By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
ANOKA — Literary critics lavished high praise on Rainbow Rowell’s novel “Eleanor & Park,” a hot new teenage love story.
A little too hot, maybe, at least in terms of getting public — taxpayer — support.
The story of first love also captivated educators’ list for recommended summer reading in Minnesota’s biggest school district, Anoka-Hennepin. A-H even arranged for a two-day September student seminar with Rowell.
Anoka County Libraries agreed to collaborate and cover the author’s $4,000 stipend with taxpayer money from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
National reviews give credence to the idea of “Eleanor & Park” as literature and Rowell as an emerging literary sensation.
“Her writing swings from profane to profound, but it’s always real and always raw,” says National Public Radio.
“The New York Times Book Review” also fell hard: “Eleanor & Park” reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”
Kirkus Reviews said this: “Funny, hopeful, foul-mouthed, sexy and tear-jerking, this winning romance will captivate teen and adult readers alike.”
Library staff thought so, too.
“It was selected by our media specialists in each high school for what’s called the Summer Rock the Book program,” said Mary Olson, director of communications and public relations for A-H. “With that program, students in the high schools typically read the book that’s for Rock the Book if they’re interested in participating.”
Several parents weren’t so taken. Rather, they found the language in a teen romance book — a work so enthusiastically promoted by their schools — as raunchy and vulgar.
“In just the first three pages the book contains eight “f words” and three “s words,” plus two additional vulgar words,” wrote Kirk Burback of Coon Rapids in a letter to the editor to ABC Newspapers. ”The entire book contains more than 220 of the most profane words you can imagine.
“And then there is the age inappropriate and highly controversial subject matter throughout. The book’s content is such that if it were attempted to be read over the air, the FCC wouldn’t allow it.”
“This book is littered with extreme profanity and age-inappropriate subject matter that should never be put into the hands and minds of minor children, much less promoted by the educational institutions and staff we entrust to teach and protect our children,” states an alert on the league’s home page.
Olson acknowledges the profanity, and she doesn’t necessarily disagree with the parents. She doesn’t necessarily agree, either.
“It does have some language, I can see why parents would object to it,” said Olson. “But I would say having read probably a third of it that it’s not overwhelming. The last maybe 15 to 20 pages I was looking at, I couldn’t find any language that I objected to. So it’s sporadic. I wouldn’t characterize it as being over the top by any means.”
But county officials were catching on that “Eleanor & Park” was closer to “Fifty Shades of Grey” than to anything from Jane Austen.
“I got a few chapters into the book and I literally could not finish it. It was disgusting,” said Julie Braastad, Anoka County commissioner and liaison to the Anoka County Library Board.
While the Anoka County Board does not have a vote on the independent Anoka County Library Board, the commissioners control the library system’s annual budget. Braastad circulated an email to library board members urging members to reconsider finalizing Rowell’s contract.
“I know that if students were to use this language in addressing their teachers, principals or librarians they would face disciplinary actions,” said Braastad’s email. “I ask each of you if you would be comfortable reading this book out loud to your school aged children or grandchildren? I am also greatly concerned that the Anoka County Library would even consider spending $4,000 to bring the author here.”
At a meeting Monday, the Anoka County Library Board issued a terse statement saying Rowell’s visit was canceled, though her book remains on the recommended reading list for teens.
“After further review, it has been determined that this visit is not considered appropriate. Therefore, the agreement has not been completed and the events will not be held.”
Neither Rowell nor her agent responded to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau inquiries for comment. The author, however, removed Minneapolis as the site of one of her forthcoming events.
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.