District 11’s summer reading selection questioned

Controversy surrounds the novel selected for Anoka-Hennepin School District 11’s Rock the Book summer reading program this year.

Eleanor“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.

Policy review

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 olivia.koester@ecm-inc.com

  • jessica

    The Anoka- Hennepin School Board is acting like a bunch of cowards and I am saddened by this immensely to live in the area. Just exactly what era do they think we’re living in?? Should we all gather around and start burning books in barrels again? What’s next, burning our bras? Honestly 3 parents got angry about an OPTIONAL book choice and the whole thing is shut down?? I feel the need to remind you again that this was an optional choice for the summer read- not required, OPTIONAL.Since when do other parents have the authority to shut down an entire program that others have worked extremely hard to develop and grow? Since when do other parents have the right to decide what other children and young adults choose to read? So, Eleanor and Park has a few choice words in it- you are kidding yourself if you think that teens, even kids, don’t actually speak that way once out of the ear shot of adults. Have you ever sat near a group of teens in a public place? We weren’t born yesterday. And please don’t try and tell me you weren’t a teen once either. I would question the board- did you actually read the book you so quickly decided to pull funding from? Or, did you take the word of 3 people vs. the many, many, more who were excited about it? I don’t even have a teen child and this outrages me to no end.
    To think that if my children were teens this opportunity would be stripped from them is sickening. The chance to read a good book, filled with meaning, and to have a book talk with the author- even better, all gone. Simply taken away at the suggestion of one, without good reason.
    I am raising my children to have a love of reading and I fear the future of my school district. My heart is broken for the teens that chose to participate in the summer read with excitement (OPTIONAL). My heart is even more broken for the staff that worked so hard to make this happen year after year.
    Shame on you Anoka- Hennepin, shame on you.
    To think that if my children were teens this opportunity would be stripped from them is sickening. The chance to read a good book, filled with meaning, and to have a book talk with the author- even better, all gone. Simply taken away at the suggestion of one, without good reason.
    I am raising my children to have a love of reading and I fear the future of my school district. My heart is broken for the teens that chose to participate in the summer read with excitement. My heart is even more broken for the staff that worked so hard to make this happen year after year.
    Shame on you Anoka- Hennepin, shame on you.

    • Angiers

      The most sure way to guarantee a book gets read is to ban it.

  • Melody

    I completely agree with Jessica!!! Kids are kids, and this is 2013, you have social media, cell phones, etc. and the words which once were banned on local television are now staring to become words of the “norm”. If any parent truly believes their child is “an angel” then they need to look at the horns that hold up their halo. Do you really think sheltering your kids from the world we live in is going to make them perfect? If you don’t let them encounter what is actually going on, how do you expect them to handle real life when they move out? Kids are kids and they WILL do the opposite of what you tell them, I don’t care who you THINK your kids are. Once they are with their friends and away from the “helicopter” parents who are trying to shelter them, they do a 180 and their mouths and actions make their elders turn over in their graves. Do you think you really know what your kids are doing, do you think they only have 1 facebook account? There are so many social media apps and websites, you truly could not follow and check up on your kids even if you wanted to. (I have a 15 year old, so I know about all the different websites and apps) and I let him have some privacy.

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