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Book stirring controversy at Antioch High School
By Vincent Pierri | Daily Herald Staff

Freshmen at Antioch High School are being assigned to read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by author Sherman Alexie.


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Published: 6/19/2009 12:00 AM

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A novel titled "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" has earned a National Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.

But the fictional story about a 14-year-old boy growing up on an Indian reservation is getting a thumbs-down from a number of parents at Antioch Community High School.

Chosen as the required summer reading for incoming freshmen, the book is creating controversy to the point where some parents are asking School District 117 officials to pull the title.

Published in 2007, the novel by Sherman Alexie centers on the life of Arnold Spirit and his quest to better himself by getting a good education and to eventually leave the reservation.

Jennifer Anderson, parent of an incoming freshman, said she was appalled by particular passages.

"I decided to read the book in order to help my son with the content," Anderson said. "I wasn't prepared for what I read. It was shocking. If there were just swear words, I could deal with that. But sections of this book are just vulgar."

Anderson said she was stunned by descriptions of masturbation, racist language, graphic depictions of sex and references to bestiality.

"I decided there was no way my son was going to read that book," she said.

Another parent who said she was very upset didn't want to be quoted by name. Several other parents reportedly were planning to attend a school board meeting to complain.

The novel was chosen by a committee of English teachers at the high school and approved by department Chairman John Whitehurst. He defends the book and says the controversial passages need to be read in context.

"This book has positive life affirming values," Whitehurst said. "The main character is about the same age as our students. He's a really good kid adjusting to a new environment and looking to education as a way of getting ahead."

Whitehurst acknowledged the racier paragraphs but said the words are authentic.

"This is honest and realistic language for a boy this age. Though he has sexual thoughts, he records them but doesn't act on them," Whitehurst said. "It also has a strong anti-drug, anti-alcohol message."

The book was selected to especially appeal to boys, who Whitehurst said experience and studies have shown generally don't like to read.

"We were looking for a book that is engaging for boys," he said. "We wanted a main character that they could relate to."

Whitehurst said that parents can opt for an alternative book, "Down River," which Anderson was only added as a choice after parents began complaining.

Superintendent Jay Sabatino said he has not read the book, but plans to have it finished by Monday.

He said he also has asked school board members Joyce Heneberry and Sandy Jacobs to read the book over the weekend and to give him their thoughts. No decision on removing the book will be made until at least Monday, he said.

"I don't want to make a knee-jerk reaction," Sabatino said. "I understand and want to be sensitive to the parents concern."

If nothing else, Anderson said she would have appreciated a warning from school officials about the potentially offensive content. She stated her thoughts in an e-mail to Antioch Principal Mike Nekritz.

"We put our trust in our educators and often take for granted that the books assigned to our children are appropriate. I am sure not many parents have taken the time to read this book and would like to know it has some controversial content."