By: Rebecca Slocum
Rainbow Rowell turns 45 today!
Do you ever feel that deep-down sense of comfort that comes from just knowing that you’re in a role that is right for you? For some, it might be their role as a parent; for others, it might be kicking butt and taking names at their job. For Rainbow Rowell, it’s her role as a writer. Rowell, author of several Young Adult (YA) and adult books, including the award winning novel Eleanor & Park, does not pin point one experience or time when she knew she wanted to write; she simply describes herself as having “always been a writer.” From writing for her high school and college newspapers to studying English and Journalism in college to working as a columnist and ad copywriter at the Omaha World Herald, writing has formed the foundation of Rowell’s life and career.
Her first novel, Attachments, began as a side project while she was still working full time as an advertising copy editor. When her son was born, Rowell put it aside for a couple of years, feeling guilty for spending so much time on what she considered a hobby. Fortunately for the literary world, Rowell eventually completed the manuscript, and her debut novel was published in 2011. Attachments achieved enough success and notoriety that Rowell felt a punch of confidence that spurred her into writing a second novel, the breakout success, Eleanor & Park. The novel delves into the lives of two teenagers as they muddle through falling in love in Nebraska in the 1980’s. The characters tackle issues such as bullying, abuse, race, and the ever-popular teenage awkwardness. In other words, Eleanor, who is overweight, and Park, a Korean boy, experience a hefty dose of reality; Rowell paints a raw and necessary picture of what teens go through during those messy, and sometimes treacherous, four years.
So when the Parent’s Action League of the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota rescinded Rowell’s invitation to speak about Eleanor & Park due to its “dangerously obscene” (namely, the prevalence of curse words on the page) nature, the literary community rose up in support. You can read about National Public Radio’s (NPR) defense of the novel and other novels approaching difficult topics here, as well as Rowell’s interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) regarding the challenge here. You can also watch young readers heralding their support and appreciation for the book here.
And that’s really what books like Eleanor & Park are about: providing real teens, who experience the same real issues as Eleanor and Park every single day, with hope and confidence that they are not alone. That is why censorship, especially censorship of real topics such as bullying, abuse, love, and race, is so dangerous. For teens who feel like outcasts, these books are often their only opportunity to see themselves mirrored in other people. These books are a reminder to teens that there are others just like them out in the world. Rowell captures the heart of this message in her advice to parents who are worried about their children reading Eleanor & Park:
“Your kids live in a hard world. And they’re doing their best to get through. Just like Park and Eleanor. This book is about two kids who are doing their best to rise above violence, poverty, racism, peer pressure. If your kid is feeling alone or helpless, this book might give them hope. If your kid is doing fine, this book might give them compassion toward people who are struggling. And if you let your kid read Eleanor & Park, you can read it yourself after they’re done. It’s pretty good! There are lots of ‘80s references — you might like it!”
Rowell has gone on to write several other critically acclaimed novels, including Fangirl, Carry On, and Landline. More recently, she is publishing monthly installments for a Marvel comic book, entitled Runaways. While she does not currently have a book to be published on the horizon, she notes that she is working on several projects, including another YA novel, as well as a graphic novel that she describes as “the rompiest thing I’ve ever written.” If that doesn’t get you pumped for it, I don’t know what will.
Happy Birthday, Rainbow Rowell! May we all have your courage to speak boldly and authentically and to tell the real stories about the issues our society faces.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.