In recent years, no title has kept NCAC as busy as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It was, by one account, the most frequently censored or challenged book of 2014.
This year might not be much different.
According to recent press accounts, Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel was removed from the middle school curriculum in Waterloo, Iowa—a decision made based on one parent’s complaint and in blatant violation of the district’s own policies regarding challenged materials.
Today, NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) sent a letter urging the district to reinstate the book. Alongside allies from the American Booksellers for Free Expression, National Council of Teachers of English, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, PEN American Center, and the Association of American Publishers, KRRP points out that the “decision to remove the book was made on an ad hoc basis without following the district’s policy for reviewing book challenges, and with no input from teachers.”
The Waterloo school district entirely disregarded its procedure for dealing with challenges, based on the specious argument that the parental objection—based on profanity and sexual references—was never a “formal” challenge.
The KRRP letter argues the decision “to remove a book with such strong literary and pedagogical merit not only disserves the educational interests of students but also raises constitutional questions…. the attempt to alter school curricula in response to individual objections means privileging the moral or religious beliefs of some families over others. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination by government that our constitutional system is designed to prevent.”
While the district should have adhered to its own rules, there are serious questions raised about other aspects of the current policy, as well as possible changes that could limit students’ freedom to read. Superintendent Jane Lindaman explained at an April 13 board meeting that Part-Time Indian had never been properly submitted for inclusion in the curriculum; teachers in the district argued there has never been such a procedure, and the creation of one would be deeply troubling.
At the same board meeting, there was a suggestion that parental notification should be required when texts with sexual references or profanity are being used in a classroom. As the KRRP letter argues, “The likely result of flagging such material will be a cautious (if not sanitized) educational environment in which teachers play it safe and students are not educationally challenged. If so, students’ intellectual and emotional development will suffer.”
The letter urges the Waterloo school board—which meets this evening—to take action that would support the rights of students to read freely and respect educators’ professional curriculum decisions:
Decisions about instructional materials should be based on sound educational grounds, not because some people do or do not agree with the message or content of a particular book. This approach is consistent with constitutional and educational principles and will serve the interests of both the Waterloo school system and its students. We urge you to demonstrate your commitment to these goals by restoring The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to the middle school curriculum.