Yes yes, I know. I am the last children's lit professional on the planet to have read this book. You've all read it, and you've all loved it, and I am late to the Eleanor & Park Party.
Oh my god. Think of it -- that would be the funniest party. We'd all have to wear plaid flannel and band t-shirts and stand around looking at the floor until we each stormed out of the room in tears.
It would be like the parties at my college radio station in the 80's, come to think of it! Actually we didn't even have parties at the radio station, they were all canceled on account of everyone panicked at the idea of going to a party. Which of course was expressed as scathing disdain. "Oh yes, let's have a party. That would be OH SO FUN."
That's totally why I managed to not read this book, you know. I was supposed to read it for a committee I was on and I cheated and read all the reviews instead. I was supposed to listen to it on audio for a workshop and I didn't. I heard Rainbow Rowell speak at BEA and she was SO funny and charming that I downloaded it onto my phone immediately and read it at the bar that night and then stopped reading it because I don't know a hot guy walked by or a good song came on (DOUBTFUL) or my food came or something.
Former college radio programmers (we didn't actually call ourselves DJs) are constitutionally unable to do what everyone else is doing. It is stupid and it causes us more harm than good and EVERYONE thinks we're pretentious and they're right, but there you have it. If you've read the book, you understand.
Both Eleanor and Park are going to make bitchin' college radio DJs.
But there's a point at which a book becomes so well-known that not having read it puts you at a disadvantage when discussing other books, and that point is when it shows up on your 8th grader's summer reading list.
We've been listening to it in the car. Well, I say "we." I don't know how much of it Milo's actually heard, because I have not been conscientious about not listening to it when he's not in the car. That's a lot of negatives in that sentence, sorry.
Anyway I am thinking of actually BUYING that book and leaving it in his room because he's 14 now and he has a girlfriend, and god damn, Eleanor & Park is practically a PRIMER on what actually falling in love feels like. As well as what self-esteem problems feel like, and fear, and how it feels to hear the Smiths for the first time.
I had to pause the CD and find 'How Soon is Now' on my phone and play it for my sons when it came up in the book. That first chord? They both actually said, "whoa." Rainbow Rowell, that is a moment I wouldn't have had if it weren't for you. I was 19 again for a minute, but simultaneously 49 and sitting in a car with my little boys, who have turned into the kind of teenagers who get that song. I owe you one, girl.
"So you go and you stand on your own / and you leave on your own / and you go home and you cry and you want to die." Yup. THAT's why we didn't have radio station parties at WRUW.
We also stopped the CD after Park put his arm around Eleanor's waist for the first time. While Park rejoiced about this expansion of his known Eleanor-world, Eleanor fell down a hole of self-loathing, imagining Park's revulsion upon touching her soft self. This is something my boys need to know about - how much pain girls can inflict upon themselves, how acute their awareness can be, and what if anything they can do to be kind.
It might not be easy to hear, but it's real. The way that Eleanor and Park fall in love is real, too. Theirs is not initially a physical attraction, nor is it a friendship that turns romantic. It takes them a LONG DAMN TIME for them to even speak to each other, and longer still until they will hold hands. Their obstacles - the way they are both saturated with fear and hopelessness - explain the utter incandescence of their happiness.
In fact, Eleanor's critique of Romeo and Juliet is what started me thinking about this whole YA/Classics dialogue.
"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 wanted. 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.”
I'm sure I'm not the first to think of using Eleanor and Park to teach Romeo and Juliet. It is always faintly ridiculous that children read Shakespeare so young. You don't really even get what's going on in any Shakespeare play until you've read it three times, seen it performed on TV and in person, and watched West Side Story. If you're very lucky, Joss Whedon or the BBC will do a contemporary adaptation.
If you are BLINDINGLY lucky, Rufus Sewell will wear eyeliner in the BBC adaptation of the play you are tasked with studying. Although nobody is ever assigned Taming of the Shrew. It's too entertaining. No, people end up having to read Coriolanus or Timon of friggin Athens. King John. HA HA ha ha ha. Where was I?
Oh right. Reading Romeo & Juliet in high school is almost as ridiculous as falling in deathless eternal love in high school. And the way that Eleanor & Park bumps up against the play throws this fact into sharp relief. But it's not done in some slavish way - it's not a roman à clef, ugh.
Sometimes Eleanor and Park harmonize with Romeo and Juliet, sometimes they sing a contrasting melodic line: the first meeting on the school bus - Park's turf - when they won't even look at each other is the flip side of Romeo and Juliet meeting at a party at her house and falling in love at first sight. Both couples take chaste handholding to passionate heights, and both couples are thwarted by family, especially the lady's explosive and controlling father (or stepfather). Eleanor scoffs superstitiously at any mention of the future, while the idiots in Romeo & Juliet get married right away. Eleanor & Park even ends with exile. Oh, I could make a chart!
And I would, if I were teaching senior English at my old high school. "Never was a tale of woe..." Ha, I mean, come on - you want woe, you spend some time at Eleanor's house. When Romeo kills Tybalt, you're like, "Come on, dummy - you really had no other choice?" But when Park thinks about killing a member of Eleanor's family, oh, we are with him all the way. Rainbow Rowell establishes some high stakes in this book.
It might be the only way I'd recommend reading Romeo & Juliet at a young age... paired with Eleanor & Park. Talk about an uncomfortable double date - I'd rather go to a radio station party!
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