February 18, 2007

Is It Nuts To Worry About Children's Literature?

An award-winning children's book faces a boycott for including the word "scrotum". The book, The Higher Power of Lucky, tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan whose scrappy spirit is intended to encourage young readers. Librarians have objected to the vocabulary:

The word “scrotum” does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter.

Yet there it is on the first page of “The Higher Power of Lucky,” by Susan Patron, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. The book’s heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum. ...

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.

Pat Scales, a former chairwoman of the Newbery Award committee, said that declining to stock the book in libraries was nothing short of censorship.

“The people who are reacting to that word are not reading the book as a whole,” she said. “That’s what censors do — they pick out words and don’t look at the total merit of the book.”

Scales may have some literacy problems herself. Failing to purchase a book does not constitute censorship. Censorship involves an authority silencing a speaker or an author; in this case, it would be some sort of government action preventing the publication of the book. One would hope that a woman so deeply involved in publishing would know the difference.

Censorship has not happened -- it's just that th intended consumers have rejected the material as inappropriate. Libraries are not required to purchase every book to which the Newbery committee gives its awards. Librarians and educators are expected to be discriminating in their book-purchasing decisions, and that includes their determination of whether material is appropriate for their readers. They don't buy Playboy for high-school libraries, even if the fiction in the magazine happens to be first rate or the interview has special resonance for eductaion.

I don't think that the word "scrotum" is really all that big of an issue. If the book had been aimed at a little older readership, it would be no issue at all. "Scrotum" is an actual medical term of male genitalia, and not at all titillating. By the time girls reach middle school, they should already have had sex education that included the proper terminology for male and female plumbing.

However, one has to wonder at the author of this book for including the word. The New York Times reports that Susan Patron declares herself mystified by the entire controversy. She says the passage is based on a true story involving a friend's dog. Almost in the same breath as she declares herself innocent of ulterior motives, she then says that she wanted to teach children about language and body parts, and that "[t]he word is just so delicious." If so, then why complain if librarians and teachers don't want to teach that particular word to that age group?

Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian from Durango, Colorado, put the issue in its proper perspective. "[Y]ou won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature -- at least not for children.” True, unless the author and her allies want to pick a fight about censorship.


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