As a music and film librarian, kids books are not my area of expertise. Lately, however, controversy has gripped the Library World over a kids book, and like the wreck of a clown car, it’s been impossible to look away. This particular controversy is about the use of a word. A word which, in the opinion of some, utterly negates any value of the story. Although the book, The Higher Power of Lucky, impressed the Newbery Award Committee enough to honor it, this word is making it impossible for some librarians to read the book aloud, to recommend it to children, even to carry it in their collections.
The word is “scrotum”.
The first I heard of this was a column in Publisher’s Weekly discussing the fact that certain library listservs were aflame with this nightmare. I had to re-read the article several times to confirm that the controversy is, in fact, about the actual word “scrotum”, and not the use of some other euphemism for the word scrotum more often found on made-for-cable series about cowboys or gangsters. Alas, the controversy really is about the word “scrotum”.
“Because of that one word,” said a school librarian, “I would not be able to read that book aloud.” Some complained that the use of the word was totally unnecessary. Some implied that there were many other choices the author could have used instead.
I like contemplating this plethora of words the author could have used instead of scrotum, which is the anatomically accurate name for a specific body part. None come to mind that are not on that aforementioned list of premium cable euphemisms guaranteed to get your average ten year old mouth washed out with soap.
Armchair editing like this drives me bonkers. “The author ought to have used this word instead of that word.” “The author used a word that was “unnecessary””, as if the selection of words, specific words in a specific order, is not the very definition of what it means to be an author. It’s like saying it was unnecessary for Picasso to use so much blue paint. It’s ridiculous to argue that an author used a word, any word, “unnecessarily”. They used the words that they used.
Under normal circumstances, it might have been years, possibly never, before I got around to reading this year’s Newbery Award winner, but fortunately controversy made reading it a vital necessity. One does not have to go far into The Higher Power of Lucky to find the word. It’s right there, on page one. Our heroine overhears a dramatic story about a man whose dog was bit on the scrotum by a rattlesnake.
If I’d thought the controversy was silly before, reading the context elevated it to positively asinine. We’re not even talking about a human scrotum, but a canine one, similar to any one of the millions presently on display in living rooms, yards and parks across the country. I had assumed based on the level of hysteria that the scrotum was perhaps doing something vaguely offensive or scatological, instead of valiantly withstanding the attack of a rattler. Considering the average dog’s propensity for doing embarrassing things to their privates, usually in public, this particular scrotum is positively heroic.
If the “controversy” had stopped with the Publisher’s Weekly bit, it would have been easily shrugged off. Unfortunately, what with all the concern over troop surges and military hospital failures and where oh God where on Your Green Earth shall Anna Nicole be buried, it was apparently a slow news week, and the scrotum controversy went national. The New York Times and Newsweek both picked up the story, leading to an explosion in scrotal related newspaper stories.
Many of the articles, like the original PW one, failed to mention the fact that the scrotum in question belonged to a dog. The New York Times article did have one woman insisting that this was yet another example of the “Howard Stern” effect on our country, where people just use nasty words for no reason but to upset good decent people. Comments like this always reveal more about the commenter than the commentated (like maybe they haven't read the book) , but what bothered me more was the thought that the people who actually wrote the articles had not read the book. How else to explain the inclusion of quotes like “you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature” without any kind of fact based alternative perspective? Either the reporters hadn’t read the book (which isn’t that long people) or else the reporters were more interested in la scandale than the truth, and we know that never happens.
For most librarians I know, this sort of thing is just embarrassing, like having a family argument broadcast on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Most librarians are not horrified by the word scrotum. Most librarians have had to clean much worse graffiti off of walls, books and furniture. Most librarians have larger concerns, like the threat of local, state and federal legislators conspiring to keep us from offering any kind of useful computer services to our patrons, but that’s a rant for another day.
In the midst of this controversy, a children’s book catalog was accidentally delivered to my inbox. The back cover promoted several cheerful looking kids books, including one which instantly grabbed my attention. I hurried over to the librarian in charge of buying children’s materials and begged her to add it to the collection. It's called Let’s Look at Animal Bottoms, and features a full color display of several elephant behinds on the cover.
Times like these I realize it’s probably for the best that I never became a Children’s Librarian. I feel I’m lacking some inherent diplomacy necessary to navigate the rocky shoals of children’s lit. My impulse to a scandal like the one over The Higher Power of Lucky is to organize an All Animal Bottoms story time, featuring classic stories like The Truth About Poop and Walter the Farting Dog. No doubt the Library would have some cranky parents on their hands, but I tell you what, if it were up to the kids, it would be a smash hit.