Powerful, realistic and honest, but not profane.
That’s the conclusion of a nine-person panel of Anoka High School parents, faculty and a student who deliberated the fate of the acclaimed young adult novel “Eleanor & Park.”
The parents of a high school freshman, partnering with the conservative Parents Action League, challenged the book’s place in school libraries, calling it “vile profanity.” They cited 227 instances of coarse language and sexuality.
But the novel about first love, bullying and poverty will stay on library shelves at Anoka High.
Anoka-Hennepin librarians chose the book for the district’s high school summer “Rock the Book” voluntary reading program. The ensuing controversy drew national attention when the school district and Anoka County Library withdrew an invitation to Omaha author Rainbow Rowell to speak about the book. It spurred a bit of a backlash in the Twin Cities. St. Paul Library staff chose “Eleanor & Park” for its 2014 Read Brave program for teens and adults as the controversy simmered. The St. Paul library increased the number of copies in circulation from seven to 39 as demand spiked.
Anoka High Principal Mike Farley selected and chaired the book review committee, per district policy. Farley announced their decision Friday.
“The group liked the book. They felt the writing was skillful. We talked a lot about the key themes in the book: bullying, poverty, abuse, love, body image and the power of language,” Farley said. “They felt the high school students would relate to the themes and be familiar with the language.
“We did acknowledge some of the language is rough, but it fits the situation and the characters,” he said. “If you did remove that, it wouldn’t be the same.”
Anoka-Hennepin Schools have never removed a book from library shelves, but several books have been challenged. A parent challenged the “Goosebumps” series as being too frightening for elementary students. “Go Ask Alice,” a story of teenage drug addiction, was challenged in the 1970s.
District leaders stressed the importance of following the process laid out in district policy. They said it’s about giving parents a voice in their children’s education.
“As superintendent, I am always very aware that our parents want to be informed in areas that may be controversial,” said Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson. “I know they want to be able to make informed choices for their children in areas of health, safety and curriculum.”
The book review committee, whose members’ names were not made public, included one father, two mothers, two teachers, a retired teacher, a high school sophomore, the school librarian and the principal. Farley said he notified the parent who filed the challenge this week. Under district policy, the parent can appeal the committee’s decision to the district office. So far, that has not happened, said district spokeswoman Mary Olson.
Parent Troy Cooper, who identified himself as the complaining parent to the Star Tribune in September, did not return calls for comment Friday. In a 13-page document, Cooper outlined his objections to the book. He cited 227 uses of profanity or using the Lord’s name in vain, including 60 instances of the “F” word.
“It’s is the most profane and obscene work we have ever read in our lives,” Cooper said during a September interview. “We are not looking to completely shelter our children but we are looking to preserve their innocence as long as possible.”
The conservative Parents Action League took up the cause, calling for the book to be removed from schools and for librarians to be disciplined. The group did not respond to a request for comment.
“There has been no discipline,” Olson said.
Set in 1986, “Eleanor & Park” concerns two high school students who fall in love on the school bus. They bond over mixed music tapes and comics. The novel, set in a poor Omaha neighborhood, explores poverty, bullying, abuse, racism and budding sexuality. The young lovers are honor students but misfits in the high school hierarchy. Eleanor is targeted by bullies and struggles with an unhappy and unsafe home life. The young couple kiss and caress. They do not have sex.
Rowell, the book’s author, got teary as she discussed the controversy at a panel about “suppression of young adult literature” at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul on Oct. 29.
Rowell, who also grew up poor, said she set out to explore first love.
“I was thinking about how, when you are 16 and fall in love, you fall in love with every cell of your body,” she said in an earlier interview. “I didn’t plan to write about poverty, bullying, domestic abuse and racism but they’re in the book. It just happens. … Everything I wrote about was something I experienced or I saw happening around me.”
She has spoken at schools across the country. Anoka is the only school where she’s been challenged, she said.
“If this book is too obscene to read, what is it saying to the kids going through that?” Rowell said. “The book is about rising above. It’s about two people who were not defined by this garbage.”
Farley said he plans to continue the voluntary summer reading program. The principal said he’d allow his high school-aged son to read the book.
“I did enjoy the book. I deal with this stuff every day working in the school with students. Did I think the language was rough? Yes,” Farley said. “There is some tough stuff in there, but a lot of the stuff our kids are dealing with is tough.”