Lately, I’ve been thinking about novels that have been considered problematic within the last few years. Some have been labeled that way for decades. But, does that mean readers are not allowed to read them anymore? I don’t think so. To understand why a book is deemed an issue, one must know the context – both from the opposition and how that aspect is presented in the novel. Afterwards, a reader can judge for themselves whether or not that problematic element will affect their enjoyment of certain titles. Case in point, even though Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (yes, that’s her real name) was published in 2012, people have expressed issues with it since, and I still enjoyed the book despite the problems it clearly possesses.
Eleanor & Park is about two high school outcasts who fall in love with each other throughout one school year. One is the new girl in town with unruly red hair, mismatched clothes, and a chaotic family life. The other is the boy at the back of the bus who wears black t-shirts, listens to his headphones, and reads his comics.
I brushed upon this issue a while back with my Final Jeopardy review, but that was in the context of the author’s prior actions. This time, I wanted to bring it up because the American Library Association’s Challenged Book lists contain juvenile and YA content, especially if they involve BIPOC and LBGTQIA stories. There will be people who will connect to those titles, especially if they rarely see themselves in other materials.
From what I know, Eleanor & Park was challenged so much that it made it on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2016. In 2013, parents in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota complained about it due to the amount of profanity in it. Even Rowell herself commented on the controversy with this:
“Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear…I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are.”
She’s right. Of all the instances of swearing, the main characters rarely say them. Teens curse; some more than others. They’re not perfect. None of the characters are, and the book is very aware of this.
And then there’s the more problematic element in the novel that can’t be defended through context. That is the depictions of Asian stereotypes in a historical context as the novel takes place in 1986. As a white person, I barely noticed these while reading, yet I felt disappointed once I realized this issue. I strive to read stuff that accurately represents as many forms of life as possible. Lately, I’ve been researching how the book portrays the Asian experience in America with Park. Here are some of the best sources to understand why people, especially those who are Asian and/or black, would have an issue with the book. In short, the book contains stereotypical depictions of black and East-Asian people, exoticizes various characters of the latter ethnicity, and shows a toxic power dynamic between the two protagonists. Most important, Park – a common Korean surname – is used as a first name.
Since that time, it seems like Rowell’s trying to correct these errors, but so far, they’re misguided. Case in point, when the film adaptation was announced, it was revealed that Hikari – a Japanese filmmaker – would be the director. People on social media sounded off on this right away, especially with the fact that Park is mixed Korean with a mother who was a Korean War refugee. All I can say is that we’ll see if the movie gets fully developed.
Given all of the controversy surrounding Eleanor & Park, it’s amazing that I was still able to enjoy it while I did. This got me hooked from the very beginning. Both Eleanor and Park are realistic characters who are trying to fit in at school with varying levels of success. They initially don’t like each other for some reason (teenagers, am I right?). Afterwards, their relationship slowly blossoms through comic books and music. However, the opening bit of dialogue is reminiscent of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet in terms of the doomed foreshadowing. Even though it wasn’t a full happy ending, it wasn’t really a tragic one either.
Also, there was urgency to their romance. Both really want to be together except Eleanor doesn’t want her abusive step-father finding out because she fears that he’ll take that away, much like with almost everything else, from her. Along with the bullying at school, his abusiveness is revealed in piecemeal and mostly indirectly. However, it can be a hard read for some who have gone through all of this before or are now. I’d suggest ending reading sections on a high note, or else, it’ll mess up one’s mood for the rest of the day or one’s sleep.
I couldn’t put the book down even when I was getting tired. I really wanted them to be together even when it became clear that they weren’t going to do that physically.
Overall, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a wonderful love story between two high school outcasts. Both characters are fairly realistic in their desires and flaws, and Eleanor’s circumstances give the relationship more urgency. I would recommend it to those who love high school love stories between outcasts and who enjoy reading books by Rowell. One can enjoy problematic media like Eleanor & Park while acknowledging its problematic elements. However, this is not to excuse the Asian and black stereotypes that are present in the novel. If one doesn’t want to read it because of that issue, then they shouldn’t be forced to. Censorship is the last thing that I would do on this website.
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