Eleanor & Park: review

Eleanor and Park
Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin

They say kids don’t read anymore. And every school year I do have sixteen-year-olds who swear they’ve never read an entire book. And I sure don’t have many of those kids who (like me!) indiscriminately scan through the fiction Eleanorsection and check out their seven library book limit just so they can be sure to have a book on hand at all times.  But quite a few of my students do read—probably more than in my first years of teaching, even. From what I see in my classroom, the books they choose must pack some punch, either action-wise (Insurgent and Hunger Games) or emotionally (The Fault In Our Stars and 13 Reasons Why).  They read Jodi Piccoult and Chris Kyle, Vampire Diaries and Unbroken.

So maybe it’s safer to say that kids don’t read just any old book nowadays, and quality YA fiction is usually at the top of their list.

I try to read one or two YA novels each year, usually recommended by one of my kids. This summer, my YA of choice was Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. It will definitely go into my classroom library at school—and I’m guessing will be checked out and passed around more often than not.

Eleanor is the new kid. She’s just returned home after being kicked out by her step-dad the year before. The first bus ride is a nightmare—Eleanor  is big and awkward with wiry red curls and mismatched Goodwill clothes.  Considering the bus full of teenagers, she really should have just pinned a target onto her back.

And while Park doesn’t want to get involved (he had enough trouble keeping the target off his back), he couldn’t stand to see her frozen in the aisle, bus driver shouting “Hey, you … sit down!” as kids blocked any empty seat she passed. (That odd, but familiar, seat claiming that occurs on buses, in the classroom, at lunch.) “Sit down,” [Park] said. It came out angrily … [Eleanor] couldn’t tell whether he was another jerk or what.” So she sat.

On the way home, what was she to do but return to sit next to Park? And so begins—slowly and carefully—a sweet and tender love story about two kids who didn’t fit in with anyone else but each other.

Park has his own issues that set him apart: he’s a taekwondo black belt, his mother is a Korean immigrant, he’s a comic book nerd. Unlike Eleanor, though, Park has grown up with the kids at school and so he has earned a measure of acceptance. (He also doesn’t live on the wrong side of the tracks as Eleanor does, so that helps.) Before long, Park begins to let Eleanor read his X-comics on the bus out of the corner of her eye. He shares his headphones so she can listen to the Smiths, then brings her batteries for her Walkman so she can listen at home. They hold hands.

At first, Eleanor tries to hide her life from Park—her step dads drunk rages, the four kids to a bedroom, a bathroom without a door, endless meals of beans. She wants only to live in the glow that is their friendship. But Real Love doesn’t work that way and, with Park’s prompting, she begins to let him in.

The teasing doesn’t fully stop. There’s an incident in the gym locker room. Lewd comments on the bus. Park punches the lights out of (actually, it’s a jump reverse hook) one of the biggest bullies and is suspended. But the focus of Eleanor’s trouble moves from school to her home life and Park decides if he can’t save Eleanor, Real Love might mean letting her go.

I don’t often appreciate teenage love stories, I must admit. (It just might have something to do with being a teenage bride myself.) But Eleanor & Park was a love story that just might convince me that love at sixteen is possible. Or if not that, it was enough that Eleanor & Park is captivating. It is gentle and wistful.

And in the end, it is triumphant.

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