The merits of an award winning book were questioned by parents in the district.
A group of parents complained about the book in the Sauk Prairie High School’s 9th grade curriculum during the Sauk Prairie School Board meeting April 24.
“The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie was listed as one of the most banned or challenged books of 2014 as cited by the L.A. Times. It chronicles the life of Junior, a 14-year old budding cartoonist who lives on a Spokane, Washington Indian reservation. It won multiple awards, including the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
It is controversial for having what some deem as anti-family sentiments, cultural insensitivity, drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education and being unsuitable for the age group, depicting violence and bullying.
One woman during the board meeting said the book was introduced as a book of hope and was intended to teach kids that they could overcome hardships and better themselves.
“Unfortunately the message of this hope is literally drowned out by the shocking words of profanity, sexual innuendo and violence,” said Lisa Enerson.
Enerson said kids are shaped by their parents, peers, teachers and essentially all members of society.
“Everyone they are surrounded by has an impact on their development,” she said. “I think we all intend to do what is in the best interest of our children. However, this book has presented a dilemma for us as parents because while this book appears to send a hopeful and enlightening message to our children, it ultimately sends a very dark message that promotes disrespectful and immoral behavior.”
Enerson asked whether putting the content in a literary form changes its meaning — or changes how children will accept it.
Scott Enerson read a few of the quotes from the book, which talk about masturbation, naked women, the use of common profanity and homosexual slurs among them.
“What will be the repercussions from this?” he said. “How does it make you feel when you hear those words? ... I don’t know about any of you, but hearing those words make me incredibly uncomfortable. How can we expect our children to read these and feel any different?”
Superintendent Cliff Thompson said new books enter the curriculum through a collaborative process with faculty, the building principal, and the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
He said he received a formal complaint about the book during second semester and as per district policy, a committee was formed to review the book and the complaint. The committee included a board member, faculty and several lay people.
The committee voted 8-5 in favor of keeping the book in the district’s curriculum — which some parents felt was an unfair process because there were more faculty present than parents.
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Thompson said the next step is for the district administrator to advise school board of the committee’s decision, and ultimately it is up to Thompson to make a recommendation to the board. The board would then vote on the topic.
“In preparing to advise the board and make a recommendation I am attempting to be thoughtful, thorough and timely,” Thompson stated.
Brian Weigel said some people will never agree a book should be banned. He said true communication between staff and parents is necessary, especially when a book is controversial.
“If we have a concerted effort to talk about why the book was chosen in the first place, what are the main themes that will be taught, and then go on to say these are some problems with the book, or some areas some people will have problems with, that allows us to talk about it with our students and children what those themes are and whether we should or shouldn’t engage them in conversation about it,” Weigel said.
He also said it’s important for parents to be able to decide whether or not their child should select an alternate book, if offered.
“While I don’t think this book should be part of the required curriculum, I think there are options you could entertain,” such as offering the book in the school library but requiring a parent’s approval, Weigel said.
Kay Ringlestetter said the issue is that parents were not made aware of the books content. They received an email stating students were reading a book with “adult content” in it.
“In the future, parents have to be told more about the book their child is required to read,” she said. “If it’s banned, the district needs to let parents know that and why.”
Teri Weigel said when she saw the email indicating there would be “adult content” in the book, she read the book first and placed Post-It notes on pages where her daughter might have questions or where she felt content was inappropriate.
She was concerned by the fact the book was never discussed in class; the teacher asked the book be read and later an essay followed.
“The essay asked for specific examples of why you thought the book should or shouldn’t be banned,” she said. “My daughter didn’t feel comfortable writing those specific words down so she wrote page numbers. She didn’t do well because she didn’t cite specific examples.”
Laura Breunig said she is not generally an advocate of banning books “but I cannot believe in the history of the written word that there is not a more appropriate, more suitable, more acceptable book than this one.”
She said there is power in the written word.
“It helps us dream, plan, have goals … but that power can be used in another way,” she said. “And I think this book is achieving that rather than inspiring these children.”