I'm not generally a big fan of adult writers writing for kids. Oh, sure, some writers are just terrific writers, but too often when a writer known for his/her work for adults writes for kids, s/he just starts talking down to them or otherwise annoying me. (And, yes, this is all about me, isn't it?) So while I'm perfectly happy to read Adam Gopnik's New Yorker essays (some more than others, but we're not going there today), I thought The King in the Window needed at least one more editorial pass and maybe more help than that. And we won't even speak of Patricia Cornwell, whose picture book (which seems to be mercifully out of print) is a permanent blight on my daughter's generally happy memories of elementary school.
All of this is just to say that I didn't have the highest hopes for Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I like his short stories, which is really all of his that I've read before, but they didn't tell me he'd be a natural for writing for kids.
He is. The voice in The Absolutely True Diary is right on: smart, funny, sad, right in tune with the ups and downs of adolescents. Junior (also known as Arnold) is a completely compelling character, one I'd follow through any number of stories. This particular one is terrific. Junior, a Spokane Indian, lives on the reservation, where he has already been to forty-two funerals. Poverty, death, and alcohol mark his life, but so do curiosity, determination, and talent. Junior's a cartoonist, a basketball player, and a kid who realizes that he's worth more than his surroundings are telling him. To say any more would be to spoil a great read, so I'll stop here.
Oh! But the illustrations by Ellen Forney--representing Junior's cartoons--are also great; they're a big part of what makes this book work so well. It's not a graphic novel, but the illustrations are integral to the story. Well done all around, then.
For more Alexie, you can read interviews with him here and here.
(Review copy source: I read a library copy of this book and then went out and bought my own. That's how good I thought it was!)