“Eleanor and Park” is a book by Rainbow Rowell about outcast teens who fall in love in the mysterious, bygone era called “the ’80s.” It was assigned to students for Anoka-Hennepin’s high school summer reading program, and some parents protested its cuss-tastic language.
That’s their right, of course. But when the Anoka County Library invited the author to speak — a $4,000 gig that came out of Arts Legacy money — some parents objected, and the appearance was nixed.
Hmmm. I haven’t read the book, but if lack of firsthand knowledge kept me from saying anything here, this column would consist of “Hmm, we’re low on milk” and other . . . there’s a word for it, hold on . . . oh. Facts.
Right. Well, I don’t have to read the book to know how much profanity it contains. Someone counted it up: 220 bad words, or “the first five minutes of ‘Raging Bull,’ ” to cite ’80s culture.
The literature of my childhood was not particularly profane. “ ‘Jeepers,’ thought Tom Swift as the lead pipe smashed against his skull for the 37th concussion of his young life. ‘That hurts like the golly-dickens.’ ” There was, as you can tell, violence galore; Tom Swift was knocked unconscious in every book.
By high school, the age-group at which “Eleanor and Park” is aimed, I was reading science fiction, where entire star systems were blown up. And of course the nonstop, hyper-muscled fisticuffs of comics.
Language is different, of course. Using naughty words desensitizes the user. Like hot sauce, you’re not content with a dab; you prove your authenticity and maturity with a fire hose of Tabasco. Good parenting means you subscribe to FCC regulations.
Around the house, if you bang your head in the corner of a cupboard door — the closest your head will ever know to what it feels like to step on Lego — you shout OH SHHhhhhOOT other-flubber, boy that smarts. Because there’s a little face looking up and taking it all in.
By high school, though, they’ve heard it. When I visited a high school last year, the language of the students was appalling. Or they had come from a class that studied in detail the problems of female dogs. The fact that they could use such terms with abandon in the public areas indicated that the administrators had ceded control of the language to the mob; there were other battles to fight.
But just because the words exist and are employed by some doesn’t mean all kids have to be exposed to them, especially in literature. Right? Except that the author has said she used the 220 bad words to prove a point about the people who use them.
As the book opens, Park is wearing earphones on the bus to drown out the language of the inarticulate dullards who couldn’t order a hot dog without inserting a zesty colloquialism between hot and dog. One of the abusive adults uses the words.
The kids, says the author, almost never swear. And they don’t have sex.
If you don’t want the kids to read the book, insist that they do. This doesn’t always work; if you find your child reading “War and Peace” you don’t slap it out of their hands and say, “I won’t have that revisionist Russian filth in my house! Napoleon was a great man!” But if you ban something, it’s enticing. Tell kids that the author of “Eleanor and Park” has been barred from the library, and they’ll nod, say nothing and google the heck out of her when they get home.
Or you can go to the lecture with your kid and ask a question about the author’s use of profanity, which will serve two purposes: A) your child will see an example of an adult who looks beyond the controversy to seek the truth, and B) your child will be mortified that you stood up and said something and want to DIE right there because, oh my gosh, did you have to? Everyone was looking.
Or, you could insist that no one listen to the author, and insist that the event be canceled, thus ensuring that every interview or story on the book for the rest of time mentions what you did, usually in the context of “Banned Books Week.”
Or you could not go to the lecture. This might be the toughest option, because it involves not finding the keys, not opening the garage door, not backing out the car, not driving to the place, not finding a place to park, not finding a good seat, not listening to everything, and not asking a question at the end. And then there’s the whole not driving home afterward and not stopping for milk, because you’re out.
Speaking of which, I need to go get some, because I’m low — and just as there’s a difference between swearing for shock and writing to reflect a world our kids inhabit, whether they tell us about it or not, that is a fact.