One-Minute Book Reviews

January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I stopped trying to understand book and film awards a looong time ago. Many winners are awarded that honour because they’re compromise choices; the judges each had candidates they liked but settled on something else to break a deadlock. Is that any way to determine the “best”?

    Comment by Cliff Burns — January 15, 2008 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  2. I was not at all surprised that Alexie’s book did not get a Newbery award or honor, but I was a little surprised about the Printz snubbing. That seemed to be the most logical category for it to be recognized. I’ve read it and the language isn’t any worse than in some other young adult novels. I think all the (mostly negative) controversy last year from “scrotum” on the first page of Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky may have had something to do with it.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — January 15, 2008 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  3. Cliff: You’re so right about the “compromise choices” (and I’m speaking here not just as a critic but as a sometime judge). I’ve said on this site that book awards sometimes go to “everybody’s second favorite book.” But they can bring attention to wonderful, overlooked titles, so I have mixed feelings about them, and it sounds as though you may, too.

    Amanda: Interesting. Have you seen any Y.A. novels with racial and sexual jokes as strong as the one with the “n” word in Alexie’s book? I haven’t. But I don’t read nearly as many Y.A. books as you do, so I’m going to defer to you here.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 15, 2008 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  4. My estimation is language had absolutely nothing to do with the decision. Indeed it seems the ALA has gone out of its way to award books containing even graphic oral sex and hundreds of vulgar phrases with awards for children. Perhaps the problem was that “boner” was used only 12 times. Award winning books go into the triple digits with such language and worse. Next time the author should consider adding graphic oral sex scenes and hundreds of vulgar words, perhaps even bestiality will do the trick. After all, when parents complained about a book containing bestiality, among other things, in the public school, Judith Krug, the ALA’s de facto leader, called the parents racist because of the author’s skin color.

    What I have said here sounds like I’m making a joke, but I am not. Sadly, I truly believe making a book more inappropriate for children is one way to a winning ticket at the ALA. See and thank you.

    Can you believe we are at a point where books containing graphic oral sex and worse are being given awards as children’s books by America’s leading source for children’s book awards? Worse, let someone complain a public library or public school should not make such material available to children and that person is labeled as a racist, a homophobe, or a censor. Board of Education v. Pico is just forgotten. Common sense is tossed aside. The law? Who cares! Children have right to read, don’t they?

    Comment by safelibraries — January 16, 2008 @ 11:05 am | Reply

  5. Thanks so much for your comment. I read fewer young adult books than many parents or librarians and also have no knowledge of how the ALA made the decision on this one. So I welcome other perspectives such as yours.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 16, 2008 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  6. Although I agree with safelibraries in some points, I disagree with you in some points too. I do not believe that the ALA would only choose The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as the national book because of the sexual language used throughout the book. I am a youth adult, and I considered this book appropriate for students my age. The book overall teaches youth adults many lessons about friendship, hopelessness, obstacles faced, experiences and so forth. I do not think that using vulgar words is what makes a good book. On the other hand, what makes a good book is using words that express more than just the literal aspect, but yet again demonstrates a certain writing style, voice and opinion. On another note, I do not think that people that agree to this book being banned are considered racists. Although it might be true on certain cases, there are other people who disagree with having this language or these graphic scenes exposed to children or young adults, because they believe it encourages them to do it. Overall, I believe the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an amazing book for what is actually written.

    Comment by ivannam13 — November 11, 2009 @ 11:48 pm | Reply

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