Friday, July 1, 2016

Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Year: 2013
Pages: 328
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: First Love, Acceptance, Domestic Violence
Age Range: 9th Grade and Up

Park is a half-Korean teenager living in Omaha, Nebraska. He loves comic books, punk rock, and trying to stay under the radar of his judgmental peers. When the new girl, Eleanor, sits next to him on the bus, he is mortified by her crazy red hair, her outlandish clothes, and her obvious misfit status. As they ride to and from school every day, Park discovers that while Eleanor may be a misfit in general, she is the perfect fit for him. Eleanor, for her part, is just trying to get through each day the best she can, managing the "mean girls" at her new school, and staying as far away from her abusive step-father, Richie, as possible. She can't believe someone as "cool" as Park would want anything to do with her, but as their relationship progresses, she finds a level of acceptance and love that she never thought possible.

I realize I am late to the party on this one, but I loved pretty much everything about this book. I recognized a bit of myself in both Eleanor and Park. How many of us ever feel like we truly fit in when we're teenagers? Rowell has given us two characters who perfectly embody the sense if awkwardness and uncertainty that come with trying to navigate the world of first loves while simultaneously figuring out who you really are.

Set in the 1980s, Rowell uses the more restrictive social norms of the time to highlight just how challenging coming of age can be. I wish I could say that the relative ease with which Richie abuses his family is something that could only have happened 30 years ago, but the truth is that much of what Eleanor experiences is all too true for many young people today. She is equal parts strength and vulnerability, pretending not to care what other people think about her, while secretly cringing inside at every slight. It takes Park a long time to tear down the walls that she has built around herself, but his gentleness and patience are completely endearing, to Eleanor and the reader.

This would make a decent pairing with Romeo and Juliet, as it is reference quite a bit in the book, and Eleanor and Park's romance has qualities similar to that of the titular characters of Shakespeare's most beloved tragedy. It has a relatively low lexile level, so struggling high school readers may find it more accessible than other titles in a similar theme. There are references to sex and teenage drinking, but nothing graphic by any means. It would make a great addition to any middle or high school library, but there is so much fodder for discussion that I think it would work best in literature circles or guided reading.

Teacher Resources:
Macmillan Reading Group Questions
Book Rags Unit Plan

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