Wisconsinites Pack Board Meeting for Debate Over Absolutely True Diary

absolutelytrueCommunity debate continues over Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, where a review committee recently recommended to Superintendent Cliff Thompson that the book remain in the 9th grade curriculum at Sauk Prairie High School despite a parent’s challenge. Thompson will in turn make his own recommendation to the school board before a final vote expected May 22.

Following the review committee’s 8-5 vote in favor of the book in late April, an overflow crowd packed this week’s school board meeting to speak both for and against it. One of the strongest defenses of Absolutely True Diary came from local pastor Dennis Virta, who made a point about the slippery slope of censorship:

I was forced to read a book some people are offended by. I call it an equal opportunity offender. It offends Muslims, Christians, Jews, Atheists, in that book there are seven suicides, genital mutilation, hundreds of murders, incest, rape, and one ultimate injustice. And if we are going to ban a book, this would probably be the most offensive book — and I read it every day — the Holy Bible.

Sauk Prairie freshman Grace Breunig also spoke in favor of the book, saying that it “showed ways to express yourself through art, reading and sports, which is stuff we can all relate to. Today kids express themselves a lot through social media. But this book showed there are lots of other ways to do so.”

Some parents, however, remained unable to see past the occasional profanity and sexual innuendo that feature in Alexie’s novel. They also seemed to misunderstand the purpose of the American Library Association’s annual Top Ten Frequently Banned/Challenged Books List, on which Absolutely True Diary appeared for five years straight between 2010 and 2014. The list is intended as an awareness tool to raise public interest in intellectual freedom issues, but parent Kay Ringelstetter questioned why students would be assigned to read “a book known to be banned in many communities.”

Robin Ballweg, parent of a seventh grader who will not be attending Sauk Prairie High School, also expressed confusion as to why her son was assigned to read frequently banned or challenged books in school:

This year I got a letter saying he was reading banned books. It’s a joke. Now I get to hear snide remarks [from Absolutely True Diary] about drugs and jerking off and things like that. And this is the same boy who is an altar boy at church. This is not something I want him to think is OK or normal.

CBLDF has joined several defenses of Sherman Alexie’s award-winning novel over the years. It has appeared on ALA’s annual list of the most challenged books on several occasions since its 2007 publication despite accolades from The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more. It won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and several other awards. It has been included in school curricula around the country since publication.

The Sauk Prairie School Board is expected to take a final vote on the book’s fate at its next meeting on Monday, May 22. Stay tuned for updates!

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.