What's in a word? Plenty of controversy, if it happens to be a word naming a part of the male anatomy, and if it appears in a Newbery Award-winning novel. In recent weeks the online blogosphere inhabited by children's book professionals has been abuzz with debate over author Susan Patron's use of the word "scrotum" in her freshly minted Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky. Librarians, teachers, reviewers and others have used blogs and listservs as forums to object to or defend the book and the ALA's selection of the title for one of its highest honors.
Many of the objections have been voiced on LM_Net, a listserv open to school library media specialists and those involved with that field. One of the first to raise concerns over Patron's word choice was Dana Nilsson, a teacher/
librarian at Sunnyside Elementary in Durango, Colo. In response to her own comments, she says she received at least 25 off-list replies agreeing with her view. As she explained to Bookshelf, "Part of my job is to introduce students to quality, age-appropriate literature. I would not be doing my job if I booktalked or recommended this book to young audiences. This book has some great qualities—it shows a girl in an insecure situation wanting stability in her life. The inclusion of genitalia does not add to the story one bit and that is my objection. Because of that one word, I would not be able to read that book aloud.There are so many other options that the author could have used instead."
Upon seeing similar posts on LM_Net as well as a few other listservs, YA author Jordan Sonnenblick chimed in. One of the founders of ASIF, Authors Support Intellectual Freedom, Sonnenblick was dismayed at the seeming lack of support for The Higher Power of Lucky in these online communities. "I can't post on LM_NET, so I'm hoping some of you might speak out against something over there," he wrote on child_lit. "In the digest yesterday, several elementary school & children's librarians posted about how they don't plan to booktalk (or in some cases, even purchase) this year's Newbery winner. Apparently, this is entirely due to their chagrin at the appearance of the word "scrotum" in the novel. Perhaps more disturbing: not a single person posted to argue in favor of either the novel or intellectual freedom. Yikes."
According to Sonnenblick, who clarified his position for Bookshelf, "This really brings to light how bad things are. I think it is absurd. It even goes far beyond employing self-censorship out of fear of objections to a book."
Sonnenblick refers to a perceived rise in school challenges to books. Statistics from the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom show that although the total number of book challenges was slightly lower in 2005, the vast majority of reported challenges came from school libraries, followed closely by schools. School library materials traditionally come under more scrutiny than those at public libraries, for a variety of reasons. School librarians are usually working within a smaller budget than their public library counterparts and have an additional duty to support the school's curriculum as well as answer to school administrators. This frequently means tighter guidelines for purchasing fiction. In addition, because students in a school setting are a more "captive" audience than patrons of a public library, the materials that students have access to at school are usually more closely monitored by parents.
Well aware of these factors, many school librarians and teachers are more vigilant than ever about selecting materials that will not raise parental or community concern. Unfortunately, such vigilance can lead to self-censorship that keeps books from getting onto, or remaining on, school library shelves.
However, there are scores of school librarians and teachers who appreciate the current online discussion but back The Higher Power of Lucky wholeheartedly. Dean Schneider, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tenn. and who is coincidentally on the 2008 Newbery committee, told Bookshelf, "The word scrotum does not ruin the book for me. I think it's integral to the story, emblematic of a girl's trying to make sense of her world. The stirring up of debate is part of the fun of the various awards, but I am concerned about how many people seem to be offended by the word and would not read the book aloud because of it."
So where does the author fit into all this? For her part, Patron says she has been taken aback by the negative reactions. And she is uniquely qualified to analyze both sides of the issue, as she is a senior librarian—in charge of children's collection development, no less—at the Los Angeles Public Library. "Part of my job every day is to use my professional opinion as a librarian to evaluate materials," she said. "But this is new to see this kind of discussion of my own book. It's ironic and very different to feel this in such a visceral way."
In defending her work, the author expressed her motivations as a writer and touched on several points integral to questions of intellectual freedom. Patron maintains that Lucky—with all her curiosity about the world, and body parts—is the culmination of a goal to "create authentic characters who would ring true for readers." She noted she was "shocked and horrified" that her word choice might frighten any librarian away from including the book in their collection, making it available to its intended audience: kids who would relate to "the 10-year-old who lives inside of me." She additionally voiced concern about the school librarian as censor, limiting reading choices for children, a practice that should be reserved for parents. And Patron pointed to the 'forbidden fruit' allure that books that adults deem controversial have for young readers, noting that children, much like her childhood self, would be determined to "get their mitts on" a book considered inappropriate for them.
As far as terms of anatomy go, Patron believes that providing children with materials that give accurate information is far better than leaving them to unscramble "half-truths" and "overheard tidbits" on their own, a position that hopefully many children's book professionals would find difficult to argue against.
To see Patron's full response to the debate, click here.