Monday, April 9, 2007

Scrotum? How shocking. Not.

Okay. One word, one single word in a children's book is offensive to a few people, and suddenly the entire book is reduced to that single word and the controversy surrounding it.

It makes me angry.

See the New York Times article from February 18, 2007 for a comprehensive account of the matter.

Nobody cared about the word until the book received the Newbery Medal. Then it's big news. It is hard for me to understand why this is such an issue. Is it harmful for children to learn the proper word for a body part? If they know the word already, they can feel smart and smug when they read about Lucky's puzzlement. If they don't know the word, they can understand why this little bit of mystery is intriguing to the protagonist and either find the definition themselves or learn about it along with Lucky.

Calling it a "Howard Stern-type shock treatment," as one librarian in that article describes the word choice, is just silly to me. And thoughtless. How can you call yourself a librarian and then spend so much time moralizing on a single word out of context? How can you be a teacher and children's librarian and not remember what it was like, as a child, to overhear those tantalizing snatches of conversation and wonder what they really meant? The story that Lucky overhears is not just thrown in to get a rise out of prudish adults; it is an integral part of the novel. Without that story, the narrative would not carry the punch that it does; the motivation for Lucky's behavior would not be nearly as believable.

Did these people bother to continue reading past the horrifically shocking word "scrotum"? It's hard to believe they did.

The "librarian" quoted above also said, in the Times article, “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

MEN'S genitalia? We are talking about a DOG in this book. A DOG! Did she even read it? And guess what? It is quality literature. Not that, evidently, she would recognize "quality literature" if it came up and bit her on the...scrotum. Tee hee.

Many of the comments of these horrified people showed that what really bothered them was the possibility that they might be called upon to explain the word to children. Not so much that it might be, in some obscure way, harmful to children, but that the word made them feel uncomfortable. “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson,” said one critic. Don't they realize that by making such a big deal out of a harmless little word, it just draws children's attention to it? Being matter of fact about it, calling a spade a spade, so to speak, and moving on, seems a bit more productive.

It's a body part. It has a name. Children should know names for parts of the anatomy. Get over it.

As one of the librarians I work with pointed out, the scene in which Lucky finally asks her guardian about the definitin of scrotum is just wonderful. Does Brigitte gasp in horror and ask Lucky where on earth she heard such a word? Of course not! She takes it in stride and gives her a clear, simple answer, just as she would if Lucky had asked her what asparagus was. Isn't that what is supposed to happen? Aren't children supposed to feel comfortable coming to us with their questions and concerns? And aren't we adults supposed to answer them in a straightforward, loving way?

Read the book. It's wonderful. Definitely what I'd call quality literature.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006)

Publisher recommends for ages 9 - 12.


  1. i'm deeply offended by your use of the phrase "tantalizing snatches" in this piece.

    you are right.

  2. Oh, sorry - that was inexcusable. I sure hope you stopped reading right then and there and became deeply offended. :-)


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