Our story last week about the controversy surrounding author Susan Patron's use of the word "scrotum" in her Newbery-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky seems to have ignited a firestorm. The debate swiftly gained momentum when the New York Times ran a front-page story about it last Sunday. The Times piece gave the issue a lot of attention, but also came in for substantial criticism, with some readers objecting to the article's not speaking with librarians who support the book, and others taking exception to its implication that Patron (like other authors before her) had included that word deliberately, in hopes that its shock value and the attendant fuss might spur sales.
Listservs and blogs have since been crackling with posts, including several from librarians who planned to write letters of complaint to the Times. The newspaper responded yesterday with an editorial lauding the important role of children's librarians, a majority of whom, it appears, support Patron's book. And today, four letters to the editor on the issue appear on the op-ed pages. One of those letters is from children's author Alex Flinn, who takes offense at the implication that authors "sneak" controversial words into their work for whatever reason. "We do not sneak," Flinn states firmly. And a school librarian who was quoted in the Times story expresses her displeasure at being portrayed as someone who pledged "to ban the book." She maintains that the article's characterization of her ignores the librarian's duty to serve her particular community—in this case a conservative elementary school constituency for whom she has not purchased the past three Newbery winners.
Other national media—including CNN, National Public Radio, MSNBC, Larry King Live and The View, among others —have covered the brouhaha and the story has also been picked up by international news outlets (U.K., Australia, Germany, Italy). But when controversy spreads like wildfire, things can often get a little smoky.
So, sticking to the topic of word usage that Lucky raises, it's unfortunate that the word "banned" is being bandied about in discussions of Patron's title. Several news outlets have used this term in their coverage, but the book has not been banned per se. Banning a book is still a big leap from voicing objections to it or deciding not to purchase it for a library collection. The implications of such debate shine a bright light on the role of a librarian.
Librarians make determinations for their libraries every day about purchasing, replacing or even discarding materials. Such decisions are guided by a variety of factors, which include budget, need, space constraints and appropriateness for library users, and which are supported by the library's collection development policy, which also provides a mechanism for patrons to formally object to the library's selected materials. Communities, including schools, overwhelmingly believe that librarians have an obligation to provide access to information (and instruction on how to use it) and trust that librarians also have an expertise that qualifies them to select appropriate materials. These two missions are sometimes difficult to balance, as witnessed by librarians who are currently debating whether a Newbery winner also meets additional, individual selection criteria. Though not every librarian will make the same decision on a matter of "appropriateness," most librarians would argue that these decisions are never made lightly.
But Newbery decisions are not made lightly either, and are considered by "15 people extremely passionate about children's literature and highly regarded in the academic world, the world of education, and the world of library service to children and reviewing children's books," according to children's librarian and 2007 Newbery committee chair Jeri Kladder. "To tell the truth, I am astounded that using a correct anatomical term is causing such furor," she says. "Yes, the committee did acknowledge that not every 4th or 5th or 6th grader would know what the word meant, but they would certainly know by the end of the book. And the strength of the story would be such that the child reader would take it as a matter of course that a book about Lucky, the consummate naturalist, would use it as a matter of routine."
Lucky author Patron has been observing the proceedings largely from the sidelines. However, she can't help but respond to all the attention as a wearer of two different professional hats. From a librarian standpoint she notes, "It appeared that some of my colleagues were so fearful of possible objections that they didn't want to risk adding The Higher Power of Lucky to their collections. But to other librarians—I think the vast majority—this was almost a treasonable act: how dare those professionals withhold children's access to the 2007 Newbery Award book!"
Counter-responses on Patron's behalf have proved enormously heartening, she says. And ultimately, "It turns out that many librarians, as well as teachers, booksellers and parents, agree that kids can handle the naming of a body part, especially in the context of the whole book," Patron says. "I believe that the majority of my colleagues are willing to put their jobs on the line if necessary to support children's access to books, especially when the book in question has won a major award. These are the librarians who respect the intelligence of children, and I thank and applaud them heartily."
From behind the writer's desk, Patron's view is only slightly different. "The books that children love are so often ones that take risks," she says. "The writer uses words as her tools in an attempt to clear a path to the reader's heart, words that must be chosen with great care and deliberation. I hope The Higher Power of Lucky will be found and read by kids, and that it will speak to their hearts."