A Chat With Rainbow Rowell About Love and Censorship

eleanorWhen Rainbow Rowell’s first YA novel Eleanor & Park came out this spring, people loved it. After John Green gave it a glowing (shimmering, really. Incandescent, even) review in the New York Times, even more people loved it. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, a New York Times bestseller, and it inspired a shocking amount of beautifully rendered fan art. I loved it, my mother loved it, my pregnant coworker loved it, my friend who “never reads YA ” loved it. You probably loved it, too. (Full disclosure: Rainbow Rowell is a friend of mine. She once mailed me a photograph of Alan Alda and also a postcard with a drawing of an oyster on it that said “The World Is Your Oyster” after I quit my day job, so I would even go so far as to call her a “good friend.”)

A group of high school librarians in Minnesota loved Eleanor & Park so much that they chose it as their school district’s summer read, giving all their high school students the option to read it – and invited Rowell to come visit the Minneapolis-area schools and the local public library this fall.

But there are some who do not love it, not even a little bit, not even at all.

Two parents, with the support of the district’s Parents Action League have convinced the Anoka-Hennepin school district, the county board, and the local library board to cancel her events next week – calling Eleanor & Park a “dangerously obscene” book, demanding that it be removed from library shelves and asking that school librarians be disciplined for choosing it.

From the National Coalition Against Censorship:

Until we got involved in the issue, Rainbow Rowell couldn’t be 100% sure she had even been disinvited. The teachers and librarians had showed great enthusiasm at the outset, but as the date of her visit drew near, she was given mixed messages about her contract there and eventually came up against a communications freeze. A parent had lodged a challenge to profanity in the book and asked that the librarians who organized the talk to be punished. They riled up an action group (with experience in censorship) to organize against the author at the level of the County Board. The order came down. The talk was nixed and librarians were asked not to speak on the topic.

By mid-August, it looked as though the school visit would have to be cancelled – Rowell’s literary agent received a note informing her of the official challenge – but that it would still be possible for her to attend an event at the public library.

Then these concerned parents took the fight to the county board (“Too hot for teens or taxpayer money,” according to the Watchdog Minnesota Bureau), and that was the end of things. Right, as it happens, in the middle of Banned Books Week, which I found too delicious and infuriating to pass up, and begged Rainbow to let me talk to her about it. She begrudgingly agreed.

Rainbow! Hello! Thank you for changing your mind about this!

Mallory! Hi!

What I find most amazing about this is that it only took (as best as I can tell from what I’ve been able to dig up) a handful of insufficiently-gruntled parents to override the wishes of local students and librarians. There’s the guy who went through your book and counted all of the swear words (220, give or take), and the original complainant, who sent in a thirteen-page review to the Parents Action League (which is a good twelve pages longer than your NYT review). That it wasn’t enough for them to cancel your visit; that they’re still trying to get your book out of the libraries and punish the librarians who recommended Eleanor & Park in the first place. Such power! 

It sounds like most of this hadn’t really reached you, had stayed fairly internal, until just a few weeks ago, once the debate reached the county board. 

Yeah, that’s when things got really weird and awful. (At least for me.) After this county board meeting, my agent got a call saying that my contract (which they’d had for months) hadn’t been accepted.

We weren’t sure what that meant. For a while, I thought I was still coming for the events, but wouldn’t get paid. Which would be fine. I agreed to come before I knew about the money. I normally don’t charge for events – though I don’t think it’s wrong to charge, and if a place offers me something, I take it. (Ed. note: According to the Watchdog, “Anoka County Libraries agreed to collaborate and cover the author’s $4,000 stipend with taxpayer money from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund,” so none of Rowell’s fee would have been taken from school or library funds.)

But then everyone in Minnesota stopped talking to us. I eventually found out from the National Coalition Against Censorship that the public library board met and decided that my public library visit was not “considered appropriate.”

At what point was it made clear to you that your invitation to speak had been rescinded? Did anyone from the district attempt to explain the reversal or apologize for it?

That wasn’t clear until to the National Coalition Against Censorship got involved – at another parent’s request. I still don’t really know what’s going on, but I’m not mad at the librarians.

It doesn’t sound like the librarians had much say in the matter once the board stepped in.

I think this must be miserable for them. They all read my book and decided to share it with their students – that’s what they do for a living; they’re professionals – and then this happens.

This is the same county that Rolling Stone described as waging a “war on gay teens,” yes?

Yeah. (That Rolling Stone story is so heart-wrenching, I couldn’t even get through it.)

The Parents Action League, the people who objected to Eleanor & Park, was actually formed in response to a district policy about discussing sexual orientation in the schools. You can read more about the Parents Action League here. And you can see their alert about my book here. Normally the group takes on books with homosexual content, which Eleanor & Park doesn’t really have. (Though my other books do.)

One of the most horrific parts of their challenge was that they asked that the librarians who chose my book be officially disciplined.

Can you tell us a little bit about Eleanor & Park, for our readers who might not be familiar with the book or its themes? What elements did the Parents’ Action League object to in particular?

Sure. Eleanor & Park is set in 1986. It’s about two 16-year-olds who fall in love on a school bus. The story is told from both of their points of view. Eleanor, a chubby redhead, is the new kid at school, and she’s facing some pretty intense bullying. Also, she has a terrible, abusive stepdad, who makes life at home miserable. Park’s home life is pretty good – his parents love him and each other – but he’s one of the only Asian kids at school, and he listens to bands no one has heard of, and he feels like a misfit, even inside his own house.

So Eleanor and Park fall in love. Unexpectedly. And intensely. And they both feel saved by that love.

The Parents Action League is mostly responding to the cursing in the book – there’s a lot of it.

But it’s so bizarre to me that they’re objecting to the cursing because Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear. I’m not anti-profanity, personally, but I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are. The very first line of the book is:

XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.

Park pressed his headphones into his ears.

He’s trying to block out the profanity! And Eleanor hates that her stepfather curses so much. She complains about it throughout the book.

There’s also some pretty vulgar sexual language that the parents have objected to: Someone harasses Eleanor by writing gross things on her school books. It’s one of the more traumatic things that happens to her.

The parents who objected have also said the book is pornographic; there are a few kissing scenes with the two main characters. Nothing too explicit, and Eleanor and Park decide not to have sex yet.

Do you have any idea how successful the campaign against the book has been? Is there anyone in Anoka County fighting to keep Eleanor & Park on the shelves?

I really don’t know. I know the group has demanded that my book be removed from the schools. And I know that the National Coalition Against Censorship plans to fight that, as part of their Kids’ Right to Read Project.  My hope is that Eleanor & Park stays in these libraries – and that I eventually get to visit Minneapolis/St. Paul for some sort of book conversation.

I think for a lot of adults who are no longer in school, who have left the towns they grew up in and been safely ensconced in a Big City Somewhere, it can be easy to dismiss stories like this as tempests in a teapot. Censorship seems to some of us so silly that we forget how important it is for kids in isolated or rural areas to have access to different thoughts and ideas, that “the Internet” isn’t the magical cure to all their problems until they turn eighteen and get to leave. Because sometimes they can’t leave, or don’t want to, but their choices still matter. 

Right. I mean, that’s me. I grew up in a city, Omaha, that’s even smaller than Minneapolis and not that far away. The Midwest isn’t someplace I’m trying to escape – it’s where I’m raising a family. I hate to think that intellectual freedom is something we fight for only in certain parts of the country.

Kids here have the right to read. They have the right to think and imagine. To see their own world in books. To see other worlds in books.

I respect these parents’ decision to not let their own kids read my book or hear me talk. But it really shocks me that they’ve been able to make that decision for the whole school district.

Has anything like this happened to you before? Have any of your books been challenged or censored at a school-wide or district level? Have you gotten complaints or criticism about the type of content you write for young adults?

No. I mean, this is my first young adult book. But it’s been really well-received by teachers and school librarians. A few other schools across the country also chose it as a summer read, which has been really cool. And the book won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for excellence in children’s literature.

I feel like I should say that my book is considered “sophisticated YA,” for teens/people 14 and up.

You’re very sophisticated, Rainbow.

Thank you, Mallory. It’s true

You initially didn’t want to talk publicly about this; can you explain why? And what changed your mind?

Well, you changed my mind. When you pointed out that this isn’t really about me. It’s about the students at these schools, who already read my book or might like to – or might like to read other books that reflect their real lives.

When this all happened last month, I was really upset by it. (I still cry when I talk or type about it.)

Pause as Mallory hands Rainbow a tissue through the monitor.

Because the characters are so close to my heart, and everything about this campaign deliberately misses the point of Eleanor and Park’s story.

When I told my sister that some people (Ed. note: or, you know, “one guy”) were outraged by the language in my book, she said, “They should try living through it.”

And that’s just it. Eleanor & Park isn’t some dystopian fantasy about a world where teenagers swear and are cruel to each other, and some kids have terrible parents.

Teenagers swear and are cruel to each other. Some kids have terrible parents.

Some girls have terrible stepdads who shout profanity at them and call them sluts – and some of those girls still manage to rise above it.

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.

[Image used with permission from Simini Blocker]

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