Author Rainbow Rowell, who had her invitation to Anoka County schools and libraries rescinded amid controversy surrounding her young-adult romance novel, finally made it to Minnesota.
Rowell was part of a panel discussing suppression of literature at an event at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul last week. A crowd of nearly 300 applauded enthusiastically for Rowell and a group of Anoka-Hennepin schools librarians in the audience. The librarians are under scrutiny for having chosen Rowell's book "Eleanor & Park" for the district "Rock the Book" summer reading program.
Rowell, from Omaha, got a little teary discussing the controversy. She has spoken at schools across the country and said this is the first time she's been called out for profanity and sexual content.
"It was terrible and it happened in a very confusing way," Rowell said. "I felt very defensive of the book."
Her novel, which has received strong reviews from critics, explores first love and other themes including bullying, racism, poverty and abuse. She was set to visit Anoka County this fall, but the trip was called off when some Anoka High parents labeled the book vile profanity and formally challenged it. The parents found allies in the conservative Parents Action League, which also has called for the librarians to be disciplined for choosing the book.
The book challenge is ongoing. No book has ever been pulled from A-H shelves as a result of a challenge.
"This is not how you get someone to not read a book," said panelist Julie Blaha, who represents the challenged librarians as president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota.
The book is wait-listed at libraries across the Twin Cities. St. Paul Library has 39 copies in circulation and a wait list.
Set in a poor Omaha neighborhood in 1986, the book involves teen sweethearts Eleanor and Park, who fall in love on the bus. They're honors students but also misfits in the high school hierarchy. They make out but they don't have sex.
"The most explicit scene in the book is a hand-holding scene," Rowell said. "It is explicit: It's full-frontal and back hand."
Rowell said capturing the emotions of first love are what inspired the book.
"You feel so deeply but you have so little you can share," Rowell said. "There is a built-in tragedy at falling in love at 16."
The book contains profanity: 60 instances of the "f" word, 90 cases of using God's or Jesus' name in vain, and a handful of references to the female and male anatomy and sexual acts that cannot be used on prime time TV, according to a report by the complaining parent.
Rowell defends her use of profanity, saying that for kids growing up in rough neighborhoods, that's their reality. Rowell, who grew up poor, said that was her experience, and she points out that her two main characters frown on profanity. It's the book's villain and other antagonists who use it.
Rowell said her novel is about raising above the ugliness of their surroundings.
"Eleanor gets to fall in love in a beautiful way," Rowell said. "She rises above and makes good decisions."
Two Twin Cities high school students appeared on the panel, praising the book's realism and the way it portrayed teen love. It wasn't a gauzy, idealistic romance, they said. The main characters sit together on the bus, bonding over mixed tapes and indie music. The teen panelists downplayed notions that it was explicit.
"It's a very tame book. There are way more explicit books," said teen panelist and high school senior Payton Gerrick.
Panelists and audience members praised Rowell's book for having an interracial character. Park is half Korean and half white. They also praised Rowell's positive portrayal of men and boys in her novels.
"I have an agenda with all my male characters," she said. "It's important to write boys and men who are trying hard, who are good and who are respectful."
Even the bad boy male character turns good in the final pages thanks to the love of a good woman. But Rowell does a real-life warning about such a turnabout: "That man doesn't exist. Run from that guy. Danger! Danger!" she said.