I hope you all are having a good day. It is my pleasure to introduce you to our guest blogger for today. This is a really great post. This post was done by Kathryn Kao of Mrs. Kao Reads. You should check out her blog when you get a chance.
In general, I don’t like books about romance. I find them kind of boring and not really believable. Romance stories just aren’t stories that appeal to me. I have an especially hard time with YA romances. I was an extremely serious and awkward middle and high schooler who buried herself in gigantic epic fantasy series and Stephen King novels. I constantly felt everyone else mysteriously knew how to look, act, and dress, and everything related to dating was just another part of being a teenager I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to read about teen romances then, and I don’t exactly seek them out as an adult.
Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, though, was different. I started reading it because I was excited to read a book about romance between a chubby white girl and a half-Korean boy–finally, a couple that looks like me and my husband!–and because I heard the book was really, really good. And it was. But the book was also incredibly powerful for me personally. In Eleanor & Park–and, I would quickly discover, all her other books–it felt as though Rainbow Rowell had reached inside my heart, grabbed fistfulls of my deepest emotions, and flung them onto the pages. It’s always a gift to be able to find something in a novel that gives you a visceral feeling of connection: that feeling of yes, that’s it exactly, that is exactly how I feel, this author completely understands. When you have that moment in a book about a something in your life you thought nobody understood, it’s incredible.
Eleanor is the first character written for children or teenagers that I’ve encountered who expresses the struggle of being an overweight girl without her weight defining her personality. When I was growing up, all the fat characters in books I read were bullies, pathetic victims, or older, matronly women. I couldn’t even fully enjoy Roald Dahl, because all his fat characters were cruel villains or greedy children who were punished. Even now, I’m excited whenever I see a fat female character who doesn’t constantly have junk food in her hands. Eleanor is a powerful character for all teenagers–but especially for fat teenage girls–simply by being fat and fully human. Let alone by being in a romantic relationship with a boy who doesn’t date her on a dare, or out of pity, or because he’s trying to change her body.
The book is also incredibly personal to me because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a couple that looks like me and my husband. Biracial relationships are rare enough in the media. Biracial relationships between a white woman and an Asian man are even rarer. A relationship between a fat white girl and an average-sized Asian boy? I’ve never seen that before. Certainly not in YA literature. That kind of representation is so important to teenagers–it’s even important to me, right now, as a 32 year old married woman. I want my half-white, half-Chinese future children to see couples that look like their parents in the books they read. I want my biracial future children to see characters that look like them. And I want all children to see characters that might not look like anybody they know, and relationships that they’ve never seen before. Representation is validating to the people being represented, and illuminating and normalizing to everyone else.
Eleanor & Park was so revelatory to me that I knew I needed to have it in my classroom library. This is a book I desperately needed to read when I was in middle school, and I wanted to make sure that book was available to any of my students who needed it. I teach 6th grade English Language Arts and Social Studies, and I see the impact this book has on my students every time one of them reads it. As a teacher at a school with 70% of students on free or reduced price lunch–and with an equally high Latino population–having books in my classroom that reflect my students’ lived experiences is critically important. One of my students–an Asian-American girl–told me the book was amazing and that she couldn’t stop reading it. A previous student of mine, a Latino boy who was struggling with severe anger issues and impulse control, loved how real the book felt to him. In the 11 or 12 years my students have been alive, they have heard language just as coarse as the language in the book. Many of them have encountered adults like Eleanor’s stepfather.
My 6th graders love this book because the writing doesn’t talk down to them. It doesn’t pretend that being a kid or being a teenager sometimes isn’t horrible. It doesn’t break the myth that adults will always protect them–it reflects the truth too many of my students already know: that sometimes the people who are supposed to protect you are the ones you need to be protected from.
My students are too young for a lot of YA literature that grapples with the issues in Eleanor & Park. I don’t include books in my classroom library that deal with graphic depictions of explicit content. But my students are absolutely old enough to read books that deal with issues of abuse, poverty, harassment, and fat-shaming–including the ones who are lucky enough to not face those issues in their daily lives. Almost all of my students navigate being part of a culture that is not the dominant one in this country on a daily basis. My students care about those issues. They need to know how to handle them, and they need to know how to help the people in their lives who are handling them now. Reading books like Eleanor & Park is the best way for middle school students in particular to encounter those issues and work through them.
I’m fortunate in that my school administration is very supportive of students being able to read literature that grapples with difficult issues, but I know many other middle and high school teachers aren’t. I wish so badly that this book had been around when I was in middle and high school. Having a diverse classroom library that contains books with challenging, serious material–at an age-appropriate level–is the best I can do to help my students read the books they need to read at the time they most need to read them.