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Using 'R rated' book without asking parents was wrong, school chair says

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'Eleanor & Park' by Rainbow Rowell
Book cover courtesy of publisher

The chairman of the Anoka-Hennepin school board said Wednesday that the district had erred by not giving parents a chance to object to a book that he described as "R rated" being used in a high school summer reading program.

"Eleanor & Park," a novel by Rainbow Rowell, tells the story of two outsider teens in the 1980s who find a common bond in music. Librarians had included the book on school library shelves, and it was selected for use in the summer "Rock the Book" program.

Parents of a student objected to the book's content, citing its use of profanity and its treatment of sexuality. The Anoka County Library had scheduled a visit by Rowell, but the event was canceled due to the controversy.  Chair Tom Heidemann of the school board said officials were considering two issues: whether the book should have been included in the library, and whether it was appropriate for the reading program.

"The board has passed no judgment relative to whether or not that should or should not be in the library," Heidemann said on The Daily Circuit. "That is a process that will involve the community and public hearings as we go forward.

"Where we really had the concern was where it was used as a reading program, which aligns more with classroom curriculum, which has a pretty high standard in our policies relative to whether or not we would allow an R-rated movie to be shown or, in this instance, an R-rated book, based on the adult content and profanity in the book."

Heidemann said concerns focused on "adult sexual issues and also the profanity. And just applying the Motion Picture Association rating guidelines would certainly put that as a hard R."

If the board decides the book should not be the library, he said, "I don't think there would be a disciplinary action" against the staff who put it there. He said the library has broader standards than classroom curricula.

"We're tolerant of many, many more points of view for library materials, whereas when you get into the classroom setting, you have to be very careful to make sure you're partnering with parents and letting them help make decisions relative to their kids," he said.

"The issue the board had was that this was a single choice given to students without parent consent. We believe that there has to be a process where we partner with parents to help make that decision that's right for their children. We can't always be making that decision for kids. In this instance, I think parents had a role and we had an obligation to let them know what the content of this book was. ... We did not give the parents the tools necessary to help make the judgment on whether or not this was appropriate for their kids."

Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, the union that represents the librarians, said the library staff had followed sound procedure in evaluating the book. She said the book's characters encounter "all kinds of really valuable, challenging issues in their world. And they rise above it, make good choices, and it's a good romance too."

"I think the process our librarians followed made a lot of sense," Blaha said. "They read the book, consulted professional journals, consulted each other, talked to other librarians about this book, and really understood who it was for. These are 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds reading this book. Frankly, these are kids who drive themselves to R-rated movies."

Blaha said the critics objecting to "Eleanor & Park" seemed to have "catalogued every word, looked at every word, but haven't really read the story ... The idea that this is so easily defined simply by a list of words is problematic."

"This is very much the world our students live in, and I think it's actually handled quite sensitively," Blaha said. "The big concern we have is that with all these decisions ... we seem to have jumped the gun and gone to immediately starting to cast aspersions on a book without talking to the librarians or, frankly, even without reading the book first."

Before the show, the district offered this statement: 

"The school district and the Anoka County Library system collaborated on the summer book program because we share the goal of encouraging young people to read. The district's media specialists selected the book and the library system agreed to fund the author visit. The county library was in the process of executing a contractwith the author when we learned the book had been formally challenged by the parents of a student at one of our high schools. As a result of the challenge, leadership of the library concluded it would not be wise to finalize the contract and they chose to withdraw financial support for the visit. The author's visit would have occurred at the same time the school district was going through the challenge process. It may well have raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing."