It’s pretty safe to say if there are just names in the title of a book that I’ll become shamefully obsessed with the characters and then do an ugly cry by the end. Let’s be honest though, who really cries pretty? It’s also safe to say if the star player in the book is a snarky redhead named Eleanor then I’m much more likely to be invested in her attitude and emotions, especially if she wears fishing lures in her hair and her skinny boyfriend thinks that her jewelry box must be a junk drawer. She’s my type of flea market digger. I think every girl has gone through that phase where they thought a certain thing was really cute for two to six months and then realized how absolutely ridiculous it was to wear satin ribbons tied around your neck like chokers. The thing that broke me out of that one was a boy saying, “it looks like a dog collar.” And here I thought I was being really inventive with owning a small AC Moore ribbon section in my sock drawer. Damn.
The book I digested is Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I’m going to start reading a lot of young adult lit this summer so I can adorn my school bookshelf with books that are important to my students. It’s true, To Kill a Mockingbird has one of the sexiest characters in fiction (Atticus Finch), but my students just can’t get into that like they can The Hunger Games. Classic literature has its place in the classroom, but I like my students to get different tastes and genres, really develop their pallet. And at this point, any way you can get a child to read, you will do it. No more of this bash The Twilight Series on this blog. One of my students described that series in the following way, “I want to cry, but I’m a G, and G’s don’t cry.” Now THAT people, is a response to literature.
Eleanor & Park will get all the G’s crying. Gansta’s will be throwing up signs of love and peace after reading this one. My students will be yelling, “Turned Up!” through the hallways over pages of literature. For that, we need a slow clap. Eleanor & Park is everything, EVERYTHING, a young adult novel should be. It has both a strong female and male character. Neither of them is wishy-washy, neither of them lacks empathy, bravery, or cunning. They are what teenagers are when they get behind closed doors. Yes, to your face, they’re cruel and blunt, but behind closed doors they lay on their floor like it’s an open field listening to the words of rap artists, country-western boot boogies, and soulful women who are taking them to church. Teenagers are insightful and witty and they’ll tell you if there’s something on your face even when your best friends won’t. Sometimes, they’ll even come up to you and wipe it off, spitting on their thumb for extra grease.
I don’t want my students to read books that don’t challenge them or move them. What is a book if it isn’t changing the space you inhabit, or isn’t changing the gears within your body so that they spin counter-clockwise, or they let you believe that the weirdness in that is cool. Eleanor & Park is the story of a high school relationship. It’s true, this is what they’re like. They’re intense and quick, and lust becomes love in a second whether they’ve reached second base or not. Teenagers count days that they’ve been together. When I ask girls in my room to write their wishes on a “wishing tree” for the hallway, they write “I hope I make it to one year with (fill in boy’s name here). I can remember when I thought I would marry the boy who took me to prom. (THANK BABY JESUS THAT ONE DIDN’T HAPPEN).
Eleanor is a redheaded girl with a rough home life, but her personality is snarky and all-attitude. She takes a lot of crap from a lot of people and somehow she’s a statue of strength. Since I teach in a community inundated with poverty, I always love finding books with teenagers that don’t have perfect lives and aren’t gifted with the paranormal. Eleanor has the stepdad that rivals evil stepmothers from fairytales. We find out he has a few really disgusting habits by the end of the book that change the story completely, but somehow Eleanor doesn’t break the egg shells that hang around her always exposed exterior. She’s strong for herself, for her siblings, for her relationship. She’s strong enough to not whisper words that she doesn’t mean just so she can say them, and strong enough to keep quiet when she knows words aren’t enough. I love that she shares the name with Eleanor Roosevelt who is a woman I undeniably look up to as a growing woman myself. There weren’t many more resilient.
Then there’s Park, swoon. Park is “the nice guy.” He’s the guy that flies under the radar, or never talks to anyone because he’s always got his headphones on in class. He’s too cool, but still not cool enough. I know him because he’s lived in the same neighborhood all his life, but he hasn’t been cultivated into one of the popular kids. He reads comic books and listens to the Smiths, for goodness sake. His family is probably one of the best young adult book families that ever existed. Although there is tension with his father when he begins wearing eyeliner (for several reasons). The family that surround him, including Grandparents who live next door, are so loving and so capable of providing the kind of childhood that kids deserve. I love the dichotomy Rainbow Rowell shows between the lives of these two characters. Very little holds them apart, and yet nothing about their lives outside of one another is similar. I love Park so much because he loves without fail, and without return. He isn’t a character who loves because he’s loved, he loves because he wants to and he can.
This one also highlights how teenagers deal with bullying or are bullies themselves. Sometimes my students don’t even know they’re bullying. They say something that they think isn’t a big deal, but it comes out like a millstone to drown another human being. Although the bullying was a little overboard in this story, and it needed to be for a climactic scene, I think it really highlights how teenagers actually treat each other in their world of groups and hierarchy (that of course, adults taught them to have, maintain, and control). If you’re the lion, you certainly don’t want to become an elk, or a walrus. Actually, I would love to be a Walrus.
I’m getting off-task.
The thing this book also has that I usually love are, alternating points-of-view, which actually become quite the same point-of-view. At times I could not tell the voices apart which is good and bad for the love story aspect. There were 80’s music references because Elvis Costello and The Smith’s play a prominent role in the mix tape generation. I always wanted a boy to make me a mix-tape. It happened a few times, but once, I got a cd that was called “The Cassie Mix” and it has a song on it called “I Hate Everyone.” I got the cd the very same day that someone told me, “I looked really angry when I walked” and due to this double-hit a few of the blood vessels in my man-eating heart popped.
All I have to say is that, I’ve felt like this as a teenager. So blinded by love that nothing else matters but getting to see that person everyday. In seventh grade, I would cover my hand in “I <3 _______” using crazy colored gel pens. When I mean cover my hand, I mean my entire top hand would be a shouted-out billboard to the boy I loved. His name was J. Walker and once I cut my hair in 8th grade (to resemble that of a banged-boy) it was never the same. I certainly don’t think we had what Eleanor & Park have, he wouldn’t have jump-kicked somebody in the face to stick-up for me. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is true love….ninja style.