This week, I was planning to write on the unhappy phenomenon of banned books. However, every time I sat down to do this my thoughts went back to a year ago, when the attempt to ban a book I thought was wonderful played across the headlines of my own local newspaper. I wrote about the situation then: an author’s invitation to speak at a local library rescinded, her book removed from a suggested reading list in the second largest school district in my state of Minnesota. I was stunned – and ashamed – to think that this sort of thing would happen here, and it exemplified the need for everyone, no matter who and no matter where, to resist complacency and remain vigilant against provincialism and the sectarian bully pulpit of others working in the “best interest” of our children – according to their own narrow views.
So instead, after a few false starts and frustrated stops, I decided to simply return to the source and rerun the Gimbling that documented it in the first place: “Eleanor & Park, and Second Chances” that ran on November 3, 2013. It remains as pertinent – and as heartfelt – as it was back then.
I wanted to read Eleanor & Park to discover what all the fuss was about.
I have to preface this with saying that I love living in Minnesota. It’s vibrant, progressive, practical… for the most part. That’s why it really surprises and disappoints me when something that seems just wrong comes to light as happening here, in the state I happily call my home.
So it was highly distressing to me to learn that the Anoka County Library had pulled it’s invitation for Rainbow Rowell, the author of the teen fiction novel Eleanor & Park, to read from her work and give a talk, due to the objection of some Anoka residents. Apparently, the book had been on the summer reading list for high school students at the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where the first protests were lodged. The reason? Foul language.
Fine, it wasn’t required reading, just on the list. Parents should have some control over what their kids read. I might argue that forbidding something is not as effective as reading along and discussing with your child what you find objectionable, but that’s not the point.
What’s distressing is that the Anoka-Hennepin School District refused to pick up the speaker’s fee for Ms. Rowell’s talk (which actually came from public Arts Legacy funds, disbursed by the school), prompting the library to rescind their invitation. What’s worse is that the library did not respond when the author offered to come anyway, for free.
And all this all came to light during Banned Books Week.
After learning of this, I had to read the book. I had heard some buzz about how good Eleanor & Park was before this all went down, so I wanted to see for myself just what was so objectionable as to cause the second largest school district in Minnesota to treat an established author so shabbily.
Ok, so yes, there is swearing in the book. Actually, quite a lot of it – well, relatively speaking. Not as much as what I’ve read elsewhere, or heard in movies, or heck, heard on the bus or in the school parking lot, but more than a Disney film. And the main characters do swear, some. So I can understand why some parents may have been concerned. I don’t agree, but I can understand (after all, this is the area represented in Congress by Michele Bachmann).
But to cancel a public reading? No. The language in the book is not gratuitous, it is not there for shock value, or to glorify a lifestyle or a thuggish culture or anything like that. It merely reflects life. Real life. There is so much that this book has going for it – including an eyes-open depiction of the struggle that non-standard kids go through – that to censor a public discussion by the author of what allowed her to write the book, what impact she wanted it to have and what her motivations were for bringing this story to life is nothing short of reprehensible.
If you haven’t read the book, let me fill you in. Eleanor & Park is the story of two high school aged kids in 1986, in Omaha, Nebraska. Even though they come from very different backgrounds, neither one feels that they fit in.
Eleanor is the new girl at school. A year after being kicked out of her home, she has returned to her large, broken family, the eldest child of a battered mother and an alcoholic, abusive stepfather living way below the poverty line. Her fiery red hair and freckles – as well as her secondhand clothes and big, slightly pudgy, developing body – single her out for ridicule. To overcome her setbacks, she flaunts her otherness, by wearing bizarre outfits which include oversized men’s shirts (that also hides the broken zipper on her jeans, held together by safety pins), men’s ties wrapped around her wrist, and fishing lures threaded in her hair. Although a sullen student, she has a sharp intelligence that she does not mind using; she is enrolled in a number of honors classes. In fact, she enjoys the honors classes more, because the kids don’t make fun of her as much there as they do in the regular classes. But she is, by all accounts, different – something she hates but spends no time whining about. It simply is her life.
Park is the eldest son of a middle-class nuclear family. His mother is Korean; his parents met when his dad was stationed overseas. Park got the Asian look from his mom – short, slight build, dark hair, dark eyes, honey colored skin, whereas his younger brother takes after his dad, with a hulking physique and all American good looks. Since he’s lived in the same neighborhood his entire life, and his parents are successful (and embarrassingly still in love), he isn’t the target of ridicule, really, but his smallness and otherness does make him feel that he’s no longer a part of the groups that he played with as a kid. Besides, he’s intellectual and likes comic books and punk rock, and dresses all in black usually, so that sets him apart, too. Mainly, everyone leaves him alone, and that’s just fine with Park.
If it weren’t that Eleanor and Park ride the same school bus, this story probably wouldn’t have happened. Because Eleanor started riding the bus well after the cliques were established and the seats were tacitly assigned, she was immediately resented for upsetting the social strata simply by being there. Park, annoyed by his charitable urges but unwilling to put the new girl through the humiliation of having to stand while trying to ignore the taunts thrown her way, moves his stuff to allow her to sit (and hunch down) in the empty seat next to him. But that doesn’t mean he has to talk to her, or look at her, or even acknowledge in any way that she exists, either on the bus or at school. So he doesn’t, and she follows suit in completely ignoring him, as well.
It’s only days later, when the startling effect of her looks has worn off, and after she has shown herself to be an unapologetic free thinker in Honors English (which they both have together), and after Park notices that she, with a sideways stare, is openly but not brazenly reading the comic books that he spreads across his knees to peruse on the bus ride home, that things begin to thaw between the two. Before long, they start to see past the walls that each have erected around themselves, and the inner strengths of two very unique individuals is mirrored in the achingly beautiful way that they slowly and tentatively reach out and begin to relate to each other.
Author Rowell has written perhaps the best depiction of the joys and pratfalls of young love that I have read in a long time. She allows Park and Eleanor to revel in first touches, the anxieties of normal separations, the thrill that happens when simply glimpsing the other unexpectedly in the hallway. She is in no hurry to foist a physical escalation on this relationship, which is refreshing in this day and age of rushed intimacy. Neither do Eleanor and Park rush to get to know each other’s circumstances; much of their relationship is expressed through their utter thrill at simply being together, in fully existing for and with each other, and letting the discoveries come at their own pace, in their own time.
But life won’t let up, and the two are pushed into having to confront the forces around them that threaten to pull them apart – including those that lie within themselves. When Eleanor’s home situation explodes in a direction that exemplifies how ignored rationalizations and expected confrontations can be masking what really is, the two must make hard decisions that are both wrenching and heart breaking.
This book, which flits between Eleanor and Park’s internal dialogs in snippets and flow, is a masterful work that is a reminder of how life used to be to those of us who are long past high school and teen aged stress, and must be a catharsis for those in similar situations, even if less dire. In its strange and wonderful way, it is uplifting, even if the triumphs are muted by circumstance. (Isn’t it a shame that this so often is the case?)
Yes, at times the book is gritty and coarse. So is life. This does not make it less valuable, less true; if anything, its refusal to sugar coat its story makes it all the more remarkable and worthy of our attention. I hope that teens who are denied an opportunity to read this book by adults locked in purposeful deniability take it upon themselves to seek it out, and to determine for themselves whether it resonates for their own purposes and enjoyment.
Happily, the real life drama of author Rainbow Rowell and Minnesota did not end with the rescinding of the invitation to speak at the Anoka County Library. Other, more forward minded organizations (and dedicated librarians) stepped forward, and at the end of October, Ms. Rowell was invited to participate in a community forum on YA lit and kids’ right to read at Metropolitan State University, followed by a book signing the next night in St. Paul, Minnesota. According to reports, both events were well attended and the author was well received. A good time was had by all.
Even in real life, sometimes there are happy endings.