Book Review – Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eleanor and Park has been on my to-read list for quite a while now. I had heard a lot of good things about the book and was looking forward to reading it. I finally got my chance to pick up E&P last week, just as Banned Books Week began. The timing was a coincidence but when I noticed the date on my calendar, it reminded me that there was an attempt to ban E&P in Minnesota a few years back when a parents group deemed the book “dangerously obscene.” The controversy also forced the local schools and libraries to cancel a series of appearances by author, Rainbow Rowell, that were ironically scheduled to take place during Banned Books Week. Like I said, I didn’t pick up the book because of the controversy but I did have it in the back of my mind while I was reading it.

First, let me say that Eleanor and Park more than lived up to what people have been saying about it. It was a great read for both young adults and for adults like me who love YA Fiction.

Secondly, after reading the book, I can definitely see what had that parent group concerned. There is a lot of stuff in Eleanor and Park that isn’t pretty. Eleanor is bullied rather viciously by some of the girls in school and her home life is a nightmare, thanks to her violent, alcoholic stepfather and extreme poverty. But, as much as we would like to protect children from harsh realities like domestic abuse, I think the things that make Eleanor and Park scary for some parents is what makes Eleanor and Park an important book for their kids to be reading.

There’s a part of the book where Park says: “Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” I could do a whole song and dance about this line and how it’s great that this book shows its female lead as something more than looking pretty and that having character and individuality isn’t just ok but something that someone can really love about you. But that isn’t the reason why I quoted the line. To me, this quote doesn’t just sum up what is great about Eleanor, it expresses what is great about Eleanor and Park. This book is all about what it makes you feel.

For kids like Eleanor and Park, who don’t fit in (because of their size or their ethnicity or their family situation and background), it must be amazing to see characters like themselves in a book – especially a book that doesn’t regulate them to a secondary character. I particularly love that the author doesn’t feel the need to fall back on the overdone “ugly duckling” plot-line where the misfit girl finds love and acceptance after losing weight and/or getting a make-over. Eleanor doesn’t need to change herself for Park to love her and in fact, when his mother tries to give Eleanor a make-over, both Eleanor and Park are uncomfortable with the thought of Eleanor being transformed into something she isn’t just to fit in with what other people think is beautiful.

Eleanor and Park also gives kids like Eleanor, who are dealing with abuse and neglect and living in homes that are stuff of nightmares, someone to identify with. They see they aren’t alone in dealing with this sort of pain and abuse. They see that someone like them doesn’t have to be alone and that they can find someone who will love them. And they see that there are people who are willing to help them and they can find a way out of their situation.

But, as important as books like Eleanor and Park can be to kids like Eleanor, it is even more important for kids like Park and for kids like Steve and Tina and the other kids in the book. Books open our eyes to things we never could imagine and shows us lives we never get to live. That’s what makes reading so magical and powerful. For the most part, books’ ability to take us away from our lives is something we think of as fun but here, we get a glimpse of the hell that many kids live through every day. I can see how parents of children who are lucky enough not to live in that kind of hell would want to protect them from it but if a child can’t imagine a situation like Eleanor’s they will have no way of recognizing it if they encounter it. They won’t look at a girl who is poorly dressed and consider that she may not have access to better clothes and hygiene because her family is so poor. They will just see someone to tease and bully. (The scene where Eleanor’s clothes – including a new pair of jeans – is ruined in a vicious prank is heartbreaking because you know that those jeans were so desperately needed and cannot be replaced). They won’t be able to guess how literally life-saving little kindnesses can be – from lending out a comic book or issuing an open invitation to dinner so that a kid like Eleanor has someplace to be when home doesn’t feel safe. And they won’t be able to see just how the human contact found in simply holding hands can be so profoundly and deeply felt.

I can understand how parents whose children are lucky enough to lead safe, happy lives may want to protect them from situations like Eleanor’s but seeing it in books helps them develop the empathy and understanding that could help them if they ever meet a kid like her.

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Banned Books week is officially over but I still wanted to share some of these great links and quotes that I found about banned and challenged books.

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