The heroine of Eleanor & Park isn’t your typical YA heroine. She isn’t skinny. She has crazy red hair. She’s unsure of herself, yet she’s unwilling to be pushed around. She’s tough and guarded and when she falls for Park, her life isn’t magically changed—but she is.
We were totally engrossed in Eleanor and Park’s rich, unputdownable story—just like John Green, who raves in the New York Times, “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”
Today, author Rainbow Rowell stops by to tell us why she decided to write two unconventional-looking characters, and how, “if the right person finds you beautiful, you win. You win forever.”
I don’t know exactly what Eleanor looks like.
Maybe that sounds strange; I wrote Eleanor & Park—I created Eleanor.
But my characters never quite physically step out of the haze for me when I’m writing. (Maybe I want readers to be able to fill in some of the details themselves . . .)
Here’s all I can tell you for certain about Eleanor’s appearance:
She has curly red hair, a thousand freckles, and a smile that can be scary. She’s pale. She’s fat. And Park thinks she’s beautiful—so she is.
I think, when I was younger, I believed in—and yearned for—conventional beauty. I thought there was a spectrum from ugly to beautiful, and that you could objectively plot everyone you saw along it.
I thought that some features were universally attractive, and others were universally repulsive. And that fat was the worst of the worst. Fat was what canceled out everything good. Fat was what made you unlovable. (Sucks to be me, FML, etc.)
I’m not sure when I figured out what a big (fat) lie that is; some days, I’m still sorting through it. But I knew, when I started writing a book about a 16-year-old girl, that I didn’t want to write about the 16-year-old girl who’s already on the cover of every book. (Though not necessarily in their pages.) The one with the long dark hair and the giant eyes, and the arms and legs that barely taper. That girl’s fine—she’s beautiful. But she doesn’t have the corner on beautiful.
If you were an alien who came to our bookstores—or browsed our teen magazines—you’d think that only Earth girls who look like Mila Kunis ever got any action.
But real girls who are that kind of beautiful—the kind of beautiful that everyone can agree on—are few and far between.
And that’s okay; it doesn’t really matter in life or love. You don’t have to be the kind of beautiful that everyone can agree on. If the right person finds you beautiful, you win. You win forever.
In my book, both Eleanor and Park struggle with their appearance. Eleanor feels too big, Park feels too small. And sometimes they wonder whether they’re allowed to be together—or with anyone. Whether they’re attractive enough to be loved.
In my own high school, there were maybe four guys who were on the approved crush list. All the other boys were considered too weird or too nerdy, too skinny or too short . . . I used to keep my crushes secret from my friends, so that they wouldn’t think there was something wrong with me for liking these dorks.
And I also remember guys who seemed embarrassed to like me as much as they did. Guys who would play with my hair and walk me home from school—then ask some other girl to Homecoming.
Getting out of high school makes all of this easier—just getting away from the politics and groupthink. It gets easier to see with your own eyes.
When you actually fall in love, no one sees that other person the way that you do. And what you see is so much more than the sum of that person’s physical parts. Attraction is what happens between you. It’s not universal. And it’s not conventional. And thank God for that.
I hope that big/thick/fat/chubby/curvy/not-so-thin girls see themselves in Eleanor. And believe they’re as lovable as she is.
But what I really hope is that the book is another voice out there telling anyone who reads it that there are no rules in love and attraction—except for the ones you make with the person you choose and who chooses you.
Can you relate? Let us know in the comments! And start reading Eleanor & Park on Figment!
Photo of Rainbow Rowell by Augusten Burroughs.