Book controversy gives way to giveaway

Meridian giveaway I
Mountain View High School junior Brady Kissel and Erin Nelson and Wally Johnston of Boise’s Rediscovered Bookshop headed up Wednesday’s book giveaway.

It was a plot twist Brady Kissel never saw coming.

Twenty-two days after the Meridian School Board kept “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in reading list limbo, the Mountain View Junior High School junior was helping to hand out free copies of the controversial novel.

A steady flow of students showed up Wednesday afternoon, at a municipal park near Meridian’s perpetually crowded Eagle Road thoroughfare. Kissel made sure a boxload of the books went back to the school’s drama club for distribution. One classmate asked Kissel to autograph her copy — her first autograph, Kissel said with a smile.

Wednesday’s book giveaway, and the fundraising drive that preceded it, was more than Kissel could have expected on April 1.

That night, Kissel urged school trustees to put the Sherman Alexie novel back on the school reading list — and she showed up bearing petitions from some 300 students and teachers. The board voted to keep the book off of the district’s optional reading list, amidst complaints from parents and students who objected to the book’s profanity and references to masturbation.

“I’m so happy (the issue) didn’t die at the meeting,” Kissel said.

If anything, the issue has taken on a life of its own.

Two Washington women, University of Washington student Sara Baker and Jennifer Lott of Spokane, started a fundraising drive. They eventually secured about $3,000, enough to pay for 350 books. Their goal was to make sure every student who signed Kissel’s petition would have access to the novel.

Then, on Tuesday, Alexie’s publishing house committed to donate 350 more books. They’ll arrive next week, said Erin Nelson of Rediscovered Bookshop, a Boise shop helping with the distribution.

At Rediscovered Bookshop, there were no second thoughts about wading into the controversy. For Nelson, who read the novel during her senior year of high school, the topic has added resonance. She believes parents should have a say over what their children read. But she says this novel, which chronicles an American Indian student assimilating in an all-white high school, explores real-world issues of class and race.

“I think it’s a really important book,” she said. “If anyone wants to read it, they should have the right to do that.”

Meridian giveaway II
Before taking their copies of ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” many students wrote out thank-you notes to Sara Baker and Jennifer Lott, the Washington women who raised money for the book giveaway.

At the April 1 hearing, students were divided. Some felt as strongly about the issue as Kissel — but said the book was offensive and inappropriate for high schools. Since then, said Kissel, she and her classmates have spent a lot of time discussing the book, and First Amendment and censorship issues.

But the mood Wednesday afternoon was upbeat. Students didn’t come to debate the content of the book. They picked up their copies, and many stopped to jot out a quick thank-you note to Baker and Lott.

The ultimate decision over content rests with the Meridian School Board. The April 1 decision did not ban “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The board wants to review the entire supplemental reading list and search for another book that explores American Indian themes. The book could be pulled from the reading list, or reinstated.

Kissel is glad her classmates are fired up to read the novel, and have access to it. But she’s not very optimistic about the review process.

“I don’t have high hopes for it.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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