2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

By Sherman Alexie

Current & Digital Publisher:
Little, Brown & Co.

Reading Level: Ages 12 & Up

Collage by students from BookUpNYC, I.S. 318, led by author/instructor Lissette Norman:

 

Collage by students from BookUp, I.S. 318.

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BookUpNYC students from Children’s Aid Society site, led by author/instructor Elisha Miranda

Viviana Cruz writes:

This was my favorite book to read at BookUp this year! I related to the bullying that Junior went through in this book. I’m Mexican and many times kids tease me about my accent and I related to Junior being teased by kids at school. The writer described sad situations and made them funny with this voice that made me relate to the book even more. Elisha often talks about voice and point of view when we talk about books, I like that this was in the first person. Many times when we read books written by adults I don’t relate because the voice doesn’t sound like a teenager. What also stayed with me in this book is the importance of being yourself even when people tease you. This book not only made me want to read more, it made me want to write myself.

Crystal Rodriguez writes:

Where do I begin? This book made me laugh. Sherman Alexie is funny. This was my favorite book this year. My second was Luna by Julie Anne Peters. Even though Arnold aka Junior lives on an Indian Reservation in Washington, what he went through is similar to what kids in New York feel. I live in the projects and there’s not money for things that I want, even buying food is difficult. I’m Dominican and kids don’t really make fun of me, but they do make fun of my shoes or that I don’t have the latest kicks. Sometimes he talks about issues like alcoholism and racism that more people need to be honest about. I want Elisha to get more books by him for BookUp.

Ashley Dominguez writes:

I was very uncomfortable when he talked about masturbation in the third chapter. I’m twelve and I feel awkward about reading that stuff. When I kept reading though it felt normal and that is not what the book was about, it had messages about being poor and bullying. The book was also funny and it kept me reading. 

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Carole Mashamesh writes:

Do you know how a teacher can tell if a book in their classroom library is loved by their students? They have to order replacement copies each year to refill the “missing” copies that kids don’t want to let go of. Sherman Alexie should thank me because each year I have to order at least ten copies to replace the ones I’ve “lost” over the year. This is a sign of how popular his book is with teens. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a godsend to teachers because of how many ways it can be useful. In my Humanities classroom it serves two purposes: it gets kids to fall in love with reading (even the reluctant “I HATE READING” kids) and it shows perfectly the lasting impact Westward Expansion has had on Native Americans. Junior speaks honestly about what he believes to be a dead-end life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, or the “rez.” That’s why this book is so beloved by me (and all my middle school students who keep “borrowing” my copies).

I’m always looking for that perfect book that opens a kid’s eyes to reading. And this book does the trick. It’s appealing to teens because the main character, Junior, is so different from most protagonists and many readers, but he is immensely relatable. His life is filled with much despair. And teens love despair—they want to know that someone out there has it worse than them. In just one chapter we experience that kind of rapid attitude change that teens are known for. Junior starts his first day of high school saying, “I’m so excited about life,” only to have his mood completely change by the end of the chapter after attending geometry class and having handed to him the same exact math book that his mother had over thirty years before. That’s when he realizes that you can’t have dreams on the rez. And it breaks your heart to hear Junior say, “that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?” There are so many kids who can relate to this feeling of hopelessness. In some way reading that someone out there has it as bad as you, maybe even worse, makes us connect to the narrator and, in the process, become friends with Junior.

What we find out through all this despair and death (at fourteen, he’s been to forty-two funerals so far) that Junior faces is how he holds onto the one thing that will set him free: hope. Isn’t that what we want all kids to hang onto? Junior gets through it by “trying to find the little pieces of joy in my life.” Isn’t that how all of us make it through life? Junior makes us feel that if he can get through all this, then so can we. It’s such a positive message to send to teens. The book also emphasizes the value of friendship to help you through the hard times. What teen can’t relate to Junior’s inquiry about his friend Rowdy’s role in his life when he asks, “Can your best friend be more important than your family?” At age fourteen (or twelve or seventeen), our friends are our lives, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have drama with them. As Junior navigates the “white” world in Reardon in his quest for hope, he has to decide if he should hold on to his culture and “stay Indian” or try to fit in and lose his best friend. There are no easy answers for Junior in this book.

What’s truly amazing is that for a book that’s filled with so much sadness, it’s actually pretty funny. There are some laugh-out-loud moments that I get to hear during our silent reading periods when a kid has this book in his hands. I don’t know another author who can mix humor with tragedy together as flawlessly as Sherman Alexie has done. That’s what appeals to the reluctant readers (and boys, who are hard to please too), that and of course the accurate but hysterical drawings. We feel like we’re inside Junior’s head through the images that reflect what’s happening in the book and how he feels about it. For kids who don’t always know what’s going on when they read or don’t read closely, the graphics explain it all in one simple picture. As Junior says, “when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.” This is a perfect book for my struggling readers because it has complicated ideas but a variety of ways for them to access them.

My last reason for this book’s invaluable assistance to my teaching is the way it demonstrates the plight of the Native Americans so honestly and vividly to my students. Part of our curriculum teaches about Westward Expansion and its effect on Native Americans. We talk about the choices (or lack thereof) that Native Americans faced as the white man took over their land. We read parts of this book out loud to show Junior’s feelings on this situation. Junior doesn’t pull any punches when he describes how one of his teachers tells him, “we were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child… we were trying to kill Indian culture.” When I read that part to my kids they are stunned by his words. Especially when he goes into detail about what the reservations were really about: “reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps.” Nothing I can teach my students can have the same impact as the brutal observations that Junior makes. This is the lasting impact of the white man’s Manifest Destiny.

So Sherman Alexie, I thank you for making my job as an English teacher and a Social Studies teacher that much easier by providing a go-to book that’s made my students trust me and my recommendations. And for proving that YA literature can be just as compelling as adult books.

Carole Mashamesh is a Humanities teacher at Tompkins Square Middle School. She is passionate about reading and hopes to create lifelong readers by the time her students leave her class.

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 YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Kathleen Duey for Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One
  • M. Sindy Felin for Touching Snow
  • Brian Selznick for The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  • Sara Zarr for Story of a Girl

YPL Winner That Year: Sherman Alexie for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Judges That Year: Pete Hautman, James Howe, Patricia McCormick, Elizabeth Partridge, Scott Westerfeld

The Year in Literature: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron won the Newbery Medal. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang won the Printz Award.

More Information: Originally, Sherman Alexie tried to write The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in the third person. However, he said, “that narrative distance created an emotional distance as well. And I realized that I was afraid of the first person because I was afraid of my own history.” He said one of his proudest moments came when he eventually chose to face his past and write the novel in first person.

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