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Gazette Premium Content Colorado Springs' All Pikes Peak Reads selection has controversial history

By Jen Mulson Updated: July 21, 2013 at 3:01 pm

On Monday, the Pikes Peak Library District released the selections for its 2013 All Pikes Peak Reads program - one controversial enough to have been banned in at least two school libraries.

The APPR teen selection, Sherman Alexie's semiautobiographical "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," tells the story of a 14-year-old Native American's life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his move to attend an all-white public high school.

Although it's won multiple awards, the 2007 young adult novel has drawn criticism in the past for its use of profanity, themes of alchoholism, poverty, bullying and tragic death as well as references to masturbation and physical arousal.

"We can take the book and wrap it in those 20 awards everyone else said it won and it still is wrong," said school board member Ken Spurgeon after a public forum on whether to ban the book in Stockton, Mo., schools. It was banned in 2010.

It was also banned in Richland, Wash., in 2011, although the ban was rescinded a month later, reported the Banned Books Awareness website.

"Our team services group looked at a number of books, and felt this is the book that resonated the most with teens about having a voice," said Dee Sabol, community engagement and outreach officer for PPLD.

This year's theme, in fact, is "My Voice - Our Future."

"When your voice is different, how do you get to add it to what's going on?" she asked. "When we select books, we do them on their literary merit. We don't shy away from controversy."

Alexie's novel also comes with numerous accolades, including the 2007 National Book Award and the 2009 Odyssey Award for best audio book.

"For 15 years now, Sherman Alexie has explored the struggle to survive between the grinding plates of the Indian and white worlds," wrote a New York Times reviewer. "He's done it through various characters and genres, but 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' may be his best work yet. Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home."

Kaitlin Hoke, teen services coordinator for PPLD, says Alexie's novel is popular and rarely stays on the shelf long. She recommends it to middle and high school students, though always on a case-by-case basis, depending on the student's maturity. Complaints from patrons stand at zero.

"It brings up a lot of amazing topics," Hoke said. "The staff did a book talk, and a kid raised his hand and asked 'What's a reservation?' It brings up some dialogue, which is exactly what APPR does."

Staff in local school district libraries weren't available for comment, but Devra Ashbey, public information officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, said they're not concerned.

"It's received several positive professional reviews," she said. "It's an adolescent book, so if it's an adolescent literature choice, it encourages critical thinking and does present a controversial aspect. When it does present challenges like that, that's the way we talk with our students about challenges within society. It talks about racial challenges and alcoholism and several other things people would consider mature topics, but for teens in particular, who are starting to encounter these things in society, it's a way authors and teachers prefer to teach."

Extra copies of the book are available now at PPLD locations, and the selection comes with no warning labels.

"We never have done that," Sabol said. "We assume parents are interacting with their youth - that's not our job - and know what their kids are reading, watching, playing and finding online."

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Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.

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