WICHITA, Kansas— A critically acclaimed but controversial novel, told from the perspective of a Native American teenager, will no longer be taught at Derby High School after a district committee removed it from a list of approved school materials.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie – who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 – was challenged by the grandparent of a ninth grader earlier this year.
A A 12-member committee reviewed the challenge and decided to no longer allow teachers to use a classroom-approved set of novels, said Holly Putnam-Jackson, Derby District assistant program superintendent.
The district also removed the novel from the Derby North Middle School library. The committee recommended adding a “mature” label to high school library copies, a move district officials are considering, Putnam-Jackson said.
Committee members mainly objected to the novel’s profanity and sexual content, she said. The committee includes three school administrators, a media specialist, a high school English teacher, two other district employees and two community members.
Three Derby School Board members also sit on the library committee – Pamela Doyle, Robyn Pearman and Andy Watkins – but the committee actions do not require board approval.
Putnam-Jackson said district policy allows parents to remove their children from assignments or materials they find inappropriate or offensive.
“Whenever a parent expresses a concern or wants their child to have an alternate reading or alternate assignment, we always accommodate that,” she said.
In the case of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” the committee members “felt the book was valuable. However, the frequency of (obscene) language in there made it a challenge as classroom reading,” Putnam-Jackson said.
The incident is part of a national trend in which school districts are trying to balance parental concerns with student access to various books. The American Library Association said the challenges of the book are launched more than 60% compared to the same period last year.
Alexie’s novel was included on a list of more than two dozen books that were briefly withdrawn from circulation in Goddard school libraries in November. Goddard has returned the books to circulation, but they are still being reviewed by a committee of principals and librarians, a district spokesperson said.
In Derby, the challenge was set by the grandparent of a ninth grader; the student read the book as part of a class assignment.
Calvin Rider, an attorney working for the district, did not release the grandparent’s name, citing fears for his safety. He also did not release the name of a school board member who escalated the family member’s concern to Superintendent Heather Bohaty.
As part of a request under the Kansas Open Records Act, the district shared a nine-page document submitted by the grandparent, which included excerpts from the novel and objections to much of the material.
“The book had a story that could have been presented in a much more appropriate way. I felt like I had to be drugged up to my waist in horse manure to get the opportunity to ride a horse” , wrote the grandparent.
“At a time when many parents are questioning the relevance of what is being taught in schools, it might be better to be proactive rather than reactive when using material that could be very offensive to parents. and students,” the grandparent wrote.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” regularly appeared on a annual list of frequently challenged books and was the most frequently challenged book from 2010 to 2019. Reviewers point to the novel’s depiction of alcohol, bullying, violence, sexuality, profanity and slurs related to homosexuality and to mental disability.
Former Derby City Council member Cheryl Bannon spoke to Derby School Board members last week and urged no censorship of library books or school materials.
“They are young adults. … These words do not scare these children. If they see one of those words and they don’t know what it is, you know what a kid does? Either they go for it, if they’re interested, or they jump on it,” Bannon said.
“Don’t dumb our children down. It’s a slippery slope you start with. Derby is better than that,” she said.
Bannon has filed a formal request for the Derby Library Committee to revise the Bible, saying it includes references to murder, masturbation, genocide, incest, adultery and others mature subjects. If Alexie’s novel belongs in an “adult” section of the library, she said, “That shouldn’t be taught either.”
Putnam-Jackson, the program director, said she didn’t know how many Derby teachers had included Alexie’s novel in their lessons. The novel was on an internal list of approved books for ninth-grade English courses. It has been part of the district’s collection since 2008.
The library committee reviewed another novel — “We Are Not From Here” by Jenny Torres Sanchez — that was not on the district’s approved list.
An anonymous person complained that the book included themes of sex, drug use, murder, violence, abortion, suicidal ideation, inappropriate language and rape scenes. The novel tells the story of unaccompanied minors who make the journey from Central America to the southern border of the United States.
A Derby teacher who received copies of the novel as part of a grant is leaving the district this year and taking the books with her, Putnam-Jackson said. It is not part of any other classroom or library collections.
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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