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Now, the novel is enmeshed in a controversy that dates to the summer, when an invitation for Rowell to speak was withdrawn and Anoka High School launched a review of the book after the parents sought its removal from the school.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.
But this isn't an idealized fairy tale.
They're both good students, but also misfits in the high school hierarchy. Eleanor's family feels desperately poor with a beaten-down mother and a volatile stepdad. She is targeted by relentless bullies on her first day of school, teased for her red hair, her quirky style (she cannot afford new clothes) and her size. Park comes from a healthy, loving family but being half-Korean in his nearly all-white Omaha school makes him feel like an outsider.
The novel is set in a poorer neighborhood. It is not autobiographical but Rowell did draw on some of her own experiences. She grew up poor and vividly remembers witnessing bullying and misery on the daily bus ride.
"I didn't plan to write about poverty, bullying, domestic abuse and racism but they're in the book," Rowell said. "It just happens. … Everything I wrote about was something I experienced or I saw happening around me."
Rowell says her book is for teens age 14 and older. As a mother of 6- and 9-year-old boys, she agrees that parents should have a say over what their children read and watch.
"I think parents get to decide these things. I am more strict than most of my friends. My two sons are sensitive to things violent or cruel," Rowell said. "It's the deciding for everyone that I find really shocking and wrong."
Rowell acknowledges that parts of her story are ugly. The villain uses profanity. The bullies use profanity. But for many students, that's their reality.
"If this book is too obscene to read, what is it saying to the kids going through that? When you are saying this story is too ugly to be read or told, its like telling the kids living through even uglier things, their stories don't deserve to be told. They don't deserve to be seen," Rowell said.
Rowell has spoken at schools and libraries across the country about the book. She said this is the first instance of controversy surrounding it. She gets a little choked up as she talks about it. The main characters are honors students who don't drink or smoke; they frown on cursing.
"The book is about rising above," Rowell said. "I think 'Eleanor & Park' is a happy, good story. It's about two people who were not defined by this garbage."
The American Civil Liberties Union has sided with her, condemning efforts to ban the book. "We are greatly concerned by removing books like this from the school libraries because they deal frankly and honestly with problems that teens face," said Charles Samuelson, head of the ACLU-MN.
Troy Cooper's daughter brought home "Eleanor & Park" for the summer reading program. Descriptions on the cover touting the book as a "sexy, smart, tender romance" and "funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, and sexy" made the father of three curious, so he and his wife read it.
Cooper said he didn't object to themes of bullying. What stood out to him: 227 curse words or use of the Lord's name in vain, underage drinking, drug use, hints of sexual abuse and budding teenage sexuality.
"It's the most profane and obscene work we have ever read in our lives. Neither of us have crossed that level of profanity in a book," Cooper said in an interview with the Star Tribune.
They are now awaiting the committee's recommendation on the book.
"We are not looking to completely shelter our children, but we are looking to preserve their innocence as long as possible," Cooper said.
"Our kids' brains are not done developing until their early 20s. Researchers are finding there are certain things our kids brains cannot deal with."
Put more simply, Cooper said, limiting the "garbage in" means less "garbage out."
"Our children's' minds are not trash receptacles waiting for the latest teen novel to come out," he said.
The Coopers, both 43, have found allies in the Parents Action League, a socially conservative group that in the past has criticized actions taken by the school district in its efforts to counter bullying and harassment of gay students. Cooper said they're not members of the league but found a supportive audience there.
On its website, the league outlines a series of demands, including that individual notifications be sent to all parents of children who participated in the 2013 Rock the Book summer read program or have checked out the book from the school libraries. The league also demands that the more than 70 copies of the book be removed immediately from the school libraries and "appropriate disciplinary action" be taken against the media specialists who reviewed and selected it for the summer program.
Cooper said he is a fervent advocate of the First Amendment.
"[Rowell] is, as far as I can tell, a decent writer who captures the minds of kids," Cooper said. "If someone wanted to take away her right to write this stuff, we would be out there fighting for her right. … Minors do not share the same constitutional right to access information that adults do."
Cooper said he knows about bullying. He was relentlessly tormented in elementary school, mocked for being thin and scrawny.
"I was traumatized. I was absolutely traumatized mentally and physically. It took a toll on my health."
His parents switched his schools. He has talked to his children about bullying.
"My kids know if they are ever on the giving end of bullying and it comes to my attention, it will be serious trouble for them," he said.
He is not trying to stifle that story of bullying but wants it told without the profanities, he said. And if that's not possible, he doesn't want it handed out in public schools.
"What is the function of a school, particularly our public education system that is being funded by taxpayer dollars? It's not to propagate this garbage. They are there to get a foundation in mathematics and fine literature," Cooper said.
He worries that having teachers hand out the book is in some ways endorsing the coarse language.
"Our oldest daughter was questioning, 'If this is so bad, why would an adult give this to me?' " he said. "This book would have been so much more effective and it would have connected more with me if they would have left out the specific profanities."
Cooper said the budding sexual relationship also troubles him. Cooper said he met his wife in high school but they waited to be intimate until they were married. He wants to pass that value to his children and worries that this novel sends a different message.
Anoka High Principal Mike Farley has selected a committee to read the book and recommend whether it is appropriate for high school students. The committee is made up of two teachers, one high school student, a media generalist and five citizen representatives.
Farley will present its findings to the parents. If the Coopers disagree, they can elevate their complaint to the district level.
Farley, who has been principal for six years, said this is his first book challenge. His goal is to be as objective as possible. In the meantime, the book remains on shelves at Anoka High. He said some students have discussed it with him. Students at nearby Coon Rapids High met during an after-school book club to discuss it, said Principal Annette Ziegler.
Both principals declined to share their opinions of the book.
"I want to go into this open-minded, unbiased and follow the process," Farley said.
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804