By: Kristin Pekoll
Published in 2013, Eleanor & Park is a young adult novel of first love, acceptance, and self-image. For the first time, this New York Times bestseller is listed on ALA’s Top Ten Challenged Books list, clocking in at No. 10.
While there are a number of discussions and debates about the problematic depiction of race and abuse in the book, the reason most consistently reported to ALA for parental complaints is offensive language.
In an interview with The Toast, author Rainbow Rowell talks about the irony of these objections.
“Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear … I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are.”
On the first page, Park is pressing his headphones into his ears.
“He’s trying to block out the profanity! And Eleanor hates that her stepfather curses so much. She complains about it throughout the book,” said Rowell in the interview. “There’s also some pretty vulgar sexual language that the parents have objected to: Someone harasses Eleanor by writing gross things on her school books. It’s one of the more traumatic things that happens to her.”
During the 2013 challenge in Minnesota, Anoka High School principal Mike Farley explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the novel mirrors some of the same situations students find themselves in.
“We did acknowledge some of the language is rough, but it fits the situation and the characters. I deal with this stuff every day working in the school with students. Did I think the language was rough? Yes,” Farley said. “There is some tough stuff in there, but a lot of the stuff our kids are dealing with is tough.”
The parents challenged the book’s selection for school libraries, calling it “vile profanity.” They cited 227 uses of profanity or the Lord’s name in vain, including 60 instances of the “F” word.
“It’s is the most profane and obscene work we have ever read in our lives,” said one parent, Troy Cooper, to the Star Tribune.
In 2016, incensed Chesterfield parents were joined by Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase in demanding that Eleanor & Park be removed from voluntary summer reading lists, calling the books “pornographic” and filled with “vile, vile, nasty language.”
Ultimately, based on the recommendation of the review committee, Superintendent James Lane concluded that the book would not be banned. But it also can not be recommended. No books can be recommended by anyone in the Chesterfield County School District. Summer reading lists can no longer be distributed to students by teachers or librarians.
Instead of talking about language and the power of words like profanity or racial slurs, censors trash talk the novel and often the author, librarians, and teachers who recommend it. In both the Minnesota case and the Virginia case, the school librarians were threatened with disciplinary action and termination.
In both of these public cases, the book was retained in the school library.
“Kids here have the right to read. They have the right to think and imagine. To see their own world in books. To see other worlds in books.” – Rainbow Rowell
The list of the Top 10 Challenged Books is annually compiled by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). The office uses both public news articles and censorship reports made to the office to calculate the list. In 2016, OIF recorded more than 300 challenges to books, but it estimates that between 82-97% of challenges remain unreported.
Learn more about the Top Ten and this year’s Banned Books Week theme at ala.org/bbooks/NLW-Top10.