Two months after being disinvited by the Anoka County Library and the Anoka-Hennepin school district in the Minneapolis suburbs from speaking to teens there about her YA novel, Eleanor & Park, author Rainbow Rowell finally made the trip from her home in Omaha to Minnesota. The visit came a month after she was originally supposed to be in the area, and the subjects of censorship and children’s access to literature were very much the hot topics at this week’s appearances.
In her appearances, Rowell spoke about her life and work at three venues in St. Paul, which sits across the Mississippi River from Anoka County. A packed schedule of two public events and one school visit was co-sponsored by the St. Paul Public Library and Metropolitan State University. Rowell participated Tuesday evening in a panel discussion at Metropolitan State called Reading Rainbow Rowell: A Community Forum on Suppression of Young Adult Literature, which was moderated by Minnesota Public Radio senior reporter Sasha Aslanian. The other panelists were Julie Blaha, president of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota; Sarah Park Dahlen, assistant professor at St. Catherine University; Maureen Gormley, information director at Dakota County Libraries and chair-elect of the Minnesota Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee; and Kit Katz and AJ Gerick, teen reviewers for Teens Know Best galley group.
“We wanted to give [Rowell] the opportunity to be part of the larger conversation on the right of kids to read,” Metropolitan State librarian Michelle Filkins explained.
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association executive director Carrie Obry estimated that more than 200 people attended the panel discussion, and said that it took an hour to go through the line to get her books signed. “It was a great, busy, heartening event,” she reported.
On Wednesday, Rowell read from, discussed, and signed copies of Eleanor & Park at a local alternative high school during the day; the visit included a Skype chat with Acacia O’Connor, coordinator of the NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project. In the evening, Rowell, who was introduced by National Book Award nominee Anne Ursu, spoke and signed books at the Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion on Harriet Island. During the event, which drew about 150 people, Rowell briefly addressed the controversy in Anoka County surrounding Eleanor & Park, but focused upon her attention on her three novels in answering questions posed by teens in the audience. She also introduced her forthcoming adult novel, Landline (St. Martin’s, July 2014).
Literary event promoter Pamela Klinger-Horn attended the Wednesday evening event and described Rowell as inspiring. “Rainbow was one of the most high-energy authors that I have seen on stage,” she said. “It took a while to get Rainbow Rowell to Minnesota, but she did not disappoint. [It was] important to hear [her message], especially in light of the banned books controversy.”
Meeting the Challenge
Local bookseller Addendum Books sold books at all three events. Addendum had partnered this fall with Anoka-Hennepin School District to provide books for Rowell’s school visits, which were canceled after a pair of parents protested Eleanor & Park’s explicit language and depiction of teen sexuality. The parents were joined in their protest by a socially conservative group, the Parents Action League. Addendum is donating a portion of the proceeds from book sales to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Kids Right to Read Project. The store reported Thursday morning that they sold 160 copies of Rowell’s three novels: 80 of them Eleanor & Park, 50 Fangirl, and 30 her adult novel Attachments.
According to Marika Staloch, youth services coordinator at the St. Paul Public Library, Anoka County’s loss is St. Paul’s gain. Not only is Rowell visiting St. Paul, but Eleanor & Park has been selected as the 2014 Read Brave selection for the St. Paul Public Library’s citywide program, which encourages parents and teens to read and discuss a book during the winter and spring that explores themes relevant to today’s teens. Rowell will return to St. Paul next February to talk to students and adults participating in the Read Brave program.
“We were looking for a Read Brave book and were thinking of Eleanor & Park, but it’s only in hardcover,” Staloch told PW (Eleanor & Park was published in hardcover and digital formats by St. Martin’s Griffin in February 2013). After the controversy over Rowell’s scheduled visit to Anoka County erupted, Staloch and her colleagues reconsidered. “It felt like everyone was buzzing about this book,” Staloch said. “We decided to jump on it.”
Not only did the St. Paul Public Library and Metropolitan State publicize the events throughout the Twin Cities metro area, but their publicity campaign got the word out to Anoka County teens who had read Eleanor & Park, or wanted to read it. “They did a lot of work to get her to come to Anoka County, and that was pulled out from under them,” Staloch said. “We tried to make sure that people in Anoka County knew they were welcome.”
Anoka County Library spokesperson Mary Olson and Anoka High School principal Mike Farley told PW this week that Eleanor & Park is still on the shelves, but that the challenge process at each institution has not been completed yet. Olson emphasized that, while many books have been challenged in Anoka County, no book has been removed from library shelves in the 30 years she’s worked there. “We’re used to this,” she said of the challenge process. Farley told PW that “a lot of our kids” knew about and were talking about Rowell’s visit to St. Paul this week, but he didn’t know how many intended to attend a St. Paul event. Anoka County is about 25 miles northwest of St. Paul.
Rowell said that after her invitation to visit Anoka County had been withdrawn in late August, she’d been deluged with supportive emails and letters from a variety of “librarians, authors, and other book people.” Expressing admiration for St. Paul Public Library and for Metropolitan State, Rowell told PW that the two institutions had worked closely together with each other and with her to organize and publicize the events within three weeks of initially contacting her.
“They worked quickly to make it happen,” Rowell said, disclosing that she’d offered to visit Anoka County on her own dime in September, after her appearances there were canceled, but was turned down. “I’m really happy that [the two St. Paul institutions] were so motivated, so passionate, and so thoughtful. I still wanted to come to Minnesota.”