Archive for February 19th, 2007

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.   

It Isn’t All Sunshine and Roses (At Least Not on Paper)

February 19, 2007 @ 2:12 pm | Filed under: ,

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the aspects of the Charlotte Mason method that work so very well for us here in the Lilting House. Today I thought I would balance that by talking about the pieces that aren’t exactly clicking perfectly here at the moment.

You know what isn’t happening? Nature notebooks. One of my new California friends, upon hearing that I’m this huge CM enthusiast, said she can’t wait to see our nature journals. I had to laugh. There isn’t much to see. Jane and I started off great guns when she was, oh, maybe four years old. Her first journal contains charming if barely decipherable drawings of garden flowers, beach treasures, and neighborhood leaves. We glued in some pressed pansies, which are now crumbling out of the book.

It was a fine beginning, and a beginning is all it was. Fully half of the pages are blank.

A year or two later, we started afresh, this time in the manner described in Karen Andreola’s Pocketful of Pinecones. We got one of those composition books with the black-and-white covers, and Jane began carrying a clipboard with drawing paper on our walks. Her drawings were cut to size and pasted into the book, labeled, and then (if I made her) she might copy a short poem on the facing page. Again, charming pages—all six of them.

Oh, we have started afresh a time or two since then. I am a great one for fresh starts. And of course Beanie and Rose acquired their own journals along the way. I found the latest batch yesterday, the ones we were working on in Virginia, before we moved. Way before. The most recent drawings were labeled "April 2005."


Despite this inconsistent and unimpressive record, I have spent some six years now blithely thinking of "nature journals" as one of the defining factors of our family experience. Living books, narrations, deep discussions, and nature journals: I am sure I have rattled this list off a thousand times when people ask questions about how we homeschool. I didn’t mean to be deceptive. Mainly I was fooling myself: that comfy knowledge that we have done it sometimes translated into an airy conception of this is something we do.

(We really DO do the rest of the list, I am relieved to be able to say!)

What was happening was the muddling-together in my mind of nature study and nature journaling. Nature study is a regular daily occurrence around here. Hardly a day passes in which we are not observing and discussing and looking up various flora and fauna. We are passionately interested in birds; we get giddy about growing things; we run for the magnifying glass when a strange six-legged beastie shows up in the backyard, the butterfly net, or (in a shuddersome stretch of days some time ago, which I do not ever care to revisit) on someone’s head.

But here we are, in a new environment, making the freshest of fresh starts; and this time, we’re going to get serious about our nature journals. We are all agreed upon this. Yesterday we hunted up all our supplies and arranged them neatly in the patio room where they can be snatched up on a daily basis. Daily! All right, every-other-day-ly! Or weekly! I’ll settle for "often"!

We are all excited, the girls and I. But enthusiasm does not equal perseverance, so I shall rely upon my gentle readers for some accountability-assistance. Ask me in a month or two how our nature notebooks are coming along, and if I don’t answer, you may interpret that as a blush.

To aid us in our new endeavor, we shall keep in mind the guidelines for nature journaling which Miss Mason herself laid out. At the extremely useful website called Charlotte’s Daughters, a generous CM enthusiast has typed out some actual PNEU syllabi. These make fascinating reads for a number of reasons, and I will be referring to them often in days to come. For now, I want simply to focus on the nature-journaling aspect of these programmes. The science section of each level includes instructions for students to "find and describe" various natural objects and creatures: for example, six-year-olds are to find

6 wild fruits

6 twigs of trees

6 wild flowers

Watch, if possible, and describe 30 birds and 15 other animals.

and to "keep a nature notebook." The syllabus does  not elaborate on what that means (presumably it was explained in other accompanying materials), but farther down the page we find instructions for the year’s drawing lessons:

Drawing and painting

Pencils should not be much used.


1.    Observation


In season, in brush painting or in pastel, draw


6 wild fruits or berries, and autumn leaves

6 twigs of trees, especially with buds or catkins

6 wild flowers


Draw or paint 18 animals that the child has been able to watch.


Draw and paint occasionally from memory.


2.    Technique


"Children should have exercises in brush strokes and should paint
freely on large sheets of … paper … They should draw with brush,
crayon, charcoal, or blackboard chalks. … Avoid pencil outlines
filled in with colour."


Simple flat color washes of shapes or clouds, sunsets, the sea, etc.


3.    Imaginative work


Pictures of people or scenes read about in Literature


Christmas, Easter, birthday, and other greeting cards

This is for the first-year students, remember, about age six, and is an overview of the goals for the whole school year. I imagine a great deal of this happens spontaneously in most homeschools…but it is nice to have as a frame of reference, don’t you think? Especially in regard to the nature journals.

Drawing goals for eleven-year-old PNEU students (Year 6) were similar: over the course of the year, draw

6 wild fruits or berries, and autumn leaves
6 twigs of trees, especially with buds or catkins
6 wild flowers

18 studies of animals that the child has been able to watch.

Draw from memory.

And (under Science)

Make special studies for the season with drawings and notes, e.g.,


        seed dispersal

        twigs, seedlings, etc.

        learn the songs of 6 birds

        visits of insects to plants

        wild flowers that grow together.

Our pencils are sharpened. (Never mind that "pencils should not be much used.") Our most recent half-filled notebooks are ready and waiting. Our trusty Prismacolor pencils are handily arranged. We have the will; we have the way; now all that remains is to do.