I'm honored to share Amy Peterson's contribution to this series about a YA book that she isn't embarrassed to read. I'm honored because, among other things, Amy is incredibly well-read, a killer writer, a great editor, and a gracious friend. Her writing is distinguished by clarity of thought, beautiful metaphors, and sharp wit. Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.
My favorite scene in Eleanor & Park takes place in the title characters’ English class. Eleanor is explaining to her teacher why she doesn’t care that Romeo and Juliet die.
“I just don’t think it’s a tragedy.”
“It’s the tragedy,” Mr. Stessman said.
She rolled her eyes. She was wearing two or three necklaces, old fake pearls, like Park’s grandmother wore to church, and she twisted them while she talked. “But he’s so obviously making fun of them,” she said.
She rolled her eyes again. She knew Mr. Stessman’s game by now. “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other.”
“They’re in love,” Mr. Stessman said, clutching his heart.
“They don’t even know each other,” she said.
“It was love at first sight.”
“It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight. If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love,” she said.
“Then why has it survived?”
“I don’t know, because Shakespeare is a really good writer?”
“No!” Mr. Stessman said. “Someone else, someone with a heart. Mr. Sheridan, what beats in your chest? Tell us, why has Romeo and Juliet survived four hundred years?”
Park hated talking in class. Eleanor frowned at him, then looked away. He felt himself blush.
“Because…” he said quietly, looking at his desk, “because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”
This scene delighted me because I felt the author, Rainbow Rowell, winking at me in it. See, she said, I know I’m writing a book about teenagers in love. I know there is something eye-rolling about teenagers in love. But there is also something essential about what it means to be human in it. This is the kind of story that helps us understand what it means to be human.
I was reading the book over the summer, pleasure reading in a well-balanced diet of summer pleasure reading which included Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer; Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo; The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon; More Than Conquerors by Megan Hustad; and Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen. In other words, along with YA, I was reading literary novels, middle grade fiction, literary nonfiction, and memoir.
Around the same time, Slate published Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA” (yeah, I’m not going to link to this nonsense). I rolled my eyes as I read it - and, according to the article, if something makes you roll your eyes and say “Oh brother,” it’s a sign that it’s not worth reading. So I rolled my eyes and thought, “Ok, so the movie version of TFiOS is coming out, and Graham was trying to think of an article to pitch about that, and she thought, “I know what would get a lot of page-views: criticizing YA!” I rolled my eyes, but apparently it lit a fire.
The article’s argument is kind of all over the place, first claiming that “adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” then following that with caveats and disclaimers and whining. It’s not really worth going into, except for this - Graham mentions Romeo and Juliet, too. It’s ok for teenagers to be the subjects of our stories, she says, like they are in R&J -- the problem with YA is two fold: 1) “it presents the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way” and 2) “these books indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.”
Taking these two criteria into consideration, it’s Eleanor & Park that emerges as the more serious work of literature, not Romeo & Juliet. E&P has just as self-aware of a perspective on what it means to be a teenager in love as R&J does, but -- spoiler -- a more complex ending! It’s R&J that has a neatly wrapped-up conclusion, the heroes dead. E&P’s ending is ambiguous - the very thing Ruth Graham praises about adult literature!
Ruth Graham concludes “Against YA” talking about all that she learned “about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life” from the literary fiction she’s read. But of all the books I read this summer, Eleanor and Park is probably the one that has made me think most about my life: about classism, racism, the way that art builds bridges between disparate people, how strong teenagers have to be to survive sometimes, the way a community should care for children when parents can’t or won’t, and the kinds of relationships that bring healing even when they don’t last forever.
Six months later, I’m still thinking about this book, remembering its smart writing (when Eleanor describes a tall, popular bully as a probably a “descendant of the Nephilim,” I snorted my coffee and texted my T.A. about it) and evocative descriptions. I’m still talking with my adult friends about it, talking about how, reading it, I realized that the girl I idolized for her free-spirited style in highschool was probably, like Eleanor, actually just poor -- “That was me in highschool, too,” my friend says, “wearing eccentric vintage clothes because I got them free, not because I was a free spirit.”
Being embarrassed of reading Twilight is one thing. But if you’re don’t pick up Eleanor and Park because you’re too embarrassed to be reading YA, then you’re missing a story as classic and moving as - and perhaps even more complex, gritty and realistic than - Romeo and Juliet. You’re missing out.