“The first thing I loved about this book was its setting. Set in Omaha, Nebraska in 1986 during a year of high school. I mean, you remember high school, right? Some of you are still IN high school, but you get where I’m going.
What a perfect setting for all of this to unfold. It’s the ‘80s (which means amazing music), it’s high school (hello ‘Sixteen Candles’ anyone), and it’s first love.
This was a time to be different, where it was usually rewarded, right? Wrong. All an illusion. While we cheer and champion for people to be who they are and celebrate it, the truth is that society is about conformity. The question is this: who chooses it?
I bring this up because of Eleanor’s character. Talk about going against convention. And yet, she has no choice. She is returning to live with her mom, siblings, and step-father for the first time in a year. There is little money to meet the needs of the family, much less anything “fashionable” for a teenager. Eleanor will take what she gets (which is usually too big and is men’s clothing). From the Goodwill.
And so she steps on the school bus that first day (the epitome of hell for a teenager for so many reasons), with her crazy, frizzy red hair and clothes that do not meet with the conformity of Omaha teenagers. I mean, talk about the author feeding a character to the wolves.
But it is the first day on a school bus that will change Eleanor’s life. Forever.
It doesn’t happen right away. It builds slowly and snowballs into something amazingly beautiful.
The entire time I was reading Eleanor’s story, my heart was breaking in two different ways: remembering my own horrors of growing up in an abusive household and teaching students just like her.
Eleanor’s story is one of my favorites ever told in YA literature. It is raw. It is real. It transcends into another level that reminds me of the adage, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
When I speak to my students about why reading is so important—as a skill for our mind as well as for our soul—this is the type of story I am referring to. For those who have grown up privileged with money, with family, with friends, etc., Eleanor will remind you to keep and cherish them always. Not all are as lucky.
And then there is Park. Oh Park. While I identified with Eleanor’s character on so many levels, I just wanted to grab Park (and his parents) and say, “Thank you for having a loving heart and open mind.”
When Eleanor gets on that school bus that first day, no one will allow her to sit with them. Bus seat loyalties already exist, but Park moves over. No words. Just moves. This one gesture, this one slide toward the window, changes his life too.
And they do not speak. Park can’t be seen talking with the new weird girl. While he isn’t a part of the popular crowd, he isn’t NOT a part of either. They kind of let him be.
Remember the snowball I mentioned earlier? It all begins with comic books. Oh yes, that is correct. Park reads them on the bus. Eleanor does too. Park happens to notice that she seems to be following along while he’s reading, so small gestures like waiting to turn the page, and leaving a few on her seat for her to take and read on her own, is how the snowball begins to build.
Soon, words are exchanged. It seems that once the words are spoken, they build and build and turn into a beautiful friendship. I say friendship because I feel this is where the depth of their love is born. They are friends, not just two teenagers looking to get lucky with one another.
Park seals the deal with this book. While this is Eleanor’s story, there is no story without Park. He is not a boy with a golden heart looking to swoop in and save the day. He just really likes Eleanor.
He doesn’t really understand the deal with Eleanor. What he does understand is that she is cool, smart, and loves the same music he does.
Park is what I hope my own son will be,
But I will tell you, there is one scene in this book that grabbed at my heart so hard. It deals with Park’s mom. When she first meets Eleanor, she is not so kind to her. After all, why is her son dating the new weird girl who isn’t allowed to date? And then she sees Eleanor with her family at the grocery store (and that’s not revealing anything important, I promise. I’ll let you read that for yourself), and her whole character changes.
Let me tell you why this particular scene is so amazing for me: without using a lot of words but instead implied meanings, the understanding that happens for Park’s mom and the truth of Eleanor’s circumstances brings so much beauty to the table. It is as if in that single moment she not only understands Eleanor but sees her son in a new light as well.
I recommend this to all readers of all ages 12+. It is beautiful writing, storytelling, characters, etc. This book really is the whole package.