Controversy surrounds the novel selected for Anoka-Hennepin School District 11’s Rock the Book summer reading program this year.
“Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell is the award-winning story of a pair of teenagers who feel like they don’t fit in. Set in the 1980s, the story follows Eleanor and Park’s relationship as it grows each day on the bus.
Critics showered the book with accolades. “‘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,” said John Green of The New York Times Book Review. Kirkus Book Reviews gave “Eleanor & Park” a starred review, saying, “Funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, sexy and tear-jerking, this winning romance will captivate teen and adult readers alike.”
However, some District 11 parents panned the novel, taking issue with the “foulmouthed” and “sexy” content.
The Parents Action League, a group of parents in the district, produced a report this summer detailing all of the “profane” content in the novel. The report, written by parents of a ninth-grade student, documents 227 expletives, as well as “pornographic and sexually explicit” content found in the book.
High school media specialists selected the book for the sixth annual Rock the Book summer reading program in which approximately 200 ninth- through 12th-grade students elected to participate.
This is the first year the Rock the Book program ran in all five high schools, according to Mary Olson, director of communication and public relations for the district.
“It is no small matter that the absurdly inappropriate material in this book was placed in the hands of our children by the very people we have entrusted to educate them and provide them with daily examples of the highest integrity and moral conduct,” parent Troy Cooper said during the communications portion of the Aug. 26 school board meeting, calling for the removal of the book from school libraries and formal disciplinary action, among other measures.
The school board discussed the current media policy and board corrective action at its Sept. 9 work session.
An initial administrative review found a gap in policy, School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann said in a phone interview after the work session.
The district’s policy on Instructional Materials Selection and Reconsideration does not specifically address elective programs like Rock the Book, he said.
He clarified that this policy, governing media selected by staff for instruction, and policy covering general media in the library are distinct. The guidelines for the latter are clear and an established challenge process exists, but media curriculum policies warrant review, Heidemann said.
Parents of one high school student began the challenge process to remove the book from school libraries months ago. There was a slight delay because school was not in session, but now the process is running smoothly, Heidemann said at the work session.
The challenge may wind up in front of the board at a date down the road.
For now, copies of “Eleanor & Park” remain on high school library shelves.
When it comes to media curriculum selections, R-rated movies are “the beginning and the end” of the district’s current policy on controversial materials, said Joel VerDuin, chief technology and information officer for the district, at the work session. “We should actually deal with controversial materials as a whole,” he said.
Although no one expressly disagreed with VerDuin, School Board Clerk Scott Wenzel dismissed the idea that clearer policy would have made much difference in this case. “There aren’t people making wise decisions here – plain and simple,” he said of those who selected the novel.
Communication with parents is key, both Superintendent Dennis Carlson and School Board Director Bill Harvey said.
“We have to live in these districts within the community values that we represent,” Carlson said.
Going forward, a subcommittee will review the media policy and present initial recommendations at a school board meeting in November.
Heidemann said that he anticipates debate, but hopes for changes by the end of the calendar year.
Library visit canceled
The Anoka County Library partnered with District 11 to fund Rock the Book this year.
District staff selected the book and the library agreed to finance a visit from Rowell, the author of “Eleanor & Park,” with money from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Rowell was set to come in September.
At the Aug. 19 library board meeting, the visit was canceled. The library did not lose money.
The library staff brought forward a request to cancel the visit with knowledge that “the school district was dealing with some issues,” said Bob Thistle, president of the Anoka County Library Board, in an interview.
“After further review, it has been determined that this visit is not considered appropriate,” a library board memo stated.
Still, the book remains in the county’s collection with favorable reviews, Thistle said. “We haven’t had a complaint,” he said.
Parent, community reaction
One parent, Melissa Thompson, addressed the school board at the Aug. 26 meeting, commending those who selected the book.
“It does have strong language, but I would also argue it’s no worse than what’s heard regularly in the hallways, bathrooms and parking lots of any of our secondary schools,” Thompson said. “And while the subject matter is quite harsh at times, it’s real and speaks to the issues facing many teens – past, present and future.”
Cooper, his wife, Sarah, and community member Stephanie Schroeder spoke against the book.
An English major, Schroeder said that she’s read thousands of books and there are plenty of stories about overcoming adversity that media specialists could have selected to touch on worthwhile themes. “You don’t have to wade through the sewers in order to get the point,” she said.
After the work session, Heidemann sent letters to Thompson, the Coopers and Schroeder explaining current policies and what’s ahead. “The school board believes that ‘Eleanor & Park’ was not age appropriate and was an unacceptable choice for the summer reading program without parent approval,” he wrote near the end of the letter.
Olivia Koester is at [email protected]