New summer reading selection starts controversy

Children are taught to read at a young age in our society. As they mature, so do the works they read.

Some parents, however, feel as if there is a limit to what books should be permissible to their children to read. Those parents do not always see eye-to-eye with teachers on what that limit is. Such is the case with Northwest’s new summer reading selection for incoming freshman, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

This change marks a departure from the previous summer reading selection, Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, which has been the assignment for four years. However, students and English teachers alike have recently criticized this novel by David Lubar for its lack of diversity and stereotypical content.

“I would like students to read a text and see themselves in it,” English department chair Monica Clark said. The decision was made in February during a ninth-grade PLC. The new selection was agreed upon by all the ninth grade English teachers.

However, since the announcement of the change, several parents have expressed concerns about the new book, (henceforth referred to as True Diary) citing sexually explicit references and vulgar language.

One parent wrote in an email, “I have read [True Diary] myself and find that many parts are unacceptable for my son. It was a great story, but the vulgarities found throughout take away from the book.”

Guilford County Schools’ policy regarding controversial texts reads as follows:

“Literary texts studied in the high school classroom are complex, higher-level texts which may concern mature content and themes. ‘Mature content’ may include, but is not limited to, pervasive strong language, disturbing violence and behavior, sexual acts, drug/alcohol use or references, controversial content, or culturally diverse themes.”

Not all parents are against this novel’s selection, however. Holly Stewart, a mother of an incoming freshman, wrote an email supporting the decision to teach this novel at the beginning of next school year.

“I was surprised and concerned when a neighbor called me yesterday about her desire to solicit support for removing and replacing Alexie’s book with ‘something more appropriate,’” Stewart said. “Alexie illuminates important aspects of the American experience, and he does so in a way that inspires compassion, hope and resiliency.”

Ninth grade English teacher and mother of a seventh-grader at Northwest Middle School Katherine Trabert agrees with Stewart.

“In high school, students are introduced to many diverse books, all having important themes,” Trabert said. “This year’s summer readings reflect that diversity within our community and country.”

True Diary is no stranger to challenges over its content. Many school districts across the nation have received challenges over teaching the book since its release in 2007. In some cases the book was allowed to stay and be taught, in others it was removed from the curriculum.

One of these challenges was within the state of North Carolina. This came from  73-year-old woman Frances Wood in Brunswick County in 2014. In her complaint about the novel, Wood cited profanity and sexual themes depicted in the book as disturbing and offensive to her religious values, and inappropriate for children to read.

“It’s very undesirable for our children to be reading, much less taught in a classroom,” Wood said in an interview with Star News. “We don’t use these words in Christian homes. I object to these words. I object to the masturbation.”

Wood’s challenge ultimately proved fruitless, as the book remained on shelves in the district. Wood would go on to issue another challenge over the book a year later with similar success.

Those opposed to banning the book cite the value of students’ ability to relate to the narrator through his authenticity.

Proponents of keeping the book also criticize the arguments against it as decontextualized and failing to appreciate the literary merit the book holds in spite of its vulgarity.

“[Those protesting this novel] lost the entirety of the book in a few pages of objectionable [content],” Clark said. “I kind of feel like they’re missing the point.”

As of now, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian remains the primary novel for incoming freshmen at Northwest, both in CP and Honors classes. However, for those parents who object, students are allowed to read the previous summer reading novel, Sleeping Freshmen.

“Parents and guardians are given an alternate title for their students, should they wish,” Trabert said.