Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor & Park is a sweet teen romance with a bittersweet ending. You’d think a man in his 76th year would have better things to read than a story about 16-year-olds falling in love. You’d be wrong. I couldn’t put it down. Rainbow Rowell has a gift: she can transport adult readers back to high school and the first girl or boy they fell in love with. Her book’s effect on teen readers, its intended audience? I can only imagine.
But I didn’t read the book to re-live my teens. I read it because I write about banned and challenged books. Eleanor & Park is currently in the crosshairs of book banners in Conroe, Texas, where names and photos of teachers and librarians who voted against removing the book from the shelves of a high school library have been circulated by hate mongers hoping, apparently, to goad some righteous citizen into taking vigilante action — the subject of my previous You Can’t Read That! post.
How did a sweet teen romance novel, a New York Times bestseller and winner of multiple literary awards, enormously popular with young readers, come to be a target of organized book banners? How did Eleanor & Park wind up 54th on the American Library Association’s list of the top 100 most banned and challenged books in the USA?
In 2013, just one year after its publication, Eleanor & Park was challenged in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. Parents demanded it be removed from school libraries, claiming it was filled with “vile profanity.” Eventually, a review committee of teachers, librarians, students, and parents decided to keep the book in school libraries.
In 2017, the book was again challenged, this time in Chesterfield County, Virginia, where it was on a summer reading list for middle and high school students. The book banners called it “pornographic,” saying it was filled with “vile, vile, nasty language.” Virginia state Senator Amanda Chase endorsed their complaints and called for the dismissal of librarians who didn’t get rid of it. As in Minnesota, review committees from local to state level refused to ban the book, and school librarians kept their jobs.
In 2018, Eleanor & Park was pulled from an Oregon school district’s curriculum by the school board after parents complained about its use in a middle school classroom. The board later apologized for its hasty reaction and the process was turned over to a reconsideration committee. The book was retained.
Now, in 2023, it begins again in Conroe, Texas. One can only hope, once the furor has died down and the pitchfork & torch brigade has moved on to the next two minutes hate target, the adults in the room decide to keep the book in schools and public libraries.
Check out this unintentionally hilarious broadsheet being circulated in Conroe by Texans Wake Up, a right-wing group:
You can see the focus is almost entirely on profanity, to the extent of counting the number of times the word “fuck” appears on the pages of Eleanor & Park (62), and “pussy” (3), and “shit” (9). The name of Jesus is dragged through the mud 24 times, including such hair-curlers as “Jesus-fuck,” “Jesus F. Christ,” and “Jesus-fuck-sit-down,” never mind poor old God, whose name is taken in vain 75 times! Calling the Church Lady!
Is it worth mentioning that Eleanor & Park themselves, the 16-year-old lovers, don’t cuss? Those words come out of the mouths of other high school kids and Eleanor’s drunken stepfather.
And how about those two zinger quotes on the first page of the broadsheet, “I know you’re a slut, you smell like cum” and “Do I make you wet?”
Taken out of context, of course, and Texans Wake Up doesn’t even get them right. The actual lines are “i know your a slut you smell like cum” and “do i make you wet” — lowercase, unpunctuated, illiterate. One of the bullies going after Eleanor scribbles these and other crude sentiments on the brown paper cover of her history textbook. The mystery of those scribbles is a major plot line — who’s doing it, and why?
As for some of the “red flags” on the first page of the broadsheet:
Sexual Content/Pornography: Eleanor & Park are the most chaste 16-year-olds you’ll encounter in young adult fiction. They don’t kiss until halfway through the book, and by the end they’ve progressed to heavy petting in the back seat of Park’s mom’s Impala. There is no explicit sex whatsoever. I know pornography when I see it; this book ain’t it.
Questioning Sexuality/Crossdressing: Park’s dad thinks he’s a bit of a sissy for not wanting to learn how to drive a stick, and later gets mad at him for wearing eyeliner to school (Park’s friends, OTOH, think it’s cool). That’s it.
Bigotry, Racism, Fetishization, Stereotypes: I’m not sure where any of this comes from. The book’s setting is Omaha, Nebraska. Almost all the kids are white. Park is half-Korean and some of the other kids mistake him for Chinese or even Mexican, but no one calls him names or bullies him for it and he’s fine with who he is. Two Black classmates become Eleanor’s friends and protectors. There basically is no racial angle to the novel. Fetishization? Park likes Eleanor’s curly red hair. Is that a fetish? Only if you’re looking to make it one.
Like I said, Church Lady stuff. The people trying to make a thing out of Eleanor & Park probably grew up watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has infinitely more sexual, gay, racist, and violent content than anything in this book, and Satanic forces to boot. What has happened to their brains in the years since then?
I’m at the point of no longer bothering to read and review young adult books targeted by right wingers and religious zealots, because it always turns out this way: perfectly good stories, relevant to and loved by readers, attacked for out-of-context quotes or illustrations, for being sympathetic to minorities, for exploring aspects of history not taught in school, for having gay or lesbian characters.
The more they attack books like Eleanor & Park, the more will readers, young and old, seek them out. I’m encouraged by all the reports of teachers and librarians refusing to take targeted books out of classrooms and school libraries (Florida sadly excepted, but I think people there are eventually going to start standing up to their fascist governor). I’m encouraged by reports of students staging walkouts over censorship and starting banned book clubs. I’m encouraged by television, of all things, not just older shows with huge fan bases like Buffy, but newer ones on streaming TV with heavy adult themes (abortion, sexuality, violence, racism, unwhitewashed history), never seen on the insipid canned-laughter TV of my youth.
Books will prevail.