Book Review: “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first learned about this wonderful book after hearing that one of our local school districts (Anoka-Hennepin, somewhat infamous around here) was embroiled in a controversy over whether this book was appropriate for youth. In short, the book had been selected by district librarians for an optional high-school summer reading program. A parent noticed some f-bombs and things spiraled from there. Rainbow Rowell’s speaking engagement was canceled and the district is still embroiled in a formal book-review process. Luckily, Rainbow Rowell came to Minnesota anyway and spoke at a number of engagements, one of which I attended. She was smart, funny, and charming, delivering a passionate and persuasive defense of the core message of her book.

Having now read the book, I am flabbergasted that anyone could call it profane. Yes, there is a fair amount of profanity. (A crazy Anoka-Hennepin parent actually counted “227 instances of profanity.”) But since when is this unusual in realistic fiction about teenagers? Are these parents unaware of how typical teenagers talk? But more importantly, the book’s protagonists are clearly making choices to rise above the shallow trashiness of their peers. And when it comes to sexuality, there’s no rational basis for criticism. I remember poring over far racier (and more explicit) material with my sixth grade friends a million years ago; from a high school perspective this is utterly tame. The most intense “sex scene” in this book is of the two kids holding hands! (And it is sublime!) The book is certainly sexually charged, but I’ve read religious parables that are more pornographic.

This book is a gorgeous story of two teenagers finding their first love. Rowell makes school feel real, with all the social nastiness that usually goes along with kids growing up. She focuses tightly on the title characters, but the supporting cast feels rich and believable. (And I think I went to school with some of them.) Eleanor and Park are both complex, confused, and extraordinary. I laughed constantly as I got to know them, and later I cried through entire chapters. (Love a book that has plenty of both.) I won’t spoil anything by talking about the plot, but here are some key highlights for me:

– I love it that Park was a good guy.
– I love it that they get to know each other through comic books and music.
– I love it that the book is set in the ’80s.
– I love it that Rowell touches on a lot of complex YA issues without neatly tying them up with moralistic bows (body image, gender identity, race, bullying, to name a few).

In short, I loved the book and look forward to the time when my children can read it too.

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