Review: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

CoverPublished on ReadKiddoRead.com, May 2013.

In this convincing chronicle of first love set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986, Rainbow Rowell introduces the reader to two high school students, Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is an outsider. She’s the new girl in town: redhead, tall, complex, and abundantly sarcastic; Park is the unwitting, low-key, average guy at school.

When the two first meet on the bus, they hardly speak; though slowly but surely they begin to fall for one another. From stealing first glances, to cryptic conversations about anything other than what they’re really feeling, to sharing the intimate details of their lives, Eleanor and Park find their way to navigating life together. Readers will follow Eleanor and Park through all of the agonizing rites of passage in a typical American high school: gym class, school cafeterias, bullying, riding the bus to school, and finding a niche and group of friends, but they will really get to know the characters through their lives at home.

This is where Eleanor’s narrative really steals the spotlight. Her step-dad is physically and verbally abusive, while her mother – a shadow of who she could be – just tries to keep the peace. Rowell grounds Eleanor’s home life in the everyday details of a young woman struggling to get by… and just barely managing to do so. You can’t help but admire Eleanor whose simultaneous vulnerability and strength is harrowing, striking, and sad.

By comparison, Park has things easy. He has an overbearing father, an embarrassingly-stereotypical (to his mind) Korean mother, and importantly, a stable home life – a stark contrast to Eleanor’s experience. As Eleanor and Park grow closer and the disparate elements of their lives become intertwined, their differences put their newfound relationship to the test.

Ultimately, this is a story of two people finding each other, then finding themselves. It’s a story of growing together and growing apart, all at the same time. Readers will be asking: how could it possibly work out between them? Then again, how could it not?

ELEANOR & PARK will leave readers desperately rooting for both characters, with all the immediacy and intensity of first love found in many young adult novels. Though the premise may sound like a familiar boy-meets-girl/girl-meets-boy story, this novel is anything but common. Rowell’s spot-on writing and tone provide a nuanced look at how one person can enter your life and undoubtedly change it forever.­

ELEANOR & PARK received the 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor and a 2014 Boston-Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction.

Learn more about Rainbow Rowell at www.rainbowrowell.com, or follow her on Twitter, @rainbowrowell.

Review: See You at Harry’s, by Jo Knowles

See You at Harry's cover

Published on ReadKiddoRead.com, January 2013.

At the center of Jo Knowles’ See You at Harry’s is Fern, who is about to embark on her first year of middle school.

On the first pages of the novel, Fern reflects on a childhood memory of her mother reading to her from Charlotte’s Web. Once finished, her mother asks:

“Do you know why I named you Fern?”

I nodded, looking at the drawing of the girl on the cover of the book.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because Fern is one of your favorite characters?”

“And why is that?”

I shrugged.

“Because Fern cares,” she said. “From the moment you were born, I could tell you had a special soul. I knew you’d be a good friend. A hero.”

Indeed, her mother was right.  At age twelve, Fern is compassionate and sensitive, still figuring out her place in a day-to-day world that keeps on changing.

Set against the backdrop of the family’s restaurant, the novel follows several threads and family dynamics. Fern’s father is absorbed in rebranding the restaurant (Harry’s), which sweeps the entire family into an embarrassing marketing effort. To cope, Fern’s mother grows distant and often retreats from the family in order to meditate. Her older sister Sara recently finished high school and now lives at home while working at the restaurant, and her high-school-aged brother Holden is exploring his sexual orientation and dating. Finally, there is Fern’s rambunctious baby brother Charlie, who becomes the unwitting and adorable face of the family restaurant. Each fills Fern’s time between school, homework, and helping at the restaurant with moments of family drama that range from genuine laughter to barely contained annoyance and everything in between.

When sudden tragedy strikes, Fern must find a way to deal with guilt, regret, and a wracking grief that will forever change her family. It’s this emotional journey and the strength of her character that truly earns her the title of hero.

Parents should know that Fern – just like many her age – deals with complex issues in the course of the novel: discrimination and bigotry, bullying, the death of a family member, and grief. But there is also solidarity, friendship and love in a family that is far from perfect. Through Fern’s first-person narration, Jo Knowles deftly and beautifully gives voice to unspeakable grief and heartache in a way that is convincing, affecting, and true.

Not all readers may be ready for this book, but those who want to be immersed in another’s feelings and struggles will find that though See You at Harry’s has a heavy heart, it is well worth its weight in emotional truth: the struggle of guilt and grief, the bonds of family, the power of being a friend, and the hope found in moving forward one day at a time.

Learn more about Jo Knowles at www.joknowles.com, and follow her on Twitter @JoKnowles.