The Absolutely True Diary by Sherman Alexie is a first-person narrative by Native American teenager Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as “Junior”, a 14-year-old budding cartoonist. The book details Arnold’s life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to go to an all-white public high school in the off-reservation town of Reardan, Washington. The novel has 65 comic illustrations by Forney, which sometimes act as punchlines while also revealing Arnold’s character and furthering the plot.
The novel is controversial for some of its content on issues such as alcohol, poverty, bullying, references to masturbation and physical arousal, as well as for the tragic deaths of characters and the use of profanity. As a result, some schools have banned the book from school libraries or inclusion in curricula.
The book has been at the center of several controversies regarding the depiction of sex and violence in books written for young adults. Alexie responded to such complaints in a 2011 Wall Street Journal post entitled “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”, in which he argues that attempts to prevent school-aged children from learning about the harsher aspects of contemporary life are “way, way too late”.
He uses his own life as an example:
Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.
Alexie also points out in that post that he has visited many classrooms and received many letters and messages from students who liked the book, noting that these students have had difficult experiences similar to his own— “depression, attempted suicide, gang warfare, sexual and physical abuse, absentee parents, poverty, racism, and learning disabilities”— and he notes:
“I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.”
The book has been banned in Stockton, Missouri; Richland, Washington and Newcastle, Wyoming.