A Question for the Librarians Who Won’t Stock Lucky

February 19, 2007 @ 8:05 pm | Filed under:

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.

I’m with my fellow children’s-book author Gail Gauthier on this one:

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.   

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20 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Jennifer says:

    Very interesting. If I were reading it to my six year old, I would probably substitute “underside” or the always handy “wee-wee” because that’s not a conversation I want to have just yet. Nor is it a word I want her using in social situations. 🙂 But I can’t see Patron receiving the Newbery Award using the word “wee-wee”. I can think of a whole list of less appropriate, more vulgar words for that part of the anatomy than, you know, the correct word. Having the word on the first page… Goodness, it’s not as if she were writing about a human’s..um, “wee-wee”. There are many points to ponder here. Hmmmmmm.

  2. Karen E. says:

    “If I were reading it to my six year old,” said Jennifer …

    And that’s a good point, Jennifer. The book is directed to an older group (9-12, I think?) so, as a parent, I’d do the same thing with a six-year-old. I would handle it differently with older children. And, I agree with Melissa that this stuff is a parent’s job … I’ve not yet read this book, but like Melissa, I would preread and then make my decision.

    Sometimes, when I’m reading aloud and Ramona is with us, I make some substitutions. My girls have taken to asking, “Are you editing for us, or for her?” 🙂 If I’m editing “for her” I fill them in later. I used to spell things, but Ramona’s gotten too savvy for that. 😉

    It is kind of fun, though, to picture the monthly meetings of the Secret Society of Children’s Authors Committed to Sneaking in One Touchy Word.

  3. veronica says:

    I still remember the feeling I had as I child when I read Robert Newton Peck’s books from the school library. In one book, he uses the word “bitch” in its proper, techinical sense to refer to a neighbor’s dog, and the librarian had used white-out over the word and written above it in pencil, “female dog.” I guess I should be grateful they stocked it at all.

  4. J says:

    This is too funny.

    What do authors gain from “sneaking” a single word or paragraph?

    1. They get parents and librarians and adults not even concerned with children to blow the issue completely out of proportion.

    2. Because the issue has been blown out of proportion, every self-respecting mischievous kid will do everything in their power to get their hands on the book and giggle over it in their respective playgrounds.

    3. Possibly some of these self-respecting mischievous kids will read the book in its entirety, enjoy it and read it to their kids someday.

  5. JoVE says:

    Seems to me that discussing the anatomy of dogs or other animals is a rather good way to introduce the topic to young children. Why shouldn’t they know the correct terms for their body parts?

    I suspect if you were reading to a sibling group that included smaller children, the word scrotum would go right over their heads. So much of what they read or have read to them is incomprehensible, that it often doesn’t bother them. It would be interesting to just read it and not make any issue of is and then later ask where they thought the dog was bitten. By substituting, you actually give the child a better sense of it but that might not be necessary for their enjoyment of the story.

  6. Theresa says:

    Wow! I hadn’t heard of this one before. Thanks for discussing it, Lissa. IMHO age 9-12 is certainly old enough to handle the word scrotum. It is the correct anatomical term, after all. I’d much rather that term be used than some of the other more colorful terms for that particular part. As for younger children being read aloud-isn’t that a parent’s responsibility to edit if they choose to read a book out of the recommended age range? Besides, if little Sally asks “what’s a scrotum?” we simply reply “That is part of the male dog’s private parts.” Simple enough. I just don’t get what’s the big deal.

  7. sarah says:

    When we make a big deal out of things as common as body parts and ooh and aah about them until the whole world (practically) is talking about the word scrotum like it’s a “dirty word”—-well, then of course a lot of kids who will overhear all the adults oohing and aahing about the “dirty word” (which isn’t, in fact, diry at all just the correct term for a part of the body, albeit one that is private) will feel that they just-have-to-read-the-book! But somehow it will have turned into a need to read the book in secret because all this oohing and aahing must be about SOMETHING….and so they’ll most likely, at some point, read the book and think one of two things:
    1. which one is the dirty word? because they’ll either already know what a scrotum is…and truly, since it is the correct use of a real part of the body…they’ll think “well, it surely can’t be that word” or they’ll have not have heard the word and most likely will pass over it, assuming it is some part of the leg, or ear, or whatever….or they’ll look it up in the dictionary and find out what it means and still think “it can’t be that word, that all this oohing and aahing is about because really dirty words are usually not real words at all and so are not in the dictionary”….or
    2. they’ll know that all the fuss is about the word scrotum and may very likely come to a new understanding that scrotum IS a dirty word….which then gets complicated because if the WORD is dirty, well then is the PART dirty? And so our boys will think there bodies are something to be ashamed of and our girls will think that, too…and that’s not somewhere I want to go for my children. Just because a part of our bodies is special and private does not mean that it is lewd or dirty, or not fit to ever be mentioned…even in the context of another species of creature for the benefit of retelling a story.

    I guess my question to the librarians is: don’t you have anything better to do than this? All we’re talking about is a dog! Shouldn’t 9-12 year olds already know basic anatomy, anyway? Oh…and didn’t the book recieve a Newbery Award?

  8. Maria P says:

    I was just reading the Children’s Bible to my kids yesterday and the word ass was used and I had to explain usage….interesting how the proper terminology is branded improper….ridiculous.

  9. Christie says:

    I have a far far bigger problem with violence. Have you read “Toys go Out?” Cute book, an easy to read chapter book probably directed at 6 and 7 year olds. I read it to my 5 year old. Totally harmless, but the author includes three seperate times in a list of fearful things lurking in the basement an AX MURDERER. What do young kids know of ax murderers? And if they do know of ax murderers do we really need to repeatedly draw that image up in their minds? I missed editing the first time I came across it and I am just glad my daughter didn’t ask.

    I have no problem with correctly labeling body parts. I’d have no problem telling my daughter what it is.

  10. Becky says:

    I know just what my Aunt Genia would say about it.

    Aww, nuts?!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist lol. What were you expecting from someone who lives on a farm….

  11. Laurie says:

    Ummm…haven’t most 9-12 year olds had sex ed in their SCHOOL???? Isn’t the mantra these days about teaching our kids the correct anatomy words so they can talk about sexual abuse and talk to their doctors?? Come on! I expect much more out of NYT and adults in general. Geez, my son gets more terminology from the Science Channel! He told me the other day (6yrs old) that the sex of the sperm is what determines the sex of the baby. OK, it kinda surprised me but he knows it’s not a ‘forbidden’ subject and therefore won’t ever be one of those giggling kids in the bathroom reading exciting words like ‘scrotum’. Instead, my kid will be the one to tell the others to grow up. LOLOL

  12. Stephanie in Germany says:

    Thank you , Lissa, for speaking out on this issue. I probably never would have heard of the book, if there hadn’t been such a hoopla made about one word!

    Just some food for thought…Who and what are the librarians afraid of? And why?
    Maybe through all this media attention the libraries will be able to carry this book “Lucky” without fear!? If the ridiculousness of the situation is exposed, maybe it will hinder some (adjective) parents from complaining to the library or even going to court to sue the librarian for who knows what???? Maybe the librarian won’t lose her job, because of the decision? Don’t get me wrong. I am definitely in favor of protecting our children, but the system sure is a bit screwy? Nicht wahr?
    On this side of the ocean, we hear all kinds of stories…about the Land of the Free…it makes you wonder sometimes what the word “Free” means.

  13. Karen E. says:

    “I suspect if you were reading to a sibling group that included smaller children, the word scrotum would go right over their heads.”
    LoL … You don’t know my Ramona. *Nothing* goes over her head. You’d be surprised at what she’s repeated (correctly and in context) around here. 🙂

  14. Lisa says:

    As a librarian, albeit not in public or school libraries, I cannot imagine banning a Newbery book even if it were offensive! I think as a society we have gotten a little crazy over language!

  15. Maria Ashwell says:

    My thought was, considering the very graphic sex ed and “AIDS education” most kids get in public schools (sometimes starting in kindergarten) I don’t know what the big deal is about referring to a dog’s scrotum. Absurd!

  16. lori says:

    I don’t care how old (or young) a child is, “scrotum” is not an inappropriate word. I can’t believe people still make up babyish names for body parts. Talk about teaching children to be ashamed of their bodies! That’s the kind of thing “The Vagina Monologues” addresses, which is what makes the recent story about “The Hoo-ha Monologues” even more absurd and embarrassing.

  17. Kris says:

    As someone else who enjoyed Herriot at a very young age, I completely agree. Those books included an immense number of graphic descriptions of animal body parts and some pretty intimate details of said body parts. But in no case was it crude; it was simply factual and that’s what I loved about those books. They were so real.

    I’ve not yet read Lucky, but used in context, there is absolutely nothing wrong with “scrotum”. It’s a simple description, and I have to think the author anticipated that her audience would be familiar with the word and its meaning. Really. Shouldn’t 9-12 year olds *know* what that’s called?? If they don’t, I’d say that’s a bigger problem than Lucky.

  18. Jeanne says:

    Makes me want to listen to George Carlin’s monologue again — Remember his Seven Dirty Words? Don’t google it unless you’re prepared : ) Even the search page turns The Words up in full view.

    I loved my general semantics grad courses, where I learned such weirdly simple/complicated things as “the word is not the thing.”

    We used to do a very brief exercise in my college communication classes where we used perfectly innocent four-letter words, like, say “desk,” and placed them in all the contexts in which we usually find the words that are considered profane. “You desking idiot!” “What the desk?” “Holy desk!” The students got a real kick out of it – and out of thinking about the power of words and how they “hold” or contain power.

    We invest certain words with power that the letters simply do not contain – we just agree that they do. It’s sort of like paper money without any gold to back it up. We just agree on the value. Then we face people who take even this a step further, searching for other words that share meaning (value) with the ones we’ve decided are “bad words,” but in which society has not invested the same power of the profane.

    I think about all this while embracing one of my favorite Bible verses: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

    What interesting creatures we are.

  19. Karnak says:

    As a librarian I can tell you in your country, school and public librarians don’t win. God help them in the South if they hold books on evolution because there is always someone who does not hold with that or some dolt who finds a book that others want to read offensive. Worst was some silly mother who held the local public library liable when her 16 year old was looking up porn sites on the local public library computers in the adult section. He was her son and she not the library is responsible for him. In Australia we don’t seem as silly on either sides yet but I suppose that it is yet to come. I hold with the freedom to read and libraries to hold a variety of books and other literature in ther collectison and to provide access electronically to web resources that some may find offensive to them and their beliefs but that others want to read. However when I was a kid the local public library stopped buying Enid Blyton books because they offered a limited vocabulary supposedly yet that was all some kids read but at least they were reading. So parts fo Australian libraries have been as silly as the US.

  20. Beate says:

    I’m with Lori – at least the author uses the anatomically correct word instead of some sort of slang!