Allison's Book Bag

Should Teens Read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell?

Posted on: March 21, 2014

Should we invite her?

This past fall, a group of high school librarians in Minnesota chose Eleanor and Park as their school district’s summer read and invited author Rainbow Rowell to visit the Minneapolis-area schools.

Should we not invite her?

Later that fall, two parents gained the support of the district’s Parent Action League in their request to the Anoka-Hennepin school district, county board, and local library board to cancel the visit. Moreover, they asked for Eleanor and Park to be removed from the library shelves. Furthermore, they wanted the school librarians disciplined for daring to arrange a visit from Rainbow Rowell.

Who won?

The Anoka County Library not only pulled its invite but the Anoka-Hennepin district declined to pick up the speaker’s fee the library had offered. In addition, neither responded to Rowell’s offer to come for free.

If all this happened in 2013, why am I reporting on it? Because I’m reviewing Eleanor and Park this Saturday.

Let me take a step back though and present the complaints lodged against Eleanor and Park. My information comes from these articles:

Two-hundred and twenty-seven offending words were listed in the report compiled by the Parents’ Action League. This included 67 Gods, 24 Jesuses and 4 Christs. The F bomb and its various iterations was also used.

Their report also condemned the content, which they considered as age inappropriate. For example, Eleanor and Park includes topics such as underage sex and drinking, pornography, and sexual abuse. The Parents Action League labeled Eleanor and Park as obscene and profane. Over all, they view the book as too controversial for a teenage audience. One county board member said she got a few chapters into the book and “literally could not finish it. It was disgusting.”

Erin Grace of The Omaha World Herald takes the stand instead that the shocking words are used primarily by objectionable people such as school bullies and an abusive stepfather. She adds that the controversial words are “symbols of the sometimes harrowing world of high school and the always terrifyingly uncertain world of poverty and abuse”. Through Grace, I also learned that Rowell herself had grown up in poverty and struggled to rise above it.

As for Rowell’s own reaction?

  • About the profanity: The main characters don’t feel comfortable with swearing and rarely do.
  • About the bullying and abuse: Teenagers swear and are cruel to each other. Some kids have terrible parents who shout profanity at them and call them names but who still manage to rise above it.
  • About other content: Eleanor and Park don’t smoke or drink or do drugs. They decide not to have sex.

“When these people call ‘Eleanor and Park‘ an obscene story, I feel like they’re saying that rising above your situation isn’t possible. That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn’t even fit for good people’s ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.”

Even so, Rowell adds that she respects the decision of parents who don’t want their kids to read Eleanor and Park or to hear her speak. What surprises her more is that they made the decision for the whole school district.

But then, doesn’t this get at the heart of censorship? Ultimately, aren’t we all trying to decide in these battles is who gets to make the choices? Do people get the right not only to choose for themselves (and their families), but also to choose for everyone else what can be read, listened to, or viewed?

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