Rainbow Rowell should be in the Minneapolis area today, talking about her best-selling, award-winning, highly acclaimed novel for teens, “Eleanor & Park.”
She should be standing in a public library in Anoka County reading from her 324-page novel, her second, which came out in February.
She should be talking about how the pair of teenagers in her book confront the bullies around them, transcend the ugliness in their lives and enjoy an unlikely but tender romance.
Instead Rowell will be home, in Omaha, presumably writing more heartbreaking words that may or may not get her into trouble.
Rowell is not in Minnesota today because the Anoka County Library pulled its invite. And because the Anoka-Hennepin district, Minnesota's largest public school system, declined to pick up the speaker's fee the library had offered. And because neither responded to Rowell's offer to come for free, which she would have done all along.
Instead, the two public entities bowed to the complaints, generated by a small but vocal group of people called the Parents Action League, which got spooked by the F-word and its various iterations that appear in “Eleanor & Park.”
They also railed against the content, which they viewed as “pornographic,” “sexually explicit” and too controversial for even a teenage audience.
The group complained so loudly that sponsors canceled Rowell's two days of book events.
One county board member was quoted as saying she got a few chapters into the book and “literally could not finish it. It was disgusting.”
In a 13-page report, two parents of a 15-year-old student enumerated what they found offensive.
“Never in our 43 years have either of us read anything more profane,” they wrote.
They counted 227 offending words, including 67 Gods, 24 Jesuses and 4 Christs.
The other words I can't print in the newspaper. They are not words you'd say to your grandmother. (Unless you are Bo Pelini and your grandmother is a Husker fan.)
The offensive words are shocking. I do not like to think of my sweet children, who are years from reading this book, seeing these words or saying these words.
But I'd rather have my kids see the F-bomb in the context of this novel, where the shocking words are used primarily by shocking people: school bullies and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather. The book, which is set in Omaha, opens with a teenage boy named Park pressing his headphones onto his ears, trying to drown out “the morons at the back of the bus.”
The morons' controversial words, scattered among the thousands of other words in Rowell's novel, are symbols of the sometimes harrowing world of high school and the always terrifyingly uncertain world of poverty and abuse.
Where Eleanor is scared to take a bath in a room with no door when her stepfather is around. Where she once escapes out the window to beg a neighbor to call police.
The real profanity in this book does not start with F.
It starts with B. Bullies. The Nebraska bullies who taunt the curvy, red-headed Eleanor with “Go. Big. Red.”
And the P-word. Poverty. Being too poor for a toothbrush. Using dish soap for shampoo. The part I found shocking? When 16-year-old Eleanor from east Omaha makes her first trip to the Old Market: “Eleanor didn't even know all this existed. She hadn't realized Omaha could be such a nice place to live.”
The Parents Action League reviewers filed a formal challenge for the school district to pull its 70 copies of “Eleanor & Park” from school library shelves. The group also called for the librarians who chose “Eleanor & Park” for the district's voluntary summer reading program to be punished.
“We urgently need to get this material out of our high school and middle school libraries,” their website says.
The district, per its policy, is reviewing the book challenge.
District spokeswoman Mary Olson told me that book challenges happen periodically but that she couldn't think of a time when the district actually banned a book.
Lee Anne Clauer, the district's media teaching and learning specialist, told me that no librarians were being punished.
Both women wanted me to convey their greetings to Rowell.
“Tell her,” Olson said, “I loved the book.”
I told this to Rowell on a recent night when I stood in her living room, asking to borrow her copy of “Eleanor & Park.” I wanted to read the book before weighing in. We are friends and former colleagues: Rowell used to work here as a columnist. She won a lot of early fans with her first column, published in these pages in 1997, about growing up in poverty and striving to rise above it.
“We went from desperate to poor. And poor felt so good,” she wrote then. Good because there was heat. And electricity. And soap.
So, I ask her, isn't it a badge of honor to be targeted for banning? Aren't you right up there with Mark Twain and Toni Morrison and all the greats?
Isn't that almost as flattering as the glowing New York Times review that called “Eleanor & Park” a “beautiful, haunting love story” told with “observational precision and richness”?
No, she said. She did not feel very good about this.
In fact, she felt so bad about this, she could hardly talk about it. She took time to choose the right words, and eventually forwarded responses she had given in a blog interview last week.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
About the profanity: “The main characters rarely swear and don't feel comfortable swearing.”
About other content: “Eleanor and Park don't smoke or drink or do drugs. They decide not to have sex.”
About the bullying and abuse: “Teenagers swear and are cruel to each other. Some kids have terrible parents. Some girls have terrible stepdads who shout profanity at them and call them sluts — and some of those girls still manage to rise above it.”
Rowell is promoting her third novel, “Fangirl” (out Sept. 10 and on the New York Times' best-seller list), preparing to publish her fourth novel, “Landline,” and writing her fifth.
“When these people call 'Eleanor & Park' an obscene story, I feel like they're saying that rising above your situation isn't possible,” she said. “That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn't even fit for good people's ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.”
But ugly things like censorship don't necessarily cancel out beautiful things like books.
Because no matter what happens in Minnesota, there are copies of “Eleanor & Park” elsewhere, including in Omaha.
At high schools. On library shelves. Or rather, not on library shelves. All of the Omaha Public Library's 19 print, audio and digital copies of this novel are in the hands of readers. With a wait list 97 names long. The library has booked Rowell for an appearance next month.
The Anoka-Hennepin librarians chose her book because they liked it, because of the good reviews, because they found themes “that were applicable to the types of students” they serve, said Clauer, the media supervisor.
That includes students who were bullied. Students who might be different.
This school district lost nine students to suicide in a two-year span several years ago. A civil rights lawsuit claimed that the district didn't protect students from harassment. The federal government investigated. And now the district has pledged, under a consent decree, to make available mental health treatment and be strident about anti-bullying measures.
Caitlin Vanasse, a 2007 graduate of the district's Coon Rapids High School, said she was never bullied. But she said she was touched by “Eleanor & Park” and wants to stand up for the book. She's encouraging others to contact officials to defend the novel. And she hopes to reschedule Rowell at another venue.
The 24-year-old, who is a graduate student in Washington, D.C., said she's proud of where she's from and doesn't want others to think the critics speak for everyone.
“We're more than you think we are,” she said.
Aren't we all?
Incidentally, Rainbow Rowell was supposed to speak in Minnesota this week of all weeks. A week when lovers of the written word pause to gird themselves against censorship and to celebrate the dangerous texts in their midst.
It's Banned Books Week.