena Marker are not purchasing copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but have received approximately 20 donated copies of the book, which will be distributed at a yet-to-be-determined location as part of World Book Day on Wednesday, April 22.