Monday, February 19, 2007

The Tale of Two Scrotums

I’m going to forgo poems this week (except for a short one) for the dumbest story (outside of the administration) I’ve heard in ages. – The banning of an award winning children’s book because it contains the word scrotum. I love libraries, but the librarians who want to ban this book should find a new profession.

First, though lest me recommend a book: Path of Destruction- The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein (Little, Brown and Co, 2006). It might be a little early for a through history of Katrina, but the authors do an excellent job of laying out why New Orleans could not be protected, and why the protection (levees) built were so poorly engineered they might as well not been build. It will change the way you look at the Corp of Engineers forever.


And a short poem –

Noonday, Australia Winter
(with thanks to Frank Faust)

Fair dinkum hot, even for a barbie.
Bush burns, smoky; sheep on the long paddock.
Dry as a pom's beach towel, watching sheilas.
We need rain soon, mate. Send her down, Hughie.

Long paddock - Graze along the road in a drought
Pom - Englishman
Send her down, Hughie - A wish for rain to fall


And now the news article – I heard portions of this read on the radio today and can tell you, the s-word is used with care. Nine and ten year old boys might snigger, but they do about lots of things.

NY TImes Published: February 18, 2007

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

“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much,” the book continues. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

The inclusion of the word has shocked some school librarians, who have pledged to ban the book from elementary schools, and re-opened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books. The controversy was first reported by Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine.

On electronic mailing lists like, dozens of literary blogs and pages on the social-networking site LiveJournal, teachers, authors and school librarians took sides over the book. Librarians from all over the country, including upstate New York; Missoula, Mont.; Portland, Ore.; and Central Pennsylvania weighed in, questioning the role of the librarian when selecting — or censoring, some argued — literature for children.

“This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didn’t have the children in mind,” Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colo., wrote on LM_Net, a mailing list that reaches more than 16,000 school librarians. “How very sad.”

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.”
If it were any other novel, it probably would have gone unnoticed, unordered and unread. But in the world of children’s books, winning a Newbery is the rough equivalent of being selected as an Oprah’s Book Club title. Libraries and bookstores routinely order two or more copies of each year’s winners, with the books read aloud to children and taught in classrooms.

“The Higher Power of Lucky” was first published in November by Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, accompanied by a modest print run of 10,000. After the announcement of the Newbery on Jan. 22, the publisher quickly ordered another 100,000 copies, which arrived in bookstores, schools and libraries around Feb. 5.

Reached at her home in Los Angeles, Ms. Patron said she was stunned by the objections. The story of the rattlesnake bite, she said, was based on a true incident involving a friend’s dog.
And one of the themes of the book is that Lucky is preparing herself to be a grown-up, Ms. Patron said. Learning about language and body parts, then, is very important to her.

“The word is just so delicious,” Ms. Patron said. “The sound of the word to Lucky is so evocative. It’s one of those words that’s so interesting because of the sound of the word.”

Ms. Patron, who is a public librarian in Los Angeles, said the book was written for children 9 to 12 years old. But some librarians countered that since the heroine of “The Higher Power of Lucky” is 10, children older than that would not be interested in reading it. “I think it’s a good case of an author not realizing her audience,” said Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, N.J. “If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.” Authors of children’s books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase.

In the case of “Lucky,” some of them take no chances. Wendy Stoll, a librarian at Smyrna Elementary in Louisville, Ky., wrote on the LM_Net mailing list that she would not stock the book. Andrea Koch, the librarian at French Road Elementary School in Brighton, N.Y., said she anticipated angry calls from parents if she ordered it. “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson,” she said in an interview. One librarian who responded to Ms. Nilsson’s posting on LM_Net said only: “Sad to say, I didn’t order it for either of my schools, based on ‘the word.’ ”

Booksellers, too, are watchful for racy content in books they endorse to customers. Carol Chittenden, the owner of Eight Cousins, a bookstore in Falmouth, Mass., said she once horrified a customer with “The Adventures of Blue Avenger” by Norma Howe, a novel aimed at junior high school students. “I remember one time showing the book to a grandmother and enthusing about it,” she said. “There’s a chapter in there that’s very funny and the word ‘condom’ comes up. And of course, she opens the book right to the page that said ‘condom.’ ”

It is not the first time school librarians have squirmed at a book’s content, of course. Some school officials have tried to ban Harry Potter books from schools, saying that they implicitly endorse witchcraft and Satanism. Young adult books by Judy Blume, though decades old, are routinely kept out of school libraries.

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

“At least not for children,” she added.


Until the next post.

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Anonymous Zanny said...

I dont know why Dana's name even appears in this article. she is not banning the book, she simply thinks that a childrens award winning book would have more appropriate content. she simply asked if the shock value was worth the merit of the book. many books are based around shocking their audiences, such as the end of "Grapes of Wrath" but for nine and ten year olds, the material should be chosen carefully. she told me that she doesnt want to be the one who explains to her readers what a scrotum is. I just wanted to try and clear her name, and it shouldnt have even appeared in this article.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Gary B said...

Zanny, thank you. I included the article as it appeared in the Times. I can only assume that the Times told her they were going to use her.

A librarian called into the radio show yesterday and said when she reads she might skip the word, replace it and even if the book if too long, skip a few sentences, depending on the audience. That seems to me to be the right solution vice banning.

I despise banning books.

Of course, there is the story of the award program that criticized a book in one of its publications when those that pick for the award picked it as one of the year’s best. Sorry, I do remember who they were or the book.



7:30 AM  

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