Bruce Barcott of The New York Times said in a 2007 review, "For 15 years now, Sherman Alexie has explored the struggle to survive between the grinding plates of the Indian and white worlds. He's done it through various characters and genres, but The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be his best work yet. Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home."
The New York Times opined that this was Alexie's "first foray into the young adult genre, and it took him only one book to master it." The San Francisco Chronicle praised it as "[a] great book full of pain, but luckily, the pain is spiked with joy and humor."
Reviewers also commented on Alexie's treatment of difficult issues. Delia Santos, a publisher for the civilrights.org page, noted, "Alexie fuses words and images to depict the difficult journey many Native Americans face. … Although Junior is a young adult, he must face the reality of living in utter poverty, contend with the discrimination of those outside of the reservation, cope with a community and a family ravaged and often killed by alcoholism, break cultural barriers at an all-White high school, and maintain the perseverance needed to hope and work for a better future." Andrew Fersch, a publisher for Vail Daily, commented, "most folks block out most of their teenage memory, [while] Alexie embraced it with humor."
In another review published in November 2016 by Dakota Student website, author Breanna Roen says that she has never seen the way that this book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, conveys so much happiness, love, and grief. Alexie's work in this novel can’t be compared to other Native American books; it is "a whole different ball game," Roen asserts. The review continues to state that the theme regarding identity, home, race, poverty, tradition, friendship, hope and success is seen throughout the entire book, leaving the readers on the edge of their seats and wanting more. Roen says that she could hardly put the book down and is avidly looking for something similar.
In the review, "A Brave Life: The Real Struggles of a Native American Boy make an Uplifting Story" published in The Guardian, author Diane Samuels says that Alexie's book has a "combination of drawings, pithy turns of phrase, candor, tragedy, despair and hope … [that] makes this more than an entertaining read, more than an engaging story about a North American Indian kid who makes it out of a poor, dead-end background without losing his connection with who he is and where he's from." In some areas, Samuels criticizes Alexie's stylistic reliance on the cartoons. However, she continues to say that for the most part, Sherman Alexie has a talent for capturing the details and overview in a well-developed and snappy way. Samuels finishes her review by stating that: "Opening this book is like meeting a friend you'd never make in your actual life and being given a piece of his world, inner and outer. It's humane, authentic and, most of all, it speaks."
In the review "Using The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Teach About Racial Formation", Miami University professor Kevin Talbert says that Alexie chose to narrate the story through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Junior to transport his readers into "uncomfortable or incongruent spaces." He continues to say that the novel's writing allows for topics about class and racial struggles to be intertwined with more common adolescent struggles like sexual desires, controlling hormones, and managing relationships with friends and family. Furthermore, Talbert believes that, unlike other Young Adult novels, this book captures issues of race and class in a way that reaches a wider audience. The article also states that Junior's narration in the novel sends a message to society, "that adolescents have important things to say, that being fourteen years old matters."
Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall, director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University, posits in his critical essay "Adding a Disability Perspective When Reading Adolescent Literature: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" that the book presents a progressive view of disability. Arnold has what he calls "water on the brain", which would correctly be referred to as hydrocephalus. Crandall points out that Arnold is never held back by his disability, but in fact laughs at himself: "With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road." According to Crandall, the illustrations by Ellen Forney, which are meant to be the cartoons that Arnold draws, represent a new way for the disabled narrator to communicate with the readers: they "initiate further interpretations and conversations about how students perceive others who are not like them, especially individuals with disabilities." Arnold's hydrocephaly doesn't prevent him from becoming a basketball star at his new school. His disability fades as a plot device as the book progresses.
David Goldstein, in his paper "Sacred Hoop Dreams: Basketball in the Work of Sherman Alexie", analyses the importance of basketball in the novel. He suggests that it represents "the tensions between traditional lifeways and contemporary social realities." According to Goldstein, Junior/Arnold sees losing at basketball as "losing at life." The Reardan kids are eternal winners because of their victories on the court: "Those kids were magnificent." Goldstein notes how basketball is also a sport of poverty in America — "it costs virtually nothing to play, and so is appropriate for the reservation."
Nerida Weyland's article, "Representations of Happiness in Comedic Young Adult Fiction: Happy Are the Wretched" describes how Junior/Arnold is an example of the complex, not-innocent child often presented in modern young adult literature. As detailed in Alyson Miller's "Unsuited to Age Group: The Scandals of Children's Literature," society has created an "innocence of the idealized child"; Alexie's protagonist is the opposite of this figure.
According to Weyland, Alexie doesn’t play by the rules – the use of humor in the book is directed at established "power hierarchies, dominant social ideologies or topics deemed taboo". Weyland suggests that the outsized effect of this feature of the book is revealed in the controversy its publication caused, as it was banned and challenged in schools all over the country. Weyland states that Alexie's book with Forney's black-comedy illustrations explore themes of "racial tension, domestic violence, and social injustice" in a never-before-done way. As an example, Alexie uses the anecdote of the killing of Junior's dog, Oscar, to expand on the idea of social mobility, or lack thereof – Junior states that he understood why the dog had to be killed rather than taken to the vet, because his parents were poor and they "came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people." Weyland notes how readers are likely to be uncomfortable with Junior/Arnold/Alexie making light of topics of such importance (racism, poverty, alcoholism) through the use of dark comedy.
Alexie won three major "year's best" awards for Diary, a biannual award for books by and about Native Americans, and a California award that annually covers the last four years. The awards are listed below:
- 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
- 2008 American Indian Youth Literature Awards. American Indian Library Association Best Young Adult Book. In 2018 AILA rescinded this award, due to many allegations of predatory behaviour.
- 2008 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Fiction and Poetry.
- 2009 Odyssey Award as the year's "best audiobook for children or young adults", read by Alexie (Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC, 2008, ISBN 1-4361-2490-5).
- 2010 California Young Reader Medal, Young Adult Book (eligible to win once during its first four years).
Diary was also named to several annual lists including three by the United States' library industry (not including being banned).
- "Best Books of 2007", School Library Journal.
- 2008 "Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults", Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).
- 2009 "Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults", YALSA.