A book exploring first love, bullying and poverty was part of a reading program for Anoka-Hennepin high schoolers this summer. But some parents object to its “vile profanity” and have sought its removal from district libraries.
Author Rainbow Rowell said she set out to capture the wonder and the ache of first love in her young adult novel, “Eleanor & Park.” Other stark themes — bullying, poverty and racism — also shape the plot.
The book made it onto a New York Times bestseller list, and librarians in the Anoka-Hennepin School District chose it for “Rock the Book,” a voluntary summer reading program for high schoolers. But after a pair of parents read it, they objected that it is “vile profanity,” citing coarse language and sexuality.
Now, the novel is enmeshed in a controversy that dates to the summer, when an invitation for Rowell to speak was withdrawn and Anoka High School launched a review of the book after the parents sought its removal from the school. District policy calls for such a review if a parental complaint is received.
The book remains on school library shelves pending the review, which is being done by a committee of educators, parents and a student.
Rowell, who lives in Nebraska, was scheduled to speak in the district and at Anoka County’s Rum River Library in late September when her trip was called off in late August. According to Anoka-Hennepin officials, the Anoka County Library system chose not to finalize the contract for Rowell’s visit while the district was going through the challenge process.
“It may well have raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing,” said a district statement.
Anoka-Hennepin spokeswoman Mary Olson said this isn’t the first time a book has been challenged.
In 1997, an elementary school parent faulted the Goosebumps series as too frightening for small children.
In the 1970s, “Go Ask Alice,” a novel about a troubled teenage girl’s drug addiction, was challenged. In each case, the books remained in the schools. Olson said she can’t recall a book ever being pulled from district libraries because of a challenge. Still, the process must be respected, she said.
“We feel parents should be involved in their children’s education, to know what they are reading and studying,” she said. “If they object, they have a right to do that.”
Olson described previous book reviews as “a really interesting process and overall positive.”
In separate interviews, Rowell and the father who raised objections about her book discussed their positions.
“I definitely wanted to write a first-love story,” said Rowell, a former columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. “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.
“I was just thinking how powerful first love can be but how frustrating it can be. Your life is not your own at 16. You have parents that love you. You really belong to your parents at 16. That doesn’t mean the love you feel isn’t authentic or real.”
The main characters, Eleanor and Park, meet on a school bus in the fall of 1986. They connect over comic books and indie rock music. They hold hands, with Park describing the experience like “holding a butterfly, a heartbeat.” Their romance is sweet, yet at times breathless.
They kiss, make out and touch. They do not have sex.