By Jessica Salfia
In honor of National Banned Books Week…
A Love Letter to My Favorite Banned Book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
I once heard author Brad Meltzer say of Neil Gaiman’s writing “There are books you like. There are books you love. And then, there are books you share.” The ones you share are the special ones. The ones that speak to you in ways that even you may not completely understand.
This is my love letter to a book that should be endlessly shared.
In 2008 I was in my fourth year of teaching and I was working at Musselman High School in Inwood, West Virginia. One day, I wandered into our library on my planning to check out the new arrivals. Like many English teachers, I have always loved the library–the way it smells, like paper and old leather, the expectant quiet of anticipated adventure, the feeling of being surrounded by a thousand different voices simply waiting to be opened and set loose. The very air of a library seems to tremble with a thousand destinies.
I wasn’t in the library long before a title caught my eye. There propped up on top of a shelf with the new arrivals sat The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I was intrigued by both the phrase “absolutely true” and the cover art. (I admit, I judge a book by its cover. Don’t lie. You do too. Admit it.)
It was one of those perfect days in the library where the sun slanted through the windows just right and book seemed to reach out and ask me to pick it up. So right then I sat and started reading.
“I was born with water on the brain. Okay, so that’s not exactly true…” began Junior.
I found myself immediately smiling. Junior’s voice, his humor, it was captivating. I read straight through my planning period, and then after school spent the rest of the afternoon with Junior on the Spokane Reservation. I laughed out loud. I wept. I raged. I laughed some more. When I finished, late that night, my face wet with tears I snapped the book shut, hugged it to my chest and knew this was book I needed to share with my students. Junior’s struggles were their struggles. I knew they needed to read it.
The next day, I went straight to my computer and penned an email to our county curriculum director requesting that we add True Diary to our “approved” novel list. At this time in our county, book approval was a sensitive issue. Several books had been challenged in the past few years because of profanity or sexual situations and a few years before a book had been removed from our approved teaching lists. I knew if I wanted to teach True Diary, if I wanted to share this book, I would have to tread carefully. The one thing I had going for me was that the book was still relatively new in 2008, and I was at that time the only person in our county that had read it. I knew if I was convincing in expressing how important I believed this book to be, I could get the book on our list without too many questions.
So I wrote:
“This is a truly incredible book. It is poignant and poetic, filled with figurative language. It is perfect for teaching literary elements, visual rhetoric, and diverse voices. Our students in West Virginia deserve a book like this. Junior’s story is both a uniquely Native American story and also a universal one. Our students, the ones who come to school hungry, the ones who think they don’t belong anywhere will read this book and understand that they are not alone.”
And that day The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was added to Berkeley County’s approved reading lists.
Over the next 9 years, this book would go on to become one of the most commonly challenged and banned books in American High schools. It also became a corner stone of my (and many other) curricula in our district. And it did not go unchallenged in our county. I had to defend True Diary at least 4 different times in those 9 years–once when the county next to ours banned it completely. But here’s what always protected us. The hundreds upon hundreds of students finding joy in the book. Readers and non-readers devoured (and still devour) it. I can’t count the amount of times I have heard “This is the first book I’ve ever read all the way through.” My successes as an educator in those early years of my career I owe in part to the lessons I cultivated around this particular book.
Over the last 9 years I have used this novel to teach about:
- white privilege
- figurative language
- visual rhetoric
- the marriage of text and images
- the human condition
- mind maps
- hearing silenced voices
The list goes on and on…
I have quoted “If you can’t read, you can’t ball.” to more than one athlete over the years. I have hugged weeping students while saying “If you care about something enough, it’s going to make you cry.” I use the phrase “Smell yourself, Ted” pretty much anytime I sense someone is being disingenuous.
At some point over the last 9 years The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian went from being a part of my curriculum to being a part of who I am.
We all know that teaching can be intensely personal–the creating we do each day, the giving of ourselves to the greater good. And teaching English especially asks us to stretch and bend intellectually, emotionally and socially in ways other disciplines do not. The joy and success this book has given my students over the years, has in turn given me joy and success. When I think about not just my job as a teacher, but about my life and my impact on the world and my community, this book is an important part of it. It is more than just a book I teach. No—True Diary is bigger than that. This book has power. I’ve seen the power of this book work on the hundreds of young people with whom I have shared it over the years. I know it’s power has worked on me.
And so while I know this is supposed to be a best practices blog, I won’t be sharing a lesson with you today.
Because the books we share are bigger than curriculum.
Books we share are the books that make us see the world differently. They often get challenged or banned because books we share are brave enough to challenge the status quo. The leave us altered, make us stronger, kinder, braver, more understanding.
Books we share change our lives by becoming a part of who we are.
So thank you Sherman Alexie for writing a book that has become a part of so many lives here in West Virginia. I love The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in way that is probably best described by young Arnold Spririt himself:
“I grabbed my book and opened it up.
I wanted to smell it.
Heck, I wanted to kiss it.
Yes, kiss it.
That’s right, I am a book kisser.”
WVCTE is wondering… what is your favorite banned book? What is your favorite book to teach? What book do you want to kiss?
Jessica Salfia is a teacher and writer in Martinsburg, WV, and is the current President of WVCTE. You can see what Jessica is doing in her classroom by visiting www.salfiaenglishclass.weebly.com or by following her on Twitter @jessica_salfia.