True Love, Book Fights, And Why Ugly Stories Matter
Regular Monkey See readers know that I've been a fan for some time of Rainbow Rowell, whose first book, Attachments, was a thoughtful romance that utterly charmed me. (Full disclosure: It was after I began reading her books that I got to know Rowell a bit, enough that we actually met in person for the first time Tuesday night for dinner, ahead of her Wednesday night event at Politics & Prose in Washington, where she'll be talking about her new book, Fangirl.)
But it's news about Eleanor & Park, the book she wrote between Attachments and Fangirl, that had me fretting and frustrated this morning as soon as I woke up.
Yesterday, Rowell spoke to Mallory Ortberg at The Toast about the fact that the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota had canceled her upcoming visit to talk about Eleanor & Park, which school librarians had chosen as an optional summer read. Parents unhappy about the content of the book had persuaded the district, county board, and local library board that the book was inappropriate and that allowing her to visit to talk about it was likewise inappropriate.
I've read the report on the book that the unhappy parents put together, listing the profanity they found in the book as well as the passages that they objected to otherwise; you can read it here.
The book, which author John Green glowingly reviewed for The New York Times, is about two 16-year-olds who feel lost — because of bullying, because of abuse, because of race, and because of the simple tendency of high school to create a sense of powerless despair in an alarming number of kids. They meet, they fall in love, and being loved makes them feel less lost. That's what the book is about. They're both good, smart, kind, dear kids, ones who become so precious to readers that the mildly ambiguous ending creates great concern in those who do not choose (as I did) to believe they understand exactly what happens.
At the end of her conversation with The Toast, Rowell makes the point that the novel's purpose is hope, even in the most difficult and alienating circumstances. "When these people call Eleanor & 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."
Indeed, most of the ugliness that concerned parents found in the book is the result of brutal honesty about the obstacles Eleanor and Park are facing. It comes from Rowell's description of Eleanor's abusive stepfather and her angry thoughts about him, of the boys who make snide remarks about her body, of the gossips who make her and Park both miserable, and of the hostile social universe they're facing. The profanity by which the parents say they were "assaulted" in the opening pages is not profanity that comes from the main characters; it comes at them, the same way it comes at many, many kids in real schools.
In fact, Park's frustration with having to listen to what he calls "morons at the back of the bus," and his attempts to drown them out with music, is an element of his general, very human exhaustion with feeling that once he leaves the world of home and enters the world of school, he is connected to nothing. The relentless profanity of some of the guys in that scene specifically represents what Park finds so alienating. It represents their having nothing to say that Park can grab onto.
Kids will recognize that feeling, I dare say, and the irony is that if they have been raised by their parents to have a distaste for this language, they will recognize it even more. It is kids whose parents don't swear who will be the most sympathetic to the fact that Park doesn't enjoy the way the guys on the bus to out-cuss each other in their efforts to show off.
It's the same story throughout. There is vulgar language about Eleanor's body that's hurled at her because that's part of her battle; it's part of what isolates her. It's part of what makes her feel like she doesn't know what to do, and like she doesn't know who to talk to. (It apparently isn't a problem for the parents involved that Park gets beaten up.)
Ultimately, Eleanor & Park is an enormously optimistic book about love and connection, and about the capacity of people to be powerfully consoling and healing to each other, even when they're 16. And for that healing to be meaningful, there has to be some honesty about the injury.
It's true that Eleanor and Park, once they're in love, do some making out and clearly consider whether they want to have sex. Even this is too much if we are not supposed to talk about the fact that teenagers sometimes have lusty feelings on which they decide whether to act.
What's worrying about treating Eleanor & Park as a nasty book, or a dirty book, or an immoral book, is that it transforms talking about how to survive ugliness into something that's no different from ugliness itself. It makes the act of telling a story about rising above misery a miserable thing.
If sealing this particular book off from young readers tells them anything, I fear it will be, "If something like this happens to you — if people swear at you, or they call you a slut, or they make comments about your body — don't tell anyone, because talking about how hard it is to survive this is no excuse for letting any of these words or ideas or issues come out of your mouth."
Kids in school read books about sad and difficult things all the time. They read Animal Farm and Lord Of The Flies. Heaven knows they've read about some very painful deaths if they read the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books. Sometimes they even read about the complicated and sexy lives of adults — I believe I was 11 when I read Rebecca and 12 when I read Gone With The Wind. They will not miss the difference, in Eleanor & Park, between the behavior of the people they relate to and the bullies who make those people miserable. Hearing bullies swear will not make them want to swear. Hearing bullies torment Eleanor by talking about her breasts won't make them think that's what they should do. They will not want to emulate Eleanor's bullies any more than they want to emulate the worst tendencies they see in Lord Of The Flies.
Ugliness — honesty about ugliness — is important, because it gives shape and meaning to some important stories about not allowing it to swamp you. For kids who already experience difficult things and painful things, it seems like straightforwardly acknowledging that these things exist and hurt, sometimes a lot, is not going to tell them anything they don't know. If they take anything away from the story of these characters, it's unlikely to be the breaking news that there are bullies and jerks, and that sometimes they make you feel like there's nowhere to go. It's more likely to be the idea — novel, perhaps, and delicate, and critical if it is in fact new information — that the people you find who love you and care for you and wrap you up may matter more.