Kansas school district removes novel from class materials and library after anonymous complaint
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie was challenged by the grandparent of a Derby ninth-grader. A district committee decided to no longer allow teachers to use the novel in lessons and to remove it from the library at Derby North Middle School.
WICHITA, Kansas — A critically acclaimed but controversial novel told from the perspective of a Native American teenager will no longer be taught at Derby High School after a district committee removed it from a list of approved classroom materials.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie — which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 — was challenged by the grandparent of a ninth-grade student earlier this year.
A 12-member committee reviewed the challenge and decided to no longer allow teachers to use a set of the novels approved for classrooms, said Holly Putnam-Jackson, assistant superintendent of curriculum for the Derby district.
The district also removed the novel from the library at Derby North Middle School. The committee recommended adding a “mature” label to copies at the high school library, a move that district officials are exploring, Putnam-Jackson said.
Committee members objected primarily to profanity and sexual content in the novel, she said. The committee includes three school administrators, a media specialist, a high school English teacher, two other district employees and two community members.
Three members of the Derby school board also serve on the library committee — Pamela Doyle, Robyn Pearman and Andy Watkins — but the committee’s actions do not require board approval.
Putnam-Jackson said district policy allows parents to opt their children out of assignments or material they find inappropriate or offensive.
“Any time a parent expresses a concern or a wish for their child to have an alternative read, or an alternative assignment, we always accommodate that,” she said.
In the case of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” committee members “felt like the book was valuable. However, the frequency of (obscene) language in there made it a challenge as a class read,” Putnam-Jackson said.
The incident is part of a nationwide trend that has school districts trying to balance parental concerns with students’ access to diverse books. The American Library Association said book challenges are up more than 60% over the same time last year.
Alexie’s novel was included on a list of more than two dozen books that were briefly removed from circulation at school libraries in Goddard in November. Goddard returned the books to circulation, but they’re still under review by a committee of principals and librarians, a district spokesman said.
In Derby, the challenge was brought by the grandparent of a ninth-grader; the student read the book as part of a class assignment.
Calvin Rider, an attorney working on behalf of the district, did not release the grandparent’s name, citing fears for his or her safety. He also did not release the name of a school board member who passed the family member’s concern along to Superintendent Heather Bohaty.
As part of a request under the Kansas Open Records Act, the district shared a nine-page document the grandparent submitted, which included excerpts from the novel and objections to much of the material.
“The book had a story that could have been presented in a much more appropriate manner. I felt like I had to be drug waist deep through horse manure to get the opportunity to ride a horse,” the grandparent wrote.
“At a time when many parents are questioning the appropriateness of what is being taught in schools, it might be better to be proactive rather than reactive when using materials that could be very offensive to both parents and students,” the grandparent wrote.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” has consistently appeared on an annual list of frequently challenged books and was the most frequently challenged book from 2010 to 2019. Critics point to the novel’s depiction of alcohol, bullying, violence, sexuality, profanity and slurs related to homosexuality and mental disability.
Cheryl Bannon, a former member of the Derby City Council, addressed Derby school board members last week and urged against censoring library books or classroom materials.
“These are young adults. … These words are not scary to these kids. If they see one of these words and they don't know what it is, you know what a kid does? They either go look it up, if they're interested, or they just skip over it,” Bannon said.
“Do not dumb down our children. This is a slippery slope you are starting down. Derby is better than this,” she said.
Bannon filed an official request for Derby’s library committee to review the Bible, saying it includes references to murder, masturbation, genocide, incest, adultery and other mature topics. If Alexie’s novel belongs in a “mature” section of the library, she said, “This shouldn’t be taught either.”
Putnam-Jackson, the curriculum director, said she didn’t know how many Derby teachers have included Alexie’s novel in their lessons. The novel was on an internal list of books approved for ninth-grade English classes. It has been part of the district’s collection since 2008.
The library committee reviewed another novel — “We Are Not From Here” by Jenny Torres Sanchez — which was not part of the district’s approved list.
An anonymous person complained that the book includes themes of sex, drug use, murder, violence, abortion, suicide ideation, inappropriate language and rape scenes. The novel tells the story of unaccompanied minors who make the trek from Central America to the southern U.S. border.
A Derby teacher who received copies of the novel as part of a grant is leaving the district this year and taking the books with her, Putnam-Jackson said. It is not part of other classroom or library collections.
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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