English teachers assign sad, cheerless books that make kids think. Why, students asked, does someone always have to die in the books we read? I did not have a good answer and passed out copies of The Great Gatsby or A Separate Peace or Of Mice and Men. In my defense, I did try to make activities as scintillating as possible, like the time I had the kids confess something about themselves for which they would have to be branded with a scarlet letter. I was new, so green, in fact, I had not even worn down a piece of chalk. I did not know what they would share. This did not go well.

Over time, of course, I found ways of implementing books that  had a lighter tone. One of those books was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I happened to pick up a used copy at Givens Books in Lynchburg, VA, while home for a holiday  in December 2009 with my husband’s family.

The eighth graders with whom I worked in 2009-2010 could not sit still for five minutes for all the candy in Wonka’s factory. (And, thank God, because what would I have done after feeding them that candy?) Anyway, we read Alexie’s book together for the most part, and these kids could not stop reading. They read sections ahead of time. They read it when they should have been doing other things. They read it more than once. Several confessed it was the first book they had ever read all the way through.

Junior, the protagonist of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is frank both about everything which a teenage boy goes through and everything he experiences as a young, bright, unusual boy on an Indian reservation. The kids were able to relate to him and his struggles, and they were able to laugh at Junior and themselves.  They might not have heard the message if it had been couched in a darker context.

Our Uptown Free Readers Book Club is reading this Alexie book for their gathering on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 because people have often challenged and/or banned it. I did have my students’ parents sign a permission slip before they were allowed to read it. However, I have said it once, and I’ll say it again:  Books are only dangerous when you don’t read them. Parents should be aware of what their students are reading and viewing, but the greatest discussions can sprout from these “challenged” books.

September 26-October 3 is Banned Books Week. Fight the stupids. Check out the list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books:  2000-2009.

Veronica Brooks-Sigler

Bookseller, Maple Street Book Shops, NOLA

@fightthestupids

This post was originally slated to appear on September 13th, but we moved it up due to a Missouri school board’s decision.

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