You’ve heard, no doubt, of the controversy surrounding Susan Patron’s Newbery-winning novel, The Higher Power of Lucky. Of course you have; everyone is talking about it. The word "scrotum" appears on the first page of the novel (that’s where Lucky’s dog gets bit by a rattlesnake, poor creature), and some school librarians deem that too blue a reference for a children’s book.
The New York Times reports (in a truly irritating article; more on that in a sec):
The book has already been banned from school libraries in a handful of
states in the South, the West and the Northeast, and librarians in
other schools have indicated in the online debate that they may well
follow suit. Indeed, the topic has dominated the discussion among
librarians since the book was shipped to schools.
So here’s my question. Is James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small not allowed in these same school libraries? Maybe not, as that is technically not a children’s book. I remember reading it for the first time around the age of eleven, but I probably found it in the public library, not at school. Anyway, I’m quite sure that same word appears in at least one of Herriot’s books. I KNOW there is a castration scene in there somewhere. He was a country vet, for Pete’s sake. I’m pretty sure I heard the word "uterus" there for the first time, too, and I vividly recall Herriot’s description of having to lie down in the mucky straw, stripped bare to the waist despite the freezing cold, to insert his hand into a cow to deliver a breech calf. It was at precisely that moment that I decided maybe I didn’t want to be a vet after all.
I haven’t had the opportunity to read Lucky yet. Don’t have any idea whether it will or will not pass my pretty strict criteria for "suitable for the very young." I’m a book-screener for my kids, and I don’t have any problem with that. As I see it, it’s part of my job. I look forward to previewing The Higher Power of Lucky.
But I can tell you for darn sure that the correct name of a body part doesn’t earn any book an automatic bounce from my shelves. Scrotum is only a bad word if we make it so. Frankly, I’d like to reclaim a few words that popular culture has pronounced blue. My beloved Aunt Genia used to say to my uncle, "Oh, Roger, don’t be an ass," with an affectionate zing that makes me grin every time I remember it. Time was you could call someone an ass and it just meant donkey. That was a useful word. People are mulishly, stupidly stubborn sometimes. Alas, our culture labeled "ass" a swear word and slapped other connotations on it. I probably wouldn’t write it into a children’s book now, though I suspect my Martha Tucker would have pronounced someone an ass with relish, if the occasion warranted it.
After reading the Times article, I am tempted to apply Aunt Genia’s word to the reporter (with all the zing, minus the affection), on account of this truly idiotic remark:
Authors of children’s books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or
paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book
over one offending phrase.
Is it some kind of snide, superior accusation that authors "sneak in a
single touchy word or paragraph" for the purpose of tormenting
librarians? Or do they do it for some other reason? And where does the
writer of this article get her information? Does she know about some
kind of survey? Did some Ph.D. candidate do a research paper on the
subject? What is she suggesting that we gain by "sneak[ing] in a single
touchy word or paragraph"?
How did that sentence address the subject of her article, unless it was meant as a slam at the author of Lucky? The word "scrotum" was on the first page! How is that sneaking?
Come on, NYT. You can do better than this. Sneaking. Sneaking?? I actually laughed out loud when I read that quote—it’s so completely clueless—but the more I think about it, the more annoyed I am, for exactly the reasons Gail articulates.
The Lucky brouhaha also renews the debate over the question of whether a librarian’s decision not to add a book to a collection is or is not censorship. And that’s a question I find intriguing, and not exactly clear-cut. But I am clear about one thing: scratching the book off the to-buy list solely because author uses the correct anatomical term to describe exactly where the snake bit the dog (the incident, by the way, is based on a true story)—that’s mulish behavior. I know just what my Aunt Genia would say about it.