Writer’s Block: Words have power in numbers

I spend a lot of my free time reading books, thinking about books or finding what to add to my library queue. So when I heard that a selection from the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s 2013 Rock the Book, an optional summer reading program, had struck a nerve with some parents, I had to see what the fuss was about.

Mandy Moran Froemming
Mandy Moran Froemming

I requested the book on the library’s online system. There was no waiting list, which surprised me given that “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell must be pretty controversial if people cared enough to call for it to be banned from school libraries.

Before the book arrived a day or two later, I read online about what was so objectionable about the content. It seemed to have a pretty healthy dose of profanity. I don’t find that particularly offensive, unless it’s at a time and place that is inappropriate. I think using it to describe conversation between teens when no adults are present is likely pretty accurate. There were, however, a couple of phrases and sentences that gave me pause. Sexual in nature, it seemed pretty graphic for a young adult audience.

The book arrived a day or two later. I started reading. And reading. And reading. I kept waiting to be shocked, or offended. It never happened. I had been duped. When I read the critical descriptions of the book I had wondered what librarians were thinking by suggesting this book as school-approved reading.

Then came along this thing called context, which is what you get when you read the whole story. Words on their own don’t have much power. But string them together in a sentence and that starts to change. Put them in paragraphs and their true meaning is revealed.

The librarians were right. They were thinking it was a book that would resonate with teens during a long summer vacation when many students’ reading skills lose their edge.

I’m not naive enough to think that I can change the conservative mind of someone who thinks this book should be pulled from school library shelves and all parents whose children have read it should be notified.

As parents, it’s our job to make sure the books, TV and media our kids consume to be consistent with our own values, or have conversations about them if they aren’t. But it’s not up to me to decide what is allowed in the house across the street. By calling for a ban on a book, that’s exactly what’s happening.

If my son was 15 would I let him read it? Yes. It would be an opportunity for us to talk about judging other people, without understanding their personal struggles. We could discuss how important it is to be inclusive, to be kind and to be aware of bullying and abuse at home and at school.

Spoiler alert: the most provocative phrases in the book come not as a description of sexual acts between the teen characters in the story (who don’t have sex), but instead in the form of what I consider to be child abuse from an adult Eleanor should have been able to trust.

Another sad reality for more kids than we know. As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids how to treat people. Reading is a way to gain both knowledge and empathy about people and situations many of us will never find ourselves in so we can act compassionately toward those who do.

And from what I’ve seen of late, empathy and understanding is in pretty short supply in our adult world. I’m particularly disappointed about the cancellation of the visit by author Rainbow Rowell.

I think back to when I was a teen. Almost 20 years ago, young adult fiction didn’t offer a fraction of the quality selection of books that are out there today. If I had been able to read a book like “Eleanor and Park” and then be in the same room as the author, to have the chance to ask her questions about her writing, would have been amazing.

Parents and taxpayers in the district should be acutely aware of attempts to censor learning opportunities for our children. A review of “Eleanor and Park” is currently being conducted by a committee of educators, parents and a student. It will be interesting to see what that group has to say.  While it might be easy to say this book is too graphic for a school library, it is a step down the slippery slope of censorship. This is a book about young love, about bullying, about abuse, about struggle and one girl’s difficult decision to save herself. Those are all stories worthy of telling.

  • Pat Walker

    Thanks Mandy, for your research and opinion. Pat

  • Kathy Koperski

    I couldn’t have said it better Mandy. A very sweet hopeful teen love story that has unjustly received a bad rap from ONE set of parents. Thanks for writing this. Kathy