The short story is that a group of parents in a Minnesota school district plucked some words out of Rainbow Rowell’s ELEANOR AND PARK and dangled them in administrators’ faces, and suddenly Rowell was disinvited from a bunch of events surrounding her book. It was one of the most absurd and perverse bannings in the whole absurd, perverse history of book banning, and having it happen in our state was a pretty big blow to the kidslit community in the Twin Cities.
ELEANOR AND PARK is one of those books that can help a teenager figure out how to live in the world, how to find hope no matter how hard things might be. It seemed the perfect book for the students of this particular district, which has suffered a history of anti-gay bullying and suicides—as surely the librarians who set up the events knew. Taking the book out of these kids’ hands was like telling them: No, you don’t get to heal. You’re all alone. Because we care more about keeping you from dirty words than in trying to comprehend your true experience of the world. Or, shorter: We don’t care what’s really going on. We’re not listening.
Enter stalwart librarians at the St Paul Public Library and Metro State, who arranged a series of events for Rainbow in St Paul this week—a panel on censorship, a book talk at a school, and a public reading. The SPPL also chose ELEANOR AND PARK for Read Brave, their citywide teen read program in February.
I got to attend the reading last night. It was packed with readers, including actual teenagers, none of whom seemed scathed by foul language. When Rainbow asked how many people had read the book most of the room raised their hands—everyone came because they loved the book so much they wanted to hear her talk. They were well-rewarded; she was so warm and real and spoke so eloquently about her characters and what she wants for them, how badly she wanted Eleanor to know that despite her current terrible circumstances there is hope. “Hold on to that person you want to be, because in a couple of years your life will change, and you get to start being that person.” It’s a message every teen could do to hear.
I had the honor of giving the introduction for Rainbow, which I’m posting below, because I love this book so much. I’ve given it to all of my writing students this semester—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better example of voice and character, and how to make your reader really live with your characters. That’s probably another entry. But anyway, this is what I want to say to the world about ELEANOR AND PARK:
Every once in a while, a book comes out that gets passed from one hand to another, and soon the imagination of the whole country is captured. Maybe that book is about a boy at wizard school, or it’s about a future world where teens are forced to battle to the death for public consumption.
Or maybe that book is the story of two ordinary 1980’s teenagers who sit next to each other on the school bus and slowly fall in love. In ELEANOR AND PARK, Rainbow Rowell has captured the public by making the ordinary extraordinary.
Eleanor and Park is a masterpiece of small moments— the gestures and glances and observations and words said and unsaid that make up a life. These moments might seem quiet on the surface, but the emotions under them are torrential, visceral, epic. Rowell understands; she allows these feelings great dignity. In telling Eleanor and Park’s story with such grace and care, she is telling her readers—see, these people matter. Their story matters. And you, you matter too.
Yes, the book tells us, the world can be a messy place, and yes, it can be unbearable at times. People can be thoughtless, selfish, cruel. But they can also be compassionate. Again and again in the book, we see characters making the choice to act compassionately, and it’s those acts of love and compassion that give the characters hope and see them through. And by choosing to be compassionate we too can make it.
This book is an extraordinary act of love and compassion from Rainbow to her readers, and I would give it to every human in the country if I could.