I don’t know how I got away without reading this one before now.  I highly recommend:

by Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007

I live and teach in Washington state.  In 2008, when I was earning my graduate degree at Seattle University, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN was on the list of texts to choose from to help us round out our cultural sensitivities before entering the classroom.  I chose other texts at the time, but I finally read DIARY a few weeks ago and immediately started talking about it to anyone who would listen, because this book is amazing and everyone should read it.

Here are five reasons why.

1.  Even though you “should” read it, you won’t feel that way when you’re reading it.  Trust me.  Open it up and read one page, and you’ll be gone, whisked away by Junior’s cuttingly comedic voice and carried along with him as he fights to figure out where he belongs.  This is a book of bone-crushing realities about reservation life and life in poverty, but it’s a funny book.  A brutal, blunt, honest, hilarious book.  Because life is funny.  Life is funny even when it isn’t.  Especially when it isn’t.  The laughter in this book is survivalist laughter – laughter that stands as the final defense against evil and pain.  I often laughed aloud – and hard – while reading, and then suddenly I’d reach the end of a chapter and it would just break me over its knee in a few blunt sentences, and I’d cry and cry and have to wait for my eyes to clear before I could keep going.

2. It’s been banned.  But that’s not why you should read it.  You should read it because it’s been banned for being TOO TRUTHFUL about what life is often like for teenagers.  The protagonist, Junior, is a 14-year-old boy who suffers heavy doses of grief (deaths in his family).  He gets into fights, and his father is an alcoholic, who, while drunk, drives Junior around town (so does a drunken family friend on a motorcycle).  Junior also thinks, very realistically, about sex. Anyone who thinks that teenagers need to be protected from ideas like sex, grief, violence, and addiction has not spent much time around teenagers.  The stuff Junior talks about – this is the stuff that a lot of my students are dealing with every day. 

3. Teachers should read this book.  Teachers who teach kids in poverty MUST read this book, if for no other reason then for the moment in which one of the teachers sarcastically welcomes Junior back to class after a long bout of absences.  We who work with low-income kids from struggling families know that it’s a fight to keep them in school.  We know that attendance is difficult, that families don’t or can’t always prioritize education, and that it’s impossible to teach kids who don’t show up.  This can be back-breaking for teachers, who are evaluated on their ability to teach kids, period, regardless of whether they’ve been absent thirty times.  For this and many other reasons, it can get tempting to use sarcasm in the classroom.  This book reminded me why we must never, never do that.  We don’t know what’s happening at home.  Even when we think we know, we just don’t know, and we must show our students respect and kindness no matter what. 

4. The basketball game.  The one Junior really, really wants to win.  The one I wanted him to win.  And the way Alexie jerks the whole thing out from under us – out from under Junior and the reader at the same time.  Oh, my heart.

5. Even though it’s an intensely personal and semi-autobiographical book about Alexie’s own youth on the Spokane Indian Reservation, it’s also an even-handed book, at least as far as race and affluence are concerned.  Alexie doesn’t draw lines between types of folk.  People aren’t necessarily evil because they’re wealthy and white, nor are they necessarily kind and decent heroes because they’re poor and brown.  There are wonderful people – and awful people – everywhere.  And that’s important to acknowledge, always.


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