So this is Banned Books Week. It is a week to celebrate our freedom to read. Our freedom to read whatever we like, with no interference, because we are a free people and free people read freely. I’m admittedly not a fan of certain genres and your political and religious beliefs may not mirror mine. But I do believe in your right, the right of every free person, to read anything and everything. It is the way that we learn, explore new ideas, escape, find solace and understanding, and become inspired.
Unfortunately, not everyone believes in the freedom to read. Recently the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota and the public library cancelled contracted appearances by the author Rainbow Rowell. Her young adult book, Eleanor & Park, was selected for their summer reading program and the author had been invited to the local schools and the public library. Cancelling her appearances wasn’t enough. Now a group of parents has engaged the Parents Action League and are pushing for the removal of the book from the library and disciplinary action for the librarians that chose the book. Their complaints are centered on profanity and “crude and sexually charged material”.
OK, I read Eleanor & Park. I loved Eleanor & Park. There is profanity, but it comes out of the mouths of the “bad guys”, the bullies and Eleanor’s abusive stepfather. Does any parent of a teenager really believe that their child has not heard, and probably occasionally used, profanity? Is it really all that shocking to these teenagers? And while Eleanor and Park have all the sweetness of first teenage love, and the author can describe intimately what it feels like to hold someone’s hand, they never get past second base and actually make a conscious decision to NOT have sex! If your teenagers don’t know what sex is, or you haven’t talked to them about making responsible choices regarding sex, maybe now would be the time…
While I am a librarian and an advocate for the freedom to read, I also have a 12-year old daughter and a 17-year old son. Above all other things that I am, I am a mom. And I would let either of my children read this book. There is NOTHING in this book that would shock my son in the least. My daughter is younger, but mature, and I would happily share this story with her. Why? Because the issues in this book are important. It heartbreaking story about not belonging, being uncomfortable in your own skin, about bullying and abusive situations at home. It is also a beautiful story about first love and honesty and friendship, about finding your place and loving and accepting who you are. This is a story about being a teenager, and being a teenager is hard. The issues that they face, that my kids face along with thousands of others, are painful and difficult and raw. But they are REAL. Books like Eleanor & Park give parents a chance to share these stories and issues with their teenagers, to open up a real and meaningful dialog.
As Rainbow Rowell said in an interview with The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg:
Eleanor & Park isn’t some dystopian fantasy about a world where teenagers swear and are cruel to each other, and some kids have terrible parents.
Teenagers swear and are cruel to each other. Some kids have terrible parents.
Some girls have terrible stepdads who shout profanity at them and call them sluts – and some of those girls still manage to rise above it.
When these people call Eleanor & Park an obscene story, I feel like they’re saying that rising above your situation isn’t possible.
That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn’t even fit for good people’s ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.
While I loved the book, and regularly recommend it to others (please don’t discipline me!), I respect a parent’s right to not want their child to read it. As much as we all have the freedom to read, we equally have the freedom to not read. My issue is with the parents that suddenly feel it is their duty to provide a moral compass to an entire county school and library system. Let these children, along with their parents, decide for themselves. Keep your kid home if you don’t want them to meet the dangerous Rainbow Rowell. It is not my job as a librarian to censor what your children read – that is your job as a parent. If you don’t like it, take it away from your kids and tell them why, realizing that your disapproval will only make them more eager to read it. Oh – and wait – they’re actually reading! That might be a good thing…