Last spring at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I attended the workshop, “What is Voice? Definitions and Tools to Understand and Craft Voice in Your Writing.” The presenter, Brett Duquette, did an excellent job of defining “voice” and detailing ways to develop it in writing. He also gave a list of “required reading” for voice and one of the books I especially loved was, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. The main character, Arnold Spirit Jr. is a fourteen-year-old Indian living on a reservation, who was born with “water on the brain”, grew ten extra teeth, stutters and has a lisp. He also has the most engaging voice I have read in a long time. Early in the book, after telling how skinny he used to be, he goes on to say,
“But my hands and feet were huge. My feet were a size eleven in third grade! With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.”
Life on the reservation was hard for Arnold and his speech difficulties made it even harder, as you’ll see in the following passage:
“You wouldn’t think there is anything life threatening about speech impediments, but let me tell you, there is nothing more dangerous than being a kid with a stutter and a lisp.
A five-year-old is cute when he lisps and stutters. Heck, most of the big-time kid actors stuttered and lisped their way to stardom.
And jeez, you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.
After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.
. . .
Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?
We get beat up.
At least once a month.
Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-Of-the-Month Club.”
This book, based on the author’s own experiences, is beautifully written. Alexie’s humor makes his insights all the more striking. And the illustrations by Ellen Forney are inspired. She depicts the cartoons Arnold creates throughout the story. At the end of the first chapter, Arnold speaks of these drawings,
“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”
I think he is right about the world where many of my students live. I also think we all – speech therapists, teachers, parents and writers – can build a variety of lifeboats through compassion, encouragement, instruction and by each using our own voice.