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Windows and mirrors | class #2 spring 2017

Please join the adolescent lit class at HGSE as we discuss two recent YA books for our second class on January 31. The students are required to comment on one of the readings, but we hope any of you who have read one of these will want to join our discussion.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie tells Junior’s story with lots of humor but pulls no punches in depicting the brutal truths of alcoholism, poverty, and bigotry both on and off the reservation. In his article “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”, Alexie talks about the importance of truth telling, and readers of the book have indeed responded powerfully to the book’s honesty. What are the different aspects of the novel likely to engage young readers, and what conversations would you want to have with them about this book? Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a coming-of-age memoir in eloquent free verse. Consider how form and voice reflects the young girl’s discovery of self and the world around her.

Tell us what you think of the books, how they’ve gone over in your classroom, respond to a previous comment, or share anything else that might be relevant.

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Stone Dawson says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Alexie masterfully juxtaposes humor and tragedy throughout the book in such a way that the result is not something that exists in the middle ground between humor and tragedy but rather showcases the extremes of these emotions through the contrast surrounding them. The humor is made greater for the tragedy and vice versa. After reading a bit more on Alexie in interviews and other articles, I’m now contemplating the decision to write and publish his story as a work of fiction rather than an autobiography. Much of the book (perhaps more than half) comes straight from Alexie’s past; however, the work is still classified as fiction. I’m curious to hear what other people think about this classification. Is it a means of gaining freedom in writing or reaching more readers? And does this classification in any way reduce the credibility of the story as social commentary or can fiction be just as credible as nonfiction?

  2. Aw, man, I wrote a comment, and it didn’t post.

    Stone, I also agree that the juxtaposition of humor and tragedy is very effective in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” I think your question is really interesting, but I think in many ways it’s just easier to publish fiction, because if you were to write autobiography, you’d be bound by events that happen in real life, etc. I think that fiction can definitely serve as social commentary.

    “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” also does a nice job of articulating the tension that many young adults might be feeling about being true to a home culture that might not completely accept them, and accepting that proximity to whiteness is their ticket up the social ladder.

  3. Jenni Pfeiffer says:

    I loved both “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and “Brown Girl Dreaming.” I agree with both Stone and Shaina in that the story juxtaposition in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was very effective. I felt the story allowed a powerful and enlightening glimpse into the life a teenager torn between two different cultures and identities that were both important to him. As seen in the article, this book has touched many lives and serves as an anchor for students who may be going through similar experiences. In addition, I truly enjoyed the sketches throughout the text. I felt these personal drawings allowed me to closely experience Junior’s personal thoughts as his story played out.

    “Brown Girl Dreaming” was an absolutely beautiful and captivating work of art. The choice of words Jacqueline used to describe herself as a young writer allowed me to visualize her experiences. What I love about this book, is it can be used as a whole novel or individual poems. I pulled out one poem to use with a student I do intervention with and found it to foster rich discussion around the historical context, diction, and character perspective.

  4. Alice Wang says:

    This kind of subject matter requires a seemingly effortless mixture of laughter and tears. Sherman Alexie manages to deliver this, so that a funeral for Junior’s grandmother is just as full of outright guffaws as it is pain and distress. Alexie also knows how to wield a delightful one-liner. When Junior talks about cartooning as an art, he isn’t dinking around. I enjoyed the section where he explained that “If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.” If you look at the picture carefully, though, you can see the outlines of the real features hidden beneath the cartoony face.

  5. Ana Roche- Freeman says:

    I agree that “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great read Sherman Alexie does a great job of entwining humor with the tragedy.
    On the other hand, I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed reading “Brown Girl Dreaming “as I am not usually drawn to verse but Woodson made it so engaging and eloquent, I was immediately drawn in. Woodson’s passion for writing and words are evident throughout her memories and stories of her childhood, she allows us to think about the volatile period she grew up in from a very close and personal perspective. Her memoir touches upon so many topics relevant to readers young and older, such as family, separation, religion, friends and civil rights. She also allows us to see how she doubted herself in school, being compared to her sister and how she ultimately realizes that she is a writer. Verse and poetry can be intimidating for many readers, and I feel “Brown Girl Dreaming” could make it more accessible and enjoyable. Each verse no matter how short or long had a life, feeling and was a story of its own. I look forward to sharing the book with my students in the near future and with my daughter in a couple of years.

  6. Stone, as Alexie is from the Spokane tribe and there is overlap with his fiction as well as his own life history, I think that the book actually functions best as fiction. A lot of Alexie’s work has a similar feel, even as fiction, where it could easily be nonfiction. However, I think had he written the book as a direct autobiography and it had been published as such, it would lose some of its overall power of representing modern-day Native American realities. Much of the tragedy, humor, and culture that riddles the book does not only reflect Alexie’s experiences, but the experience of being Native American. For example, the comment in the book about two spirit people (how homosexuality is described in Native culture) and tolerance in reference to what he loved about his grandmother, is not a feature of just the Spokane tribe, but one of many Native cultures. Moreover, poverty, alcoholism, and depression are rampant on many reservations; and the depiction of the White characters intersecting with Native culture is a historical reality and present-day BIE school reality. As a Native American reader of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, while I couldn’t identify with being a Spokane Male, I absolutely got lost in the descriptions, the humor, the cultural references, and the tragedy. Although it was Junior’s story, there were parts where it very much so felt like my family’s story and the story of struggles modern-day Native Americans experience. The book perfectly and brilliantly captures so many dichotomies including, staying true to your Native roots and being “successful” within dominant culture, pain and joy, and tradition and assimilation. Although, this book shouldn’t be taken as the singular reflection of Native experience, I think Alexie does a masterful job of creating a funny and universally relatable book (re. its quips on adolescence), while also bringing up many important social issues and historical truths about Native communities and being Native. I could see this book being used as a gateway to many lively and cross-curricular discussions and activities in a classroom.

  7. Analiese Reigstad says:

    Like Stone, I also found the juxtaposition of humor and tragedy to be effective in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” This juxtaposition was particularly powerful throughout Junior’s reflections on his relationship to his world at home and his world at school. Similarly, I was especially struck by the tension that emerged between his feeling that he existed in both worlds while also belonging in neither at the same time. I think that this, coupled with the explicit challenging of stereotypes and racism throughout the book, made for a narrative that would serve as an equally powerful window and mirror within a classroom. I’m very curious to know– has anyone ever taught this book? If so, what kinds of discussions did it evoke?

  8. I remember how excited my co-workers at a literacy nonprofit were when “Brown Girl Dreaming” came out, and was not disappointed–I thought it was lovely, both unflinching in its depiction of family struggles and the civil rights movement and yet very tender. One of the most powerful examples of this combination of nostalgia and honesty was Woodson’s description of her childhood time spent in the South–haunted by the “ghosts” of segregation, followed around stores, and with their schedules given over to hitting the streets as Jehovah’s Witnesses, she and her siblings nevertheless feel a deep affection for the land and their Southern childhoods.

    It’s also interesting to think about “Brown Girl Dreaming” along with Alexie’s novel; the questions about form and fiction vs. memoir, as Stone brought up, come up in both. I thought it was fascinating that Woodson includes pictures of key players in her family at the end, although I wanted a picture of Maria!

  9. Bobby Dorigo Jones says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed both “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and “Brown Girl Dreaming”. I agree with what’s been said above by others – fictional or not, all great books are rooted in real, human experience, and we readers can learn a lot from either. To that point, I was especially struck by how Sherman Alexie managed to highlight the common humanity underlying us all without shying away from sobering and very real issues of poverty, alcoholism, and race, among other things, on an Indian Reservation. I’m reading The Outsiders for our class paper, and I notice quite a difference in how effectively the two books strike that balance.

    Also, I really appreciate how so many of the main characters we’ve read about so far discover themselves through creating – Arthur Spirit with his cartoons (and creating shots on the court!) and Jacqueline Woodson with writing.

  10. Min Hyun Oh says:

    “Brown Girl Dreaming” was like a literary onion. When I first began reading the book, I thought this book would be an easy read because of the brevity of each writing. But I eventually found myself rereading each line at various points–beneath the poetic, crisp succinctness, Jacqueline Woodson’s reflection on her past raised feelings that I would have found challenging, if not impossible, to capture, especially with such simplicity. Here are two pieces that I want to share:

    1) The link between “Words” and identity:

    “Dell and I look on
    afraid to open our mouths.
    Fearing the South
    will slip out or
    into them” (p. 69) &

    “when I speak, the soft curl of the South on my tongue
    is near gone” (p. 183)

    2) “Aunt Kay laughing.

    Aunt Kay hugging me.

    Then a fall.
    A crowd.
    An ambulance.
    My mother’s tears.
    A funeral.

    And here, my Aunt Kay memories end.” (p. 150)

    With that, I think the literary power of “Brown Girl Dreaming” is really embodied towards the end, in “how to Listen #7″: “Even the silence / has a story to tell you. / Just listen. Listen.” (p. 278). When you think about it, a certain level of silence undergirds the form and tone of this whole book. The free-verse form and economical choice of words leave a sense of silence–of words that have not been used, a pause that lingers after each piece. And I think listening, as Woodson requests, to the brevity and silence in each piece (like in the examples), amplifies the strength of her message and reminiscence of her coming-of-age and the lives that surrounded her childhood.

  11. I agree with the above, the essence of this book is happiness and sorrow. Junior has to fight for his own happiness at every turn, but every time things seem to be looking up, tragedy strikes. There are no real villains in the story, just life itself, throwing circumstance after circumstance at Junior. There is absolute heartbreak, with death upon death. But even the more mundane struggles can be overwhelming, such as the seemingly irreparable rift between Junior and Rusty. The conflict and resolution in their friendship is my favorite subplot of the book, though I also love how Alexie seemed to thwart convention in the winning dynamic between Junior-Penelope-Roger. Junior and Rusty’s emotions were raw and believable throughout, and the final few pages of the novel were a pitch perfect ending.

  12. Andrea M. says:

    I have to say that reading “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood” after reading “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was very enlightening for me. First of all, when I read the novel I didn’t know it was actually inspired in Alexie’s life, so my perspective on certain aspects changed.

    Second of all, I realized that many of the mirrors I encountered while reading (the power of expectations, working hard, letting people into your life, and recognizing we belong to different “tribes” at the same time), were those “weapons” Alexie talks about in his article, which help to incessantly fight for a better life.

    I think knowing that many things in the story actually happened to the author would definitely engage young readers because it would make them feel much more closer to Arnold and encourage them to tell their own true story. To what Stone asked, I don’t think fiction reduces credibility because it opens the door to talk about the hard truths addressed in the novel.

  13. This didn’t post the first time. Stone, I really appreciate your question of form and function. Although Alexie is from the Spokane tribe and there is overlap with his fiction as well as his own life history, I think that the book actually functions best as fiction. A lot of Alexie’s work has a similar feel, even as fiction, where it could easily be nonfiction. However, I think had he written the book as a direct autobiography and it had been published as such, it would lose some of its overall power of representing modern-day Native American realities. Much of the tragedy, humor, and culture that riddles the book does not only reflect Alexie’s experiences, but the experience of being Native American. For example, the comment in the book about two spirit people (how homosexuality is described in Native culture) and tolerance in reference to what he loved about his grandmother, is not a feature of just the Spokane tribe, but one of many Native cultures. Moreover, poverty, alcoholism, and depression are rampant on many reservations; and the depiction of the White characters intersecting with Native culture is a historical reality and present-day BIE school reality. As a Native American reader of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, while I couldn’t identify with being a Spokane Male, I absolutely got lost in the descriptions, the humor, the cultural references, and the tragedy. Although it was Junior’s story, there were parts where it very much so felt like my family’s story and the story of struggles modern-day Native Americans experience. The book perfectly and brilliantly captures so many dichotomies including, staying true to your Native roots and being “successful” within dominant culture, pain and joy, and tradition and assimilation. Although, this book shouldn’t be taken as the singular reflection of Native experience, I think Alexie does a masterful job of creating a funny and universally relatable book (re. its quips on adolescence), while also bringing up many important social issues and historical truths about Native communities and being Native. I could see this book being used as a gateway to many lively and cross-curricular discussions and activities in a classroom.

  14. Caryn Howell says:

    Like Nell, I was struck by Woodson’s descriptions of her childhood and then summers in the South; I didn’t want her to have to leave to go back to NY! Both Jackie and Arnold were wonderful narrators. I loved how Woodson used the free verse structure to tell the stories of her family, herself, and the world around her. It worked so well to hear her voice describing all of these things as she found her own voice, and discovered that words were her “Tingalayo” – and of course the readers knew this all along. And Arnold was so funny that I laughed aloud multiple times, only to have my heart sink the following page. With his humor and his cartoons, we were really let into his world and we could see how he dealt with and made sense of his life on the reservation.

    With the themes of identity discovery and collective identity in both books, I can see these texts being powerful in the classroom. As a history teacher I thought about how much better my Civil Rights Movement unit could have been with the addition of some of Woodson’s poems; in some the historical references are more subtle than in others, but what an engaging activity it could be to have students investigate some of those references to learn more about that era.

  15. Andrea, like you, I did not know The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was autobiographical until reading the WSJ article, so I was definitely interested in learning which parts were based on his experiences. In response to Stone’s question, I think that Alexie was able to draw upon his own story without being limited to it which perhaps allowed him to reach more readers and connect with a wider audience by writing “windows” in addition to his own “mirror.” So maybe the choice of fiction was able to extend the story as social commentary.

    Also, I think Alexie’s style of writing would be engaging for young readers. The language is colloquial and reflective of how a 14 year old may speak or write, and I remember enjoying books that broke traditional/formal characteristics. Additionally, the language is honest and direct, which I think has merit both in terms of being an engaging style and in terms of reflecting the immediacy of problematic themes such as alcoholism, poverty, and identity.

  16. Bonnie Tynes says:

    As I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, I constantly caught myself somewhere between tears and laughter- an interesting place to be. Katie, I couldn’t agree more about the style of writing and the tone of the book being perfect for adolescent readers. The diary format alone makes it relatable, but the language, humor, and raw honesty pull you in as a reader and beg you to keep going. Have you ever found someone’s diary and read a few pages? I bet you didn’t want to stop. And that is exactly how I felt reading this book. It was like a glimpse into a world that you’re typically banned from. The cartoons add another layer of human connection, and I know for a fact that many adolescents would find these to be the best part of the book.

    Additionally, the rampant alcoholism as a result of poverty provides a tragic and very real theme to follow for much of the text. These connections are important to make, and they would serve as the basis for some very rich classroom discussions around the effects of poverty in communities and individual families.

  17. Sophia Pompilus says:

    Last year, my 8th grade students read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as required reading for their English class. I recall my coworker stating just how impressed she was that the students were so engaged with the book and I can see why. As many have already stated above, Alexie did a wonderful job writing in a way in which the Spokane culture was portrayed, being sure to represent the struggles and the beauty, while also allowing for an outsider like myself to be both in the mirror and window.

    I thought of my own students who were majority Hispanic & Latino students, and how common themes such as poverty, alienation, success/failure, cultural identity and many more play out in their lives as well. Just as Junior struggled to make the decision to essentially offer himself up as a pariah on both the reservation and at Reardon High, many of my students are battling the same issues, contending between cultural expectations and personal goals. I thought Alexie perfectly captured the emotions aligned with both, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to uphold collectivist and individualist ideals.

  18. Catherine says:

    Bobby, I think your comment on the similarities you are finding between The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Outsiders is very interesting. It’s been some time since I read The Outsiders (and I have to admit it is not one of my favorites) but if I’m remembering correctly, there are definitely some thematic connections that could be drawn between the two books. I think both books portray the conflict that can arise when you pit loyalty to self against loyalty to others; loyalty to self can mean social betrayal, yet loyalty to others at the expense of self can suppress individual identity. I think this is something Junior certainly struggles with as he tries to find his place between two worlds. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, especially the way Junior uses dark humor to relate the raw truths of his life.

  19. Gardenia Xiaoyuan Ye says:

    I read through the comments and agreed a lot with what have been said about the Alexie’s book. When I first looked at the title, I also didn’t expect that I could resonate with the struggles and the most vulnerable but strong feelings of the protagonist, although we are so different. But I have to say that I was more surprised by myself enjoying Brown Girl Dreaming just as what Ana has felt and mentioned above. I read poems, but I have never been caught by an autobiographical story told in verse so much. Different from what Min has felt, I read through the words pretty fast, but had to pause now and then to digest my own feelings. I feel the short pieces of poetry were super strong (especially the second piece Min has cited about Aunt Kay’s death) and spoke to me most.
    I love the point Bobby has made about the characters developing creative skills along the flow of the book. Especially for Brown Girl Dreaming, writing is (the start of) the book (of course!), and the growth of Jacqueline into a writer marks the ending point of the book. Along with the chronological order of the poems, the gradual discovery and development of Jacqueline’s writing skills enables me to “grow” together with her.
    One interesting thing about Brown Girl Dreaming when I connect it to the discussion we had last class is that Jacqueline often makes up her stories and “tells lies” according to her mom, which makes her a not-so-reliable storyteller. Although I prefer reading most of the stories as real, I am curious if there’s anyone who has a different interpretation of her stories.

  20. Uttara Pant says:

    Bonnie- I completely agree- I was constantly laughing and then crying while reading Part-Time Indian. It really did read like a diary, full of all the feelings that young adults feel. Obviously Junior/Alexie’s experience is specific, in that it is about an Indian boy who leaves the reservation and then goes to an all white school, and so reading about this experience, that might be completely different from your own experience is important. But there were so many “relatable” elements- as you mentioned the big role alcohol abuse plays in his life. The way those parts were written were so matter of fact and true to how it plays out in real life. I really REALLY appreciated this.

    Like Gardenia and MinHyun and several others mentioned, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Brown Girl Dreaming. It was absolutely beautiful. There was a moment in the book when Jacqueline describes trying to sell the magazine to the old lady who couldn’t afford it and for some reason I was so moved by that description- I felt it brought together so many complex concepts of religion and giving and sharing and money and faith and was so amazed that this simple account could do so much.

  21. Rebecca Hawk says:

    I loved reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian! Many of my 7th grade students read this book as part of their independent reading. The above comments regarding genre and form and function make me think about how one might teach this novel. I wonder if it would be a useful book to use to discuss genre conventions and purposes or if that would feel confusing to students. Additionally, I have been thinking a lot about how a teacher might walk students through the books more profane parts gracefully. I think that the references to strong themes such as masturbation, alcoholism, and bullying are real and important for students to examine. I wonder if lessons that discuss these topics should be paired with health lessons or advisory curriculum. I also am considering how best to get families on board with books like this with such content in a public school context.

  22. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    I agree with what has been said so far about Brown Girl Dreaming. I haven’t had much experience reading books written in verse so this was a great way to see how stories do not always have to be told in the prose form that I am used to seeing. Ana raised a point about the possibility of verse and poetry being intimidating to readers. I think it’s because there are breaks where one doesn’t expect them- it takes some a few rereadings as Min mentioned to make sense of what has been written. For people who have taught, are books written in verse often included in the curriculum? Is writing stories in verse something students are taught to do in school?

  23. Sarah Mintz says:

    I really enjoyed reading both The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Brown Girl Dreaming. I appreciate the conversation above about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and how, despite being a work of fiction, it contains significant autobiographical elements from Sherman Alexie’s life. I think that the book’s autobiographical elements are part of the reason it works so well – Sherman Alexie’s personal memories and experiences really make Junior’s character feel real and believable.

    I was also struck by how both authors pushed the boundaries of their respective genres in various ways. As mentioned above, Alexie brings in a lot of autobiographical content into what ultimately is marketed as a work of fiction. Woodson, on the other hand, challenges the traditional expectation of what a memoir looks like by using free verse. Another aspect of Brown Girl Dreaming that I enjoyed was that despite the book being a memoir, Woodson explores topics and experiences beyond the scope of her own memory, such as the early poems about being born and life in Ohio. I think this would be an interesting topic to explore with students were I to teach this book in a class.

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