A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a National Book Award winner by Sherman Alexie. Alexie was accused of sexual harassment in 2018, 11 years after this book was first published; he doesn't deny the charges. Before that, the book was often banned for its mature content. It's a gritty look at the struggles of Junior, a teen living on a Native American reservation who decides to attend an all-White school. Junior mourns the deaths of many people close to him, all of whom die due to severe alcohol abuse. A woman is run over by a drunk driver, people are burned alive in a camper, a man is shot in the face by accident by his friend, and there's talk of his friend hanging himself in jail afterward. A suffering dog is shot and killed because the family can't afford to take it to the vet. There's a lot of fighting, too. Junior is often beat up. Characters swear frequently, using all of the usual suspects, though when one boy uses the "N" word as part of a racist joke, he gets punched in the face for it. Junior enjoys masturbation and looking at magazines with nude pictures. He also engages in bawdy talk with his friends and gets an erection while hugging a school counselor. There's lots of drinking in the story, but only by adults, and there's nothing glamorous about it. This book stands out for its unique voice in literature, for its brutal honesty -- it's based on Alexie's own experiences -- and for its poignancy. It explores the deep bonds of family, friends, and community and how they help people through even the toughest circumstances. It explores racism and how we break past the limitations placed upon us by a racist world, as well as grief, tolerance, and forgiveness. It's no wonder there are so many discussion guides on this book for school classrooms: There's lots to discuss. It's a shame that Alexie's harassment allegations have had to be added to the list.
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What's the story?
In THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, teenage Junior throws a book at the teacher in his reservation school one day and gets suspended. He'd snapped when the teacher handed him a book with his mother's name written inside. Why couldn't their dirt-poor school ever have new books? When Junior's teacher shows up to his house with a broken nose, rather than yell, he proposes a radical idea: that Junior find a way out. The next day Junior heads to the neighboring farming town of Reardan to attend an all-White school. The move has immediate repercussions. His best friend, Rowdy, and the whole reservation hate him, his sister runs away to Montana to get married, and most of the kids in his new school are wary of him. But as Junior slowly makes friends with a basketball star and the smartest kid in school, he opens up to his strange new world.
Is it any good?
Racism, alcoholism, grief, identity, familial love, comics, basketball, and hope all mingle in this poignant story of a Native American boy attending an all-White high school. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be some readers' first look at life on a reservation. Author Sherman Alexie, who based the story on his own life, is unflinching in his descriptions of alcohol-fueled hopelessness and poverty. But it's not all hopelessness. Not as he describes Junior's love for his family or his love of learning and basketball. Junior also refuses to give up on Rowdy, who feels so betrayed by Junior leaving the reservation school that he punches Junior at every opportunity. Junior's attempts to win Rowdy back while still trying to fit in at his new school -- or even just make it the 22 miles to school each day when Dad is always running out of gas money -- really demonstrate the tough world he inhabits.
Readers who know that Alexie was accused of sexual misconduct in 2018 may see some of the book's sexual content in a different light than those who read it without knowing those details. A 14-year-old boy being obsessed with masturbation feels honest, but a scene in which Junior gets an erection while hugging a counselor now lacks the "gee, isn't it awkward to be a boy full of hormones" humor it once had. When this book first came out, it felt like a fresh voice and perspective. And it still feels like a valuable perspective for kids to experience. But whether it continues being read widely given Alexie's off-the-page situation remains to be seen.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the controversy around The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and its author, Sherman Alexie. Do circumstances like that affect your interest in reading a book? Why, or why not?
Have you ever read a book about life on a reservation or a book about Native American characters? If so, how did this one compare? What's the benefit of having diverse voices in the books you read?
How does the main character experience racism? How does he choose to deal with it most of the time?
- Author: Sherman Alexie
- Illustrator: Ellen Forney
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, High School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date: September 12, 2007
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 14
- Number of pages: 229
- Last updated: June 9, 2021
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