Monday, February 19, 2007

The Higher Power of Libraries

Two separate relatives have already emailed me the NY Times article about the controversy over the word "scrotum" in Susan Patron's 2007 Newbery award winner, The Higher Power of Lucky," and it's all over the Interwebs, too. So how can I resist? I just tried to leave a comment on Jessamyn's site. It got eaten by the spam detector, but that's okay; halfway through writing it I realized that it should probably be its own post anyway.

Here's the thing: Parents and community members challenge books all the time based on a single word, or phrase, or image, in the book. At my own library, I've had parents informally express concern about books containing one disturbing illustration, or one paragraph they think is inappropriate. The Catcher in the Rye regularly tops most-banned-books lists in large part because of four (count 'em, four) repetitions of the F-bomb. And I don't know how many times--but it's a lot-- Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen has been banned, challenged, or simply not purchased on account of one image of a naked little boy crowing on top of a milk bottle.

I'd be lying if I said I'd never passed up on purchasing a book because I anticipated complaints from parents, not just because of overall themes or subject matter, but due to one or two words or phrases that might trigger some parent's anxiety or fear or anger. I have to admit that when I opened up my library's brand-new copy of The Higher Power of Lucky the other day and read about the dog's scrotum right on the first page, my first thought was "Oy. Okay, maybe not pushing this to the 2nd-grade crowd."

But if I allowed those first admittedly cowardly reactions to dominate my purchasing decisions, where would it end? With pulling Number the Stars because it contains the word "damn?" Or what about the word "anus" (also in regard to a dog, interestingly) in Gail Carson' Levine's wonderful The Wish--what if someone was offended by that? Lots of parents complain about the improper English that Junie B. Jones uses in the series by that name--maybe it doesn't have a place in our library either? I mean, hey, we have a small collection! We're in loco parentis! Where's my responsibility to those easily-influenced children and their concerned parents?

On my better days, I know exactly where my responsibility lies: it lies with the kid who's looking for the book that will open up their world. Even if that book might irk some other kid's parents.

I'm no First Amendment martyr. I hate trouble as much as the next person, and I like my job. When I decide to buy a book that I know might be controversial, it helps that I know my community, know the kids I work with, and have been at my job for eight years now. It also helps that I have a solid Board-approved collection policy behind me.

But it burns me up that so many librarians appear to have absolutely no compunction about dismissing this year's Newbery Award winner out of hand, without even waiting for a parent or community member to complain, based on one little word.

My favorite commentary on this whole kerfluffle comes from an anonymous commenter on the As If! site:

" Maybe only males have a scrotum, but anyone who censors a book out of fear has no balls."


rachel said...

Heh, I remember being mildly shocked in about fifth grade when I read the word "testicle" in Lawrence Yep's "Dragonwings". I believe the narrator's uncle was threatening to castrate him. That incident (and word), and a character saying the word "bitch" (transliterated by the Chinese narrator as "bit-sha"), are about the only things I remember from "Dragonwings" -- so you could argue that authors ought to include more of this kind of thing, because it sticks with the reader longer. ;-)

susan said...

Great post. And that comment you quote from As If! is marvelous!!

I read this story in the Times and just sat their with my jaw dropping: what lunacy! It's a word for a part of the body that half the readers of the book possess--and a body part that's not all that hard to see, either. Geesh.

Elaine Magliaro said...

I want to extend you a hearty welcome to the kidslitosphere. the way, this is an excellent post on The Great SCR*T^M Debate!

Phantom Scribbler said...

I'm not even going to tell you how old I was before I learned what a scrotum was. But I will say that the length of my personal ignorance of the names of certain body parts is, in fact, an excellent argument for ADDING the book to one's school library...

liz said...


Jone said...

Love your post. I wrote about the book here:

Genevieve said...

I love this book, and certainly hope the elementary school libraries here will have it (our county library does). I don't think I'm going to read it to my first-grader until he's in third grade, but that's more for overall themes.