Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Salon: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This week it was the American Library Association's Banned Book week. I don't think I ever fully understand when people decide that they want to ban a book completely unless there are very good, and very serious, reasons. Of course, seriousness may be in the eye of the beholder but often I look at books that are on the banned book list and shake my head in bewilderment. I respect the right of a parent to say I don't want my child to read a specific book but I don't actually see why they should be able to say that no child should be allowed to read this book. Of course, I am happy if I ever see my son reading any book! It doesn't happen often.

There are several on the banned book list that I have read, both when I was young (back in the day) and as an adult and I struggle to see what reasons there are for them being banned.  I find myself wondering about the people who raise the challenges on books. For example, I see that one of the books that has been challenged that I read earlier this year was Looking for Alaska by John Green which has been challenged because of the language and sexual nature of a couple of scenes.

As a parent of a 15 year old boy, I get how those scenes could be shocking, mainly because I am in denial of the fact that my child could be old enough to be doing that kind of thing. Having said that, I also remember that I was once 15, 16, 17 years old and I know what I was doing. Is it fair for me to say to him, you can't do X and you certainly can't read about Y? Probably not. What I can do is hope that I have taught him to to be safe, to be respectful and to wait until the time is right. Of course, I would prefer him not to be sexually active yet, and I don't think he is, and I am certainly not going to facilitate those kinds of activities, but I am also not so naive as to not remember what teenagers and people in their early twenties get up to. 

Even in terms of language, he is still young enough to pretend to be shocked when I swear in front of him, but I hear him when he is talking to his buddies on Xbox so I hear what is being said and not said, and have been known to pull him up if I hear something being said that I don't like. That is usually more along the lines of insults to his friends rather than bad language though. In front of me, and more importantly, in front of others adults he doesn't curse and mostly talks respectfully when he talks at all.

Part of the reason I find this whole challenging and banning of books a little confronting is that it doesn't seem to be a part of our culture in the same way as it seems to be in America. That doesn't mean that there aren't any books that are banned (click here for a list of books banned in Australia) but when they are they tend to be about big issues like euthanasia and illicit drugs. It also doesn't mean that there aren't times when there isn't an outcry about books being included or excluded on school lists. It just doesn't seem to be quite so prevalent or vicious when it happens.

What prompted me to write this post though was the news that Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell was recently challenged and a visit by the author cancelled as a result. I read this book not too long ago and absolutely loved it but never had gotten around to reviewing it, so I thought that today I would try and express what it is that I loved about this book and why I think it is important that it be accessible to its target audience.  For more posts about this issue click on the following links at ToastMonkey See and Bookriot

Put very simplistically Eleanor and Park is the story of two teenagers who find themselves forming a relationship over a period of time based on a shared love of comics, mix tapes and more. It is set in 1986 and so the setting was a huge part of the charm of this book for me as the music, fashion and pop culture references were extremely familiar to me and many of them had some meaning to me as I was in the later years of high school myself at that time. 

While that sense of 80's nostalgia would have been enough to make this a totally enjoyable read, it was the depth and characterisation which meant that this book was a 5/5 read for me.

Park is a mixed race Korean/American boy in the predominantly white Omaha community that he has grown up in. Whilst he has not been overtly bullied, he is very much conscious of the fact that he is different, an outsider. This is true not only at school, but also at home. Whilst he knows that both of his parents love him, he feels that he is something of a disappointment to his all American dad because, unlike his brother, he is not sporty at all and he is quite nerdy. The portrayal of mixed race characters is something that I often like to read simply because I am the mother of a half African kid, and it is something that I am a little sensitive to I guess. As far as I know he has had very few issues when it comes to racism and the like, but I am conscious that it is possible that it could start at anytime. The fact that he has an African name and is clearly mixed when you look at him belies the fact that he pretty much has had a very Aussie upbringing.

When Eleanor first catches the school bus, it is impossible for Park not to notice her. Not only is she new but she is large, wearing strange clothes and has vibrant red hair. Everyone has their set place on the school bus and as she walks down the aisle she is shunned by the other kids, until Park moves over to allow her to sit next to him. 

Park is aware of his own perceived place as an outsider so he is not going to emphasise that by being friends with someone who is even more outside than he is, and so they travel in awkward silence until he realises that she is reading his comics over his shoulder.

For Eleanor riding the bus with Park and reading the comics gives her access to a world that is far away from her own existence. She is the product of a broken home. Her father has married again and has a new life which doesn't really include his children from previous relationships and Eleanor's mother has also remarried. Her stepfather is a horrible man who kicked Eleanor out after she answered him back. She has only just returned home after a year of living with friends and she is determined to not be separated from her siblings again so she tries to be as invisible as she can be to him. There is never any money, mainly because the stepfather drinks it all away. Eleanor's once beautiful mother is a shadow of herself and Eleanor has to make do with thrift shop clothes which she decorates however she can to cover the holes and stains.

From the tentative start of the relationship which begins with talking about comics, Eleanor and Park go on to talk about music and eventually become friends which slowly builds into an unlikely attraction. As most teenage relationships are, the attraction is all consuming, to the point that just holding hands has the two of them almost in flames, and the intensity is almost palpable to the reader.

Park knows that Eleanor is unhappy at home, and has his own demons to deal with, but his sensitivity to her is a beautiful thing to read. In fact, by the end of this book I was wishing that I could find a Park of my own, who could look beyond the larger body that I currently have and see that underneath there is a fundamentally decent person who just wants to be loved as much as the next person. I always feel a bit awkward crushing on 17 year old boys even if it is just in a book (hello Etienne St Clair!) so I was very excited when I realised that it was perfectly reasonable in this case, because hey, we would totally be the same age right now!

The reasons why this book have been challenged include language and for being too sexually explicit. In relation to the first reason, most of the derogatory language in the book is actually directed at the two main characters, specifically in the form of the bullying that Eleanor receives at school and also from her stepfather. I could relate to the home aspects more than the school. At school I don't think I would classify myself as having been bullied, because to be honest, people would have to have noticed me in order to do that, but I certainly never fit in anywhere, whether it be because my clothes were never right or my hair was wrong or whatever. My stepfather was not abusive in the same way as Eleanor's was but he was in a different way, and it leaves scars even now.

One of the reasons why I do think that this is an important book is that over the years I have spoken to many people, including those I would consider to have been popular and yet the vast majority of them talk about feeling like outsiders at some point or the other. There are very few people I know who talk about having a happy childhood, and then teenage years and then onto adulthood. How then, if so many people feel ostracised at some point or another, does reading about perfect kids in perfect environments help people know that they are not alone in their own issues? Do the people who challenge on these grounds really live perfect lives? I must confess that when I think about who these people might be I see them as being beautiful, thin people who live very comfortable middle to upper class lives and have perfect families - at least superficially. Of course, that is me putting my own judgements on them.

In terms of the sexuality, I loved the way that Rowell portrayed the gradual build up of the attraction between these two very different characters. As I mentioned before, the tension between the two of them was intense even when they were just holding hands. Without spoiling, there is sexual exploration but it is not 'okay, let's jump into bed straight away and go for it and then do it again, and again" but rather the gradual exploration of their growing sexual awareness and for a book that is being challenged for the sexual nature it might be a bit of a surprise that there is no actual intercourse. It is not rampant promiscuousness and it is not distasteful and it is totally right for the two characters and the development of their relationship in this book.

Obviously I am a little biased when it comes to this book because I did love it a lot, but it explores important issues in a sensitive and balanced way. It had me reminiscing about my own awkward teenage years and lamenting my own loneliness, both then and now. I laughed, I cried and I would be more than happy to revisit these characters and their stories.

Oh, if anyone has a spare Park lying around somewhere, let me know!

Rating 5/5


Eleanor is the new girl in town, and with her chaotic family life, her mismatched clothes and unruly red hair, she couldn't stick out more if she tried.

Park is the boy at the back of the bus. Black T-shirts, headphones, head in a book - he thinks he's made himself invisible. But not to Eleanor... never to Eleanor.

Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall for each other. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you're young, and you feel as if you have nothing and everything to lose
Current Read

Songs of Willow and Frost by Jamie Ford, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and listening to A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin

Up Next

No Place Like Home by Caroline Overington


  1. I loved this book, too. I've never understand the outrage over books that portray human sexuality, especially in such a real, sensitive way as it's done in E&P. Why do parents want their children to be protected from the reality that sex exists and these feelings are normal? I think there is an appropriate age to talk about these things and you don't want to go into too much detail too early on, but if you're waiting until your kid is a teenager to admit to the existence of sex then you are way, way late. A lack of education about sex is dangerous, not the other way around. And yet these same parents are quite willing to let their kids 'normalize' completely NOT OKAY things like blowing people up on video games, and from a very young age.

    Sorry, stepping off my soap box here, but geez some people's priorities are screwed up. Stop banning awesome books.

  2. Move over on that soapbox! If you wait until mid teens then chances are they have started figuring it out for themselvs.

  3. Argh. I haven't read the book yet, but I knew what it was about. What a lovely post you've written-- about the book, about yourself, and about the banned issue. Isn't crazy what's banned? One list I saw had Little House on the Prairie on it. Huh?? I can't figure that one out at all. At least E&P had some sexual tension.

  4. Great post. I have not read this book but it sounds quite lovely as you describe it. Banned issue? I think books are a great way for teens to find out about relationships. Sometimes they provide a safer way than the real thing, other times they help them sort what they are feeling in the privacy of their own reading. Best to have great books, great friends, and great parents to help usher them into the adult world.

  5. This sounds like a book that would be helpful for a lot of kids. I got a kick out of your realization that you and Park are the same age now! Partly, because I've also had that discomfort of falling in love with YA characters. I remind myself that in the world of the novel, I'm 17, too.

    I agree with Barbara that the best way for teens to learn about these issues is through books -- slow and easy and private so that you can work things out. Television and street corners will normalize behavior more rapidly than books with less thought or opportunity for parental input.

  6. I have an issue with Banned Books Week because it does make it seem as though Americans ban books everywhere all the time, which is not the case. The books are still published and sold and even if they are not always in a school library, they could very well be requested from the local library or inter-library loan. I think it's really just a marketing ploy to get people to read more :-) Which is fine, really - but it makes us seem like we are serious zealots!

    1. You're right about this Aarti--I don't usually participate in Banned Books Week because that's exactly what I learned in library school. Challenging a book gets a group in the news. Banned Books Week gets the American Library Association in the news. Most challenges aren't about taking books off library shelves (that rarely happens -- and when it does it's nearly always reversed within days). Most of the books on the list are there because they were challenged as classroom reading. And that really is a more difficult issue -- if a parent decides a book isn't right for her kid, it's not hard to understand why she might be a little unhappy if the teacher reads it aloud in class.

  7. I wonder if its the mixed race issue is hiding behind the sexuality and language.

  8. What a great post! I find it very sad that books get challenged a lot and I do think it's important to celebrate the freedom to read which is what banned book week is about.

    And, Eleanor & Park was also a 5 star book for me!

  9. I think I'd like that book. I remember as a teen Forever by Judy Blume being banned at my friend's school for the sex scenes. We used to borrow it from our school on their behalf! Pretty sure none of them turned out terribly!

  10. This was an excellent review, Marg. I have just started hearing about this book and being someone who had just left home in the 1980's (and very young also), I can relate to much in this book. I come from a broken home as well, and my stepfather also left permanent scars...there are many ways of hurting a person without leaving a mark, even if the intentional wasn't to be cruel. I want to get this book for me, and for my daughter, who is about to leave primary school for middle school, and is set apart already by her learning disorder. High school is hell, as we all know......

    I can't believe this book is being challenged!

  11. A beautiful, touching review Marg...

    I've never understood banned books either. If you don't like the contents, just don't read it - it's not like you can read without intent!

  12. Very nice review.

    I loved Songs of Willow Frost. I see you are reading it now. ENJOY!!

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved October Edition.

    I am in the list as #28. My book entry is below.

    There is also a giveaway on my blog if you care to stop by.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry