Wednesday, November 28, 2007

National Book Awards for Children's Literature

I was delighted to hear that Sherman Alexie had recently been awarded the National Book Award for Children's Literature for his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. It is a very powerful story that will both make you laugh and cry- often at the same time!

The book (based in part on the author's childhood) recounts the story of fourteen year old Arnold 'Junior' Spirit, a budding cartoonist living on the Spokane Indian reservation. Junior loves to learn (he is even excited about geometry class) and is generally a good kid, but he completely loses his composure on his first day of high school when he realizes that he is expected to learn geometry from the same textbook used by his mother over thirty years ago. He despairs of ever getting a proper education, so when his teacher suggests he transfer to a school off the reservation, he decides to go. Reardan High is a rich, all-white school where the only other Native American in sight is the school mascot. Adjusting to Reardan is hard for Junior and he experiences his share of racist comments and culture shock in his first few weeks of classes. He also faces the disapproval of many of his tribal members back on the reservation, including that of his best friend Rowdy, who refuses to talk to him. But as the school year progresses, Junior's situation improves as he makes friends with both Roger (the jock) and Gordy (fellow geek), and develops a crush on the bulimic but beautiful Penelope. He tries out for and wins a spot on the school's basketball team, becoming one of the stars of the team.

Alexie's writing is funny, insightful, honest and really captures the voice (and language) of the young protagonist. The inclusion of 'Junior's' cartoons throughout the novel (by artist Ellen Forney) add deeper insight into what the character is thinking and also make the book approachable for reluctant readers (as do the short chapters). Alexie also doesn't shy away from dealing with stereotypes, and the book deals with life on the reservation, poverty, alcoholism, abuse, and death in a very straight-forward manner. These are all very heavy topics, but the book uses humour quite effectively to soften the blow of the various tragedies that occur over the course of the story, and the reader is left with a sense of hope. This is a book I know I'm going to read many, many times- it is fantastic! For ages 12 and up.

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