Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rainbow Rowell in Indianapolis for Banned Books Week

(If you came today expecting the final installment of my An American reading the British Editions blog series, I’m sorry but it’s been bumped to next week. For reasons.)

So this happened:

Last Tuesday, Rainbow Rowell  was in Indianapolis to discuss her experience when Eleanor & Park was challenged during Banned Books Week 2013. She also talked writing for teens versus adults, writing the Eleanor & Park screenplay and the awkward blow kiss she had with John Green just hours before.

There was a lot of Eleanor & Park talk, some Fangirl talk, a smattering of Attachments talk and a few mentions of Rowell’s newest, Landline. I’ve read all of her current books in publication (I can’t say this for very many authors) and now that I know her current work-in-progress is fantasy, I can’t wait for its release!

Eleanor & Park is a NYT bestseller, Printz Honor Book and Rainbow's working on the screenplay, as the movie version is in the works! However, this isn't why Rainbow talked so much about it. A year ago, Eleanor & Park was challenged in a Minnesota school district. After the book was selected by the librarians for an optional summer reading program, a few parents objected to the selection, saying it was “vile profanity” due largely to the language and sexually explicit scenes. It made national news, and Rainbow was uninvited from a planned visit.

As Rainbow told the audience (which brought the auditorium, with room for 300, to near capacity) the story, she admits that she was initially horrified that Eleanor & Park was challenged because she felt the book was fundamentally misunderstood by those who challenged it. At that same time, she began receiving congratulations, as many great authors have had their books challenged or banned and she is now among their company. But for Rainbow, this wasn’t a pleasant experience.
“As the book gets more popular, it’s taken apart more. You can get this book to say anything you want if you pick the right part.” -Rainbow Rowell
As more people read the book (and with the challenge reaching national news and vaulting the book back to the bestseller lists, a lot more people would be reading the book), there’s more of a chance that they could misinterpret the message. Rainbow concluded that even though this challenge to Eleanor & Park, the book she’s most protective of, was a setback, the experience might make her braver in the long run.

My Thoughts
It’s been a year and a half since I read Eleanor & Park. It was right around its February 2013 release, and at the time I didn’t know who Rainbow Rowell was or that she’d already published an adult novel called Attachments (which I would read a couple months later), but what grabbed me about Eleanor & Park was the realness. The story has a certain grittiness to it, an essence of reality that not all fiction books have (because—let’s face it—they’re fiction). It felt as though I was reading about real people, and maybe that feeling stemmed from the fact that Eleanor isn’t model-thin or maybe it was the language or the setting or the situation. Maybe it was the perfect combination of all of them at once that made it seem so real to me. When reading it, I didn’t question the language or violence because it seemed necessary to understand what Eleanor and Park were experiencing.

The same goes for other challenged and banned books I’ve read. During my high school years, I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in school and I read Judy Blume, Lois Lowry and JK Rowling in my free time. Those books and authors are frequently challenged and unfortunately banned. (Luckily, my parents didn’t feel the need to limit my selections. Actually, I was talking to my mom about this post, and when I told her that the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey was at the top of the challenge list for 2012 and 2013, she was shocked. Later she texted me that the series got one of my brothers back into reading when, in second grade, he claimed that he'd read all the good books already.)

Books are learning experiences. Through reading, I get to travel the world, do magic spells, dive into history and sometimes I can even fly. Reading isn’t just about experiencing the joys of life, but experiencing the imperfections too. Through books, I can experience violence, racism, war, government suppression and so many more things that I will hopefully never experience in real life. The stories I read give me a small sense of what other situations, ones I’m unfamiliar with, might feel like, and therefore, I gain compassion and empathy for others.
“Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity… it gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we've never met, living lives we couldn't possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character's skin.” -Ann Patchett
If I only read books about white, Midwestern, suburban girls who grew up in happy, safe homes and had good high school experiences with her handful of friends, I’d learn nothing about life. If I deprived myself of all books that contained racism, violence, language, sex and all those other “reasons” that appear on the challenged and banned books list, I’d be missing out on many facets of the human experience.

So read banned books. Read books. Read.

For further details about the challenge to Eleanor & Park, I read these articles:

Disclaimer: This post is an unofficial account of the event with Rainbow Rowell on September 23, 2014 at the Indianapolis Public Library in Indianapolis, IN. The views that I present in the first part of this post are my interpretations of the event, and they do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rainbow Rowell, her publisher or any affiliates. The views I present in the second part of the post are my own.