If I were to describe the plot of a book with these three words—boy, girl, and cancer—most everyone would have a general idea of where that story was going. We see this story repeatedly in literature and media, and we know how this tale ends: the boy and the girl fall in love before the cancer inevitably claims one of their lives, leaving the other to process their grief but grow from the experience, having formed a new and improved outlook on what it means to live and to love. Yet, what if this was not the way the story unfolded? In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews takes this well-known tale and remolds it to create a story more relatable to his readers.
Andrew’s book opens with Greg Gaines beginning his senior year of high school, and he is on top of the world. He has everything figured out: who belongs in what social group, what that means, and where he fits into all of it. He and his co-worker Earl Jackson (who is also his best friend) are well on their way to surviving the K-12 system, making multiple half-way-decent to good films along the way; that is, until Greg’s mom forces him to become friends with Rachel Kushner, a girl in his grade recently diagnosed with leukemia. In a platonic narrative of their senior year, Greg shares his journey of surviving the stressors of high school while navigating the challenging concepts of mortality, grief, and the fears of an uncertain future. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not the typical tragic love story; rather, it is an exploration of growing up and facing life—both the good and the bad, through the medium of a crudely comedic, low-esteemed high school boy.
Despite these relatable themes and experiences, Andrews’s book has been challenged repeatedly, recently ranking as the seventh most-challenged book of 2021. According to the American Library Association, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has been “banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women” (“National”). In addition to these two reasons, the book has been placed under fire due to being “obscene,” containing “vulgar and coarse language,” and “constituting pornography” (Andrews, “i wrote”; Collier). Admittedly, this book contains strong language use by the main characters, and there is crude humor revolving around sexual references; despite this, the characters in the book are virgins, and there are no sex scenes within the book. On multiple occasions, Andrews has defended his book and addressed the elements that people have used to challenge it. In one interview with USA Today, he describes how “cherry picked passages misrepresent the book and its intentions. ‘It’s about teenage boys talking about sex. They’re not having it, they barely know what it is. They’re joking about it, the way teenagers often do…There’s a kind of an innocent naivete to it that gets totally lost when you’re selecting a couple of sentences and reading it out loud in this aggrieved tone to the school board’” (VanDenburgh). In a letter Andrews tweeted to the Elizabethtown School District, he addresses the accusation that his book “constitutes pornography:”
There is no denying that the book contains crude sexual references often intended for comedic purposes, profuse swearing, and offensive comments by high school boys about the physical appearances of their female classmates. However, to challenge or ban a book that addresses important and relatable messages because the content too accurately represents the common culture among teenagers is hard to accept. Sean Collier says it best in his article discussing the challenging of Andrews’s book: “These books are targeted because they might impart knowledge of the world, as it actually is, to young people; this is an attempt not to shield young minds from obscenity but to blind young eyes against reality.” Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a story detached from the fairytale feel of other similar stories; Andrews addresses that life can be hard, life can suck, and teenagers can be somewhat crude as they find the best route to individually face their reality. For Greg—like many other kids his age—this form of “dealing with it” is through crude gallows humor.
While some may view the book’s crude humor, vulgar language, and sexual references as unnecessary and excessive, there is a purpose behind Andrews’s choices as an author. Neither Greg nor Earl have learned a way to express their struggles and challenges with their relationships, family life, impending graduation, or their friendship with Rachel, the dying girl. Mortality, grief, poverty, neglect, low self-esteem, feeling detached from one’s peers, facing the frightening moment of choosing a future with no idea of what comes next, and the uncertainty of life—these are all concepts that the main characters of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl face, and they do not always know how to handle it. Banning and removing this book from shelves removes the voice of the human experience. Everyone deals with conflict—both internal and external—in different ways. Saying that Greg and Earl’s response to life’s struggles is wrong implies to people who respond in similar ways to grief and fear that their expression and feelings are wrong. Some people laugh when others cry; some people make jokes and lash out when they are afraid or hurt; others avoid hard topics, choosing instead to address easy topics that require no emotional turmoil; and some people do not know how to process extreme emotions on their own.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl should not be banned because it is relatable; it is the—sometimes ugly—truth of processing hard things in life, whether that be one’s social life in school, the uncertainty of a looming future, or the death of a friend—lost before one realized that they never even knew who that person was. How do we deal with the death of a young person, a classmate, a stranger, or a friend? How do we manage multiple stressors, juggling all parts of our life at once? How do we find hope for our futures in a life that does not nourish, support, or prepare us? How do we face our fears of the unknown, find confidence in ourselves and our abilities, and step out of the shadows to claim our lives? The answer: there is no one answer, and there is no right answer, but banning Me and Earl and the Dying Girl eliminates one more person’s ability to say, that is me. Those are my struggles, and those are my fears. I do not have it figured out, but that’s okay because I am not the only one. I am not weird, I do not ‘have a fungus eating my brain,’ and I am not wrong for having the feelings and responses I do (Andrews, Me and Earl 1). I am human, and this is life. It is sometimes frightening and hard to understand, but it is real.
Andrews, Jesse. Cover Image. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Chad Beckerman, Amulet Books, 2012.
Andrews, Jesse. [@_jesse_andrews_]. “i wrote a letter to the elizabethtown (pa) school district, who is considering a request to remove my book.” Twitter, 28 April 2022, 6:07 p.m., https://twitter.com/_jesse_andrews_/status/1519815484329193473
Andrews, Jesse. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Amulet Books, 2012.
Collier, Sean. “Collier’s Weekly: Book Bans Are Back, and as Backwards as Ever.” Pittsburgh, 11 April 2022, https://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/colliers-weekly-book-bans-are-back-and-as-backwards-as-ever/
“National Library Week kicks off with State of America’s Libraries Report, annual ‘Top 10 Most Challenged Books’ list and a new campaign to fight book bans.” American Library Association, 4 April 2022, https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2022/04/national-library-week-kicks-state-america-s-libraries-report-annual-top-10
VanDenburgh, Barbara, and Mary Cadden. “Authors of most banned books in the U.S. speak up: ‘We can’t take these freedoms for granted.’” USA Today, 25 September 2022, 9:26 a.m., https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/books/2022/09/16/banned-books-authors-talk-about-controversy/7963024001/
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This book review is part of a series of Banned Books Week reviews from Dr. Emilee Howland's Fall 2022 ENGL 460: Banned Books class.
For more information about Banned Books Week and how to get involved, please visit BannedBooks.org.