Back in my day, it was J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” that got some parents all atwitter over the “pornography” available in the local school library.
Today, it’s Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor & Park,” that has stirred a couple of Anoka County parents enough to earn Rowell a disinvite from the county’s school and library system.
“Never in our 43 years have either of us read anything more profane,” the two parents of a 15-year-old wrote in a letter to the county officials.
They said 67 references to God, 24 to Jesus and 4 to Christ are offensive, the Omaha World Herald, Rowell’s hometown paper, writes.
The offensive words are shocking. I do not like to think of my sweet children, who are years from reading this book, seeing these words or saying these words.
But I’d rather have my kids see the F-bomb in the context of this novel, where the shocking words are used primarily by shocking people: school bullies and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather. The book, which is set in Omaha, opens with a teenage boy named Park pressing his headphones onto his ears, trying to drown out “the morons at the back of the bus.”
The morons’ controversial words, scattered among the thousands of other words in Rowell’s novel, are symbols of the sometimes harrowing world of high school and the always terrifyingly uncertain world of poverty and abuse.
Where Eleanor is scared to take a bath in a room with no door when her stepfather is around. Where she once escapes out the window to beg a neighbor to call police.
The real profanity in this book does not start with F.
It starts with B. Bullies. The Nebraska bullies who taunt the curvy, red-headed Eleanor with “Go. Big. Red.”
“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,” Rowell tells the paper about some of the content that offends Anoka County’s sensibilities.
The library and county commission action earned both a rebuke from the Kids’ Right To Read Project, an arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
No legitimate rationale can be advanced for disinviting Ms. Rowell, who was asked to speak about her career as a writer, not to read from the book. Making matters worse, the invitation was withdrawn peremptorily, with no opportunity for consultation, discussion, or input from others in the community who disagree with critics of the book or who simply relied on the knowledge and judgment of the teachers and librarians who organized the event. The board’s action thus undermines its own professional staff and sends the message that it will engage in censorship to appease a vocal minority, rather than defend the mission and integrity of the public library as a space that respects and supports intellectual freedom.
Our society suffers when government officials can silence voices because they deem them to be inappropriate. The public library is a vital resource in a free society: a marketplace for exchanging ideas where people go to encounter a variety of materials, opinions and topics. Removing the opportunity to engage with an author about her work and ideas to avoid controversy is unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider your decision and allow the event to proceed as originally planned.
The Daily Circuit reports the school district defends its decision about the book, which was part of a summer reading program:
The school district and the Anoka County Library system collaborated on the summer book program because we share the goal of encouraging young people to read. The district’s media specialists selected the book and the library system agreed to fund the author visit. The county library was in the process of executing a contract with the author when we learned the book had been formally challenged by the parents of a student at one of our high schools. As a result of the challenge, leadership of the library concluded it would not be wise to finalize the contract and they chose to withdraw financial support for the visit. The author’s visit would have occurred at the same time the school district was going through the challenge process. It may well have raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing.”
Beyond the stray “F bomb,” however is the elephant in the room in Anoka County: bullying, an issue that has torn the county and district apart after a rash of suicides were blamed on bullying by school children.