February 19, 2007

Sexual organs! And now that I’ve corrupted you…

Posted in Censorship, Children and adolescents, Literature, Sex at 8:33 pm by The Lizard Queen

…let’s talk about banned books some more, shall we?

(Alas, the title “Hide the children! It’s the attack of the dreaded scrotum of doom!” was already taken…)

I don’t remember how old I was when I learned that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, but I know it was way before I was 10. (Indeed, the first cat my family had, Puck, had enough urinary tract issues that not only was he neutered, but ultimately his penis had to be removed as well, and my mom has a story about my exclamation about it being missing when he was brought home from the Vet’s.  I have no memory of said incident.) I didn’t learn the word “scrotum” until much later, but that’s largely because I don’t have one. Still, I would never have thought (if I didn’t already know better) the following would be a big deal:

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.”

Of course, there exist in this world people with mindsets like this:

Give me one reason why parents have to be graphic? How is it that in the old days, when most of us in the slightly older generation and way before that too, people managed to figure out “sex” when they needed to? And in our “in the dark” generations, there was way less venereal disease, broken marriages, pornography, and sexual deviancy. I’m glad I was raised when we were “kept in the dark”, and just whispered about sex when we were teenagers, and started getting an inkling that it existed, along with awakening physical interest brought on by hormones. We women lasted a lot longer as “virgins” back in those days, and because there was less sexual playing around, way less, there was less disease, less unwanted pregnancies, and lest predatory sexual behavior.

For one thing, I’m no expert, but I suspect this person’s memories of that bygone day are a bit more rosy than is actually warranted. At any rate, though, attitudes like that are, in large part, what lead to issues like this:

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.

On electronic mailing lists like Librarian.net, 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 Missoula, Mont.; upstate New York; Central Pennsylvania; and Portland, Ore., 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.”

Naturally, that’s not at all what the author had in mind:

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.”

As a writer and–perhaps more importantly–an avid reader, Patron’s explanation makes a lot of sense to me. Nilsson’s idea that Patron was just trying to push the envelope disregards the basic fact that most writers aren’t really trying to make a point or make changes to society (there are, of course, exceptions to that rule–Ayn Rand, anyone?); they’re simply trying to tell a good story. Considering the fact that The Higher Power of Lucky won the Newbery Award, I’m inclined to believe Patron succeeded in that respect, which makes me that much more skeptical toward the following criticism:

“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.”

Aha, so maybe that’s what this really boils down to: the librarians and teachers in question are uncomfortable with the word “scrotum,” and so rather than accept that it’s simply a part of the anatomy of male mammals and get on with their lives, they’d rather pass their discomfort on to their students and try to keep this book out of their hands. I know that’s a rather callous way of looking at the arguments in favor of banning the book, but really, come on. I guess I can understand not having a whole class read the book if you’re a teacher and the word reeeeally makes you uncomfortable, but choosing not to order a book for the library because it contains one particular word? And that word isn’t a slur for a marginalized group, but merely the anatomical term for the sac that keeps a male’s testicles in place and nicely climate-controlled? Is it just me, or does this seem like it ought to be a non-issue?

Well, maybe it is just me, considering this line made it past editors and into print: “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.” First of all, if one of my English 101 or 102 students over the past few years had presented me with this sentence, my knee-jerk reaction would have been to ask for further examples; without them it’s a rather groundless claim. Second, I think the word “sneak” demonstrates authorial bias–I bias with which I would strongly disagree. A friend of mine in high school used to slip phrases like “if you’re reading this, draw a smiley face at the top of the page” into his essays to see if teachers were paying attention. (They often weren’t, but that’s neither here nor there.) The claim that authors of children’s books “sneak” things into their books makes it sound like they’re doing the same thing my friend did. Somehow I doubt Judy Blume was trying to pull a fast one when she had Margaret pondering menstruation–and that’s just one example from a fairly disheartening list of literature from which some believe children should be protected (for clarity’s sake I feel I should state that I find the list disheartening because by and large the books I’ve read from that list have been fabulous). Setting this situation up as a battle between authors and teachers/librarians is misleading, and I think it might well distract people from the real issue at hand: what’s so bad about grade school students learning the word “scrotum”? Might they not find the word (and, indeed, human anatomy–maybe some of them will grow up to be doctors or scientists!) as interesting as Lucky does?

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7 Comments »

  1. I was going to write a post about this very issue, but you’ve done it much better than I would have. It’s amazing how anatomically correct words are somehow considered offensive. I could have possibly understood people being upset if a slang term were used (not even really then), but come on….

  2. Evil Bender said,

    I think invoking “polite conversation” says a lot about those who are worried about the word. That phrase is almost always a metaphor for “the status quo rules all.”

    More specifically, book banners believe that the best way to deal with children is to protect them from reality in every possible way. I can’t help believe that will have the same effect as abstinence-only education, where kids still have sex, and at about the same age as their more well-informed fellows: they’re just less likely to use protection.

  3. Cara said,

    I have never in my life thought to describe the word ‘scrotum’ as “delicious”….

    And most librarians seem to be anti-banning of anything, even pornography. Seems shocking that they would be against putting a Newbury Medal book with one silly word in it in the school library, but there are always some dissenters.

    Now, as a classroom teacher, especially of say 4th graders, I apologize, but this isn’t a non-issue. It’s actually a big one. If I were still at school teaching students of the protagonists’ age (not that I taught kids that young, but this is all hypothetical), I absolutely wouldn’t want to answer the question, “What’s a scrotum?!” Sorry, but I wouldn’t- I’m not the least bit uncomfortable with the word nor do I want kids to be uninformed about anatomy or sexuality. However, when Suzy goes home and mom asks, “what did you learn today?” and she says, “Ms. Bertrand taught us what a scrotum is!” you’d better know in advance that you have a damn supportive administration for when that parent calls in and rightfully states that it is up to her when and what to teach her kid about reproductive/sexual organs. Soooo, my concession would be that I wouldn’t teach the book. I’d think of doing it with a permission slip home to parents, but then I’d be pretty sure some of them would say no. But of course, I’d happily include this book in the library and I’d encourage kids to read it on their own. And if they came up and asked me what that word was, I’d tell them it’s something they should ask their mom or dad. (That’s what any librarian could do too, by the way, so I can’t see what their problem would be just having it available to students.)

  4. Cara said,

    Adding some comments-

    Must correct my typo on Newbery Medal, whoops.

    I would, by the way, have no problem teaching the book and all the words in it if and only if it became an approved part of the curriculum. Then it would already have the administration’s blessing, and any irate parents would be their problem.

  5. …when Suzy goes home and mom asks, “what did you learn today?” and she says, “Ms. Bertrand taught us what a scrotum is!” you’d better know in advance that you have a damn supportive administration for when that parent calls in and rightfully states that it is up to her when and what to teach her kid about reproductive/sexual organs. Soooo, my concession would be that I wouldn’t teach the book.

    Fair enough–that makes sense to me. And I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the teachers who have been taking part in the discussion have viewpoints that stem from your concern, rather than “eew, genitals are yucky!” I also wonder if the idea that a large number of librarians are refusing to order the book is a bit of a misrepresentation on the part of the article’s author, because indeed, librarians are by and large anti-censorship. And then I add that idea to my last paragraph above, and I wonder what, exactly, the author was trying to accomplish with this article…

    (Also, I tried to spell it Newbury at first, too–I blame Newbury Street.)

  6. […] and probably illegal as well. If the students decide to sue, they will win. Between this and the dreaded use of the word “scrotum,” it’s clear that crazy people really enjoy censoring any mention of human anatomy. I suppose […]

  7. John Wilson said,

    There’s also the other type of “crazy” people the other extream who use certan made up words for sex that most people never heard of. And don’t even tell there kids any thing about what sex is. Just use this word. And talk bathroom humor and stuff all the time. That’s the way I was grown up. Sex was reduced to a cheap dirty bathroom joke that was laughed at all the time. And I really learned about sex reading books. The word they used I looked it up on the internet has nothing to do with sex. My clan of relitives use this certain word to mean sex. I have never heard of anyone ealse use this word to mean sex. And use childish words for sex organs. The words they used was tackle and doodle. I am serious. That’s what my parents told me that people tackle each other that’s what sex is and that’s all they told me. I found out that sex has nothing to do with wrestling, football or fish bait!! I am serious about this. This is no joke. I wonder if there’s any other people whose parents told them made up bunch of junk like this. They still use these words today for those meanings. I think they live in their own little world. Look these words up on the net they have different meanings. I feel like I’ve been living with the Addams Family or the Munsters seriously.


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