I needed Eleanor & Park

eleanorIn the past I’ve written of my love for the book Eleanor & Park. Other people love it, too, as seen in some awesome Eleanor & Park fan art. But there are some people who don’t love it so much.

This isn’t new news. Over a month ago the world was made aware that two parents in the Anoka-Hennepin school district started a crusade against Eleanor & Park. They were able to stop a visit by author Rainbow Rowell in the schools and in the Anoka County Libraries. For more information on how this came about, read the Rainbow Rowell interview at The Toast.

I’ve been stewing over this since I read that interview, and this article, and this one, and this one. It’s all over the news. But what is the most telling is reading the full report by the Parents Action League, the organization these parents use to strong arm county officials. You can find their full report and argument against this book on their website.

Besides the fact that they document how many swear words are in the book, making charts showing that the word “fuck” is used 35 times and “God” is used 67 times, what I found most interesting about their report is the information at the beginning. They give background on how they came to be aware that this book was used for a voluntary summer book club. Their 15-year-old brought it to their attention and they investigated. They state:

After being assaulted by 8 instances of “fuck” or “fucking”, 5 “shit”, 1 “dicklick” and 1 “bastard” in the first three pages of the book it was apparent that someone in the school district had a significant lapse in judgment by allowing this book to be put into the hands of our minor children.

This prompted us to spend roughly 10 hours reading the entire book cover to cover and documenting our findings regarding the content which we have included below. The amount of vile profanity used throughout this publication was absolutely astounding! Never in our 43 years have either of us ever read anything more profane.

Grammar mistakes aside, this is the most telling about the two people who brought this challenge forward. They are clearly not readers.

I say they are not readers because it’s hilarious that they think this is the most profane piece of literature. This book is so incredibly tame.

I like to read young adult literature. At least half the books I read are young adult, if not more. I love a good coming-of-age story where teens are faced with tough challenges and come out of them better and stronger than when they entered. I love a good piece of dystopian YA where teens take on the man because they aren’t yet jaded into thinking that they can’t fix injustices. Hell, I just love a good story, and I don’t care if that story involves teens or adults.

So as a person who reads a lot of YA, I can tell these parents that if their idea of profane is some silly swear words, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Swear words are extremely common in YA lit, and you know why? Because teens swear. I know it may shock these parents, but it’s true. On the school bus to and from school, students will hear more swear words in one day than they will read in this entire book.

I could easily name twenty YA books off the top of my head that are riddled with swear words. These books are probably in the Anoka-Hennepin school libraries, because they should be. Teens want to read stories about themselves. They want to see realistic portrayals of teenage life. And whether or not these parents want to admit it, teens swear.

They also fall in love, which seems to be another irritation for the Parents Action League. In Eleanor & Park, the two teens fall in love and kiss. And touch. But decide not to have sex.

Yes, that’s right, these teens decide not to have sex.

Here, again, is where this book challenge is ridiculous, because many teens do have sex, both in real life and in YA literature. I’ve read a book where a teen boy searches for girls to hook up with but not date. Where teens lose their virginity at summer camp. Where teens find solace in each other when everything else around them is crumbling. Yet the book where the teens decide they do not want to have sex should be called vulgar?

What makes me the most mad is that the teens in this book are so real and the Parents Action League wants to take that away from teens like me who needed a book like this.

I was Eleanor in high school, a chubby, insecure girl who bought into what I was sold about body image and beauty. Beauty was thin and thin is what you needed to be to be loved. There were very few people like me in literature and on television, so it was easy to buy into this construct. If we were in literature or on television we were the ones made fun of because we were disgusting. We were not worthy of love, at least not until we lost weight.

I grew up with “Married with Children” being a staple in my house. For some reason, my dad found Al Bundy funny, and he controlled the remote so I watched what he watched. Looking back on it, “Married with Children” was not something a 9-year-old should watch, but watch it I did, and whenever a large woman was on screen, Al Bundy made awful, horrible jokes about her, jokes that focused on her weight, because we women should be appealing to men, and being appealing meant we needed to be thin.

I needed more books like Eleanor & Park when I was young because Eleanor is worthy of love, even with her crappy home life, her worn clothes, and her chubby body. All of that doesn’t matter when it comes to finding companionship with someone else. That’s what Eleanor & Park teaches us, that above all the crap going on around them and the messages we are fed about beauty, they found each other and fell in love.

Isn’t that a message that parents would want their children to know? That no matter what we look like we are worthy of someone’s affections, someone that generally likes us for who we are?

I was so insecure as a teen, that I questioned or downright grilled a boy when he was flirting with me. Are you really flirting with me? Stop it, not me. Stop saying nice things to me. You’re joking with me, right? You’re pulling a prank on me? That’s nice, but stop it, because you’re clearly lying. I couldn’t accept that someone would actually find me attractive because I was not what attractive was supposed to be.

The parents who have started the crusade against this book are putting teens in a pretty, little, safe box, a box that doesn’t exist outside the minds of these parents. Every teen hears swear words every day at school. This is just a fact. Not every teen has sex or falls in love, but some do. These are the realities of the world in which we live. We are not the world of the “Brady Bunch,” a world that never existed when it was created and that doesn’t exist now.

Books like Eleanor & Park should and need to be on school library shelves for students like me. I needed Eleanor & Park as a teen. I needed to read it and I needed people around me to read it. Sadly, I know there are still teen girls who tell themselves some of the things I told myself as a teen, and they need to read it, too.