Scrota and Other Unmentionables
Posted by: Keir Graff
President’s Day, a sleepless baby, and software testing have all conspired to keep me away from the blogosphere lo these past four days. I know the news cycle has probably already pretty much ended on the controversy regarding the use of the word scrotum in Susan Patron’s Newbery-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, but I can’t help it, I just have to add my two cents. For those who did somehow miss it, Julie Bosman covered the story for the New York Times (“With One Word, Children’s Book Sets Off Uproar“):
The word "scrotum" does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter.
Yet there it is on the first page of "The Higher Power of Lucky," by Susan Patron, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. The book’s heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.
"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 reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books. The controversy was first reported by Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine.
This kind of stuff — censorship spurred by the use of a clinically appropriate word – just makes me want to crawl under my bed and stay there until our country grows up. It’s not surprising that other nations are confused by our behavior when we consider ourselves grown-up enough to wage war and yet are too terrified to discuss certain parts of our bodies just because they happen to normally be hidden by underwear.
What word would these prudes prefer? (I heard one cheeky wag suggest the euphemism Balzac.) Or should the rattlesnake simply bite the dog on the leg and spare us all the anguish of acknowledging the terrifying existence of the scrotum? In a work of fiction, couldn’t a rattlesnake pause to consider the societal discomfort resulting from an ill-targeted chomp? Maybe we could include a nice, moral lesson for the rattlesnake!
Further down in the article, a bookseller strays even farther from common sense:
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.’ "
The horror — that a grandmother should be aware of the existence of condoms! I hope no one explains the birds and the bees to her. She should be permitted to live out her golden years without having to consider such filthy thoughts.
While I disagree with Ms. Patron’s assertion that the sound of the word scrotum is “delicious” (let’s cut her some slack and assume she hadn’t had time to organize her thoughts) I share her disbelief at the furor. At a time when our country is engaging in some awfully grown-up behavior around the world, it’s a shame that we prefer to hide our children from the very words that help them understand their bodies (and dogs’ bodies) and the world around them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hide under the bed. I hear Europe laughing.