The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bibliographic Information: Alexie, S. (2009). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Forney, E. (Illus.). New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.  ISBN: 0316013692.  288 pages.

Plot Summary: “My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.” Fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., called Junior by his friends and family, lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His best, and only, friend Rowdy protects him from kids on the “rez,” who use Junior as a punching bag. He is teased and picked on because he’s skinny, he wears glasses, he lisps, and, according to him, “Everyone on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day.” But, Junior is smart and thoughtful, he’s an aspiring cartoonist, and he has managed to eke out a small amount of hope for his future. He makes the life-changing decision to leave the rez school to attend Reardon, a school 22 miles from the reservation, with only white students in a wealthy, all-white town. Students at Reardon are high achievers, both academically and in athletics. Will Junior’s Indian community feel betrayed by his decision? Will the kids at his new school open their hearts to him? Readers will root for this unassuming, honest, witty and smart protagonist, as he makes his way through the murky waters of growing up and self-discovery.

Critical Evaluation: Alexie’s honest, authentic writing tells Junior’s story with intimacy and feeling.  And while this book reads like a memoir, it is fiction, but heavily based on Alexie’s own life.  Readers get the opportunity to be present for day-to-day life as well as some of the more dramatic moments of Junior’s life, and through it all Alexie’s dry wit and social commentary are meaningful and not at all didactic. The complex issues of race and class intersect, intertwine, and give readers plenty to think about.  Part devastatingly sad, part funny, and part hopeful, this coming of age story provides pause for thought about life’s complexities, as well as some of its most simple, and basic, pleasures.  Alexie’s is an important voice in young adult literature, as there are very few books depicting contemporary Indian Reservation life.  Though Junior is fourteen, the novel’s content is mature enough to keep older teens engaged.  In fact, the many levels of this book would likely be best understood by teens older than the main character.  While the content is often heavy, the writing is accessible for a wide range of reading levels; this book, with its many cartoon illustrations, is enjoyable to read, and could be a great choice for reluctant readers.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award

Reader’s Annotation: Junior’s life takes a dramatic turn when he decides to leave the Spokane Indian Reservation school for an all-white school in an affluent town 22 miles away from his reservation home.

Information about the Author: Sherman Alexie is an author, a poet, and a filmmaker.  He has written 22 books, and has received numerous honors for his creative works.  Alexie has a strong voice and does not shy away from controversy (see “Challenge Issues” below). He is a frequent public speaker and an advocate for Native American Youth.

Genre: Issue, Realistic Fiction

Category: Issue: Social Concerns: Racism; Issue: Life is Hard: Multiple and Unique Issues, Outsiders

Topics Covered: Growing up, American Indian, Indian reservation, racism, poverty, discrimination, Bullying

Curriculum Ties: This book would provide plenty to talk about for a high school English or social studies class

Booktalking Ideas:

  • “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family?” (p. 123)

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 14 to 19

Challenge Issues: This book contains a lot of cursing and references to sexuality.  It also exposes readers to poverty, racism, hatred, sadness and grief, things that some adults feel they need to protect young people from.  Alexie’s own experience of hearing from teens that this book speaks to them and they appreciate its honesty is discussed in his Wall Street Journal Blog piece, entitled Why the Best Kids’ Books Are Written in Blood.  More information about censorship of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can be found in the Blog of The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.

Why is this book included? This book is included for several reasons.  1) Authentic American Indian voices are underrepresented in American literature in general, and in young adult literature in particular, so it is important that Alexie’s voice is heard and available for young people to read. 2) It is a great book, funny, poignant, and gives us all a lot to think about.  I enjoyed it a lot and think you will too.  3) Related to #2, it won the National Book Award among other honors and was highly critically acclaimed.

References:

Alexie, S. (2009). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

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Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Bibliographic Information: Anderson, L.H. (2007). Twisted. New York, NY: Vicking Childrens Books.  ISBN: 0670061018.  272 pages.

Anderson, L.H. (2007) Twisted (unabridged audiobook) Chamberlain, M. (reader). New York, NY: Listening Library. ISBN:0739348841.

Plot Summary: Tyler Miller was not used to being noticed.  He had gotten through his first three years of high school as a self-described “nerd-boy,” small and wimpy, the sometimes object of bullying. But then, something changed.  He got in trouble, not just school trouble, but the kind of trouble that meant police handcuffed him and then walked him out of school into a patrol car.  That got him noticed.  And then he spent the summer doing community service, which involved assisting his high school’s janitorial staff, doing a lot of manual labor.  And all of a sudden little “nerd-boy” was strong and muscular and looking a whole lot like a man.  Tyler never thought it possible, but as the school year began, his secret crush, Bethany Milbury, actually noticed him, and she clearly liked what she saw.  Bethany Milbury was most definitely in the “in crowd;” she was the twin sister of a boy, who Tyler disliked, as much as he liked Bethany. Her father was Tyler’s father’s boss.  Complicated.  But the story gets even more twisted, as glimpses into Tyler’s family life show that Tyler has more trouble than just with the police.

Critical Evaluation: Tyler Miller has his share of problems, many of which will feel familiar to teen readers.  Whether it is navigating the complex social world of high school or dealing with a  father with anger management issues, Tyler’s troubles feel unfortunate, but not unrealistic.  Anderson has captured an authentic male voice, complete with humorous asides and sincere emotional reflections.  She does not shy away from difficult issues, nor does she shy away from realistic thoughts and dialogue that reflect a teen boy’s struggles with growing up and becoming a man.  Twisted touches on heavy issues with sensitivity and honesty, allowing readers to relate to or empathize with Tyler and root for him to be all right in the end.  Twisted is intense and deals with serious issues, it is not for the faint of heart, but, then again, not that many teens these days are faint-hearted.  This would be a great choice for certain reluctant readers.

Twisted was a New York Times bestseller, was on the 2008 YALSA Best Fiction Young Adults list , and was named to the 2009 International Reading Association’s Young Adults’ Choices List.

Reader’s Annotation: It is senior year in high school and Tyler Miller has gone from nerd-boy to buff bad boy over the summer.  When he starts getting attention from an “it girl,”  his secret crush Bethany Milbury, he starts to think maybe things are looking up, but then his life starts to get really twisted.

Information about the Author: Laurie Halse , rhymes with waltz, Anderson is a highly acclaimed young adult and children’s book author.  She is a two-time National Book Award Nominee, won an ALAN award in 2008, and won the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award, among many other honors and achievements.

Anderson “has loved writing since second grade” (Anderson, n.d.).  She has taken Virginia Woolf’s quote “A woman must have…a room of her own to write fiction” (as quoted by Anderson, n.d.) to heart and has a lovely eco-friendly, off-the-grid writing cabin in the woods behind her house.  Click here to watch a video of the cabin design and building process and, in the process, get to know a little more about Laurie Halse Anderson.

Genre: Issue

Category: Issue: Physical, Mental, and Emotional Concerns: Mental, Emotional, Behavioral Problems; Issue: Life is Hard: Multiple and Unique Issues, Emotional Abuse, Kids in the System, Outsiders

Topics Covered: Social Status, Alcohol Abuse, Underage Drinking, Suicide, Illegal Activities, Emotional Abuse

Curriculum Ties: Social status, insiders and outsiders, alcohol use, suicide

Booktalking Ideas:

  • How much can one person change over the summer?
  • What does it mean when life gets “twisted?”

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 13 – 19

Challenge Issues: sexuality, underage drinking, suicide, unlawful behavior.  Anderson has a letter to a community that removed Twisted and other books from the classroom.  Read her impassioned and reasoned letter (Anderson, 2009).  Lastly, in response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.  Also, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won several awards and honors, three are mentioned above.

Why is this book included? Purely on the basis of reading and being moved by and impressed with Speak, I decided to read another book by Anderson.  The audio book for Twisted was on the shelf in the teen department in my local library, so I got it.  Interestingly, I had no idea that the book was about a boy, and had assumed, prior to listening to it, that the main character was a girl.  I was particularly impressed with Anderson’s ability to write in such authentic voices for characters of both genders.

References:

Anderson, L. H. (n.d.). Officially long official biography of Laurie Halse Anderson. Retrieved from http://madwomanintheforest.com/laurie/

Anderson, L. H. (2009). Censorship & Book Banning: Challenges to Twisted. Retrieved from http://madwomanintheforest.com/teachers/censorship-book-banning/