Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oh, those sneaky sneaks!

The New York Times weighs in with what is quite possibly the most inane comment yet on Lucky's scrotum:

"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."

36 comments:

Jennifer said...

I couldn't decide if that was more inane or this:

“I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

a) this is like saying "I'm not a racist. But..."

b) err ... aren't we talking about a dog here?

c) I bet I can think of some. What about (Newbery Winner) Lois Lowry's Anastasia who almost names her little brother ONE-BALL REILLY?

d) Or (Newbery Winner) EL Konigsburg's Claudia who thinks that her little brother only likes the Italian Rennaissance because of the "huge, billowy, bosomy naked ladies"? Surely "billowy" and "bosomy" are more evocative than "scrotum" -- no?

e) I can't even believe that anyone is dignifying these crackpots with a response. Oh look, even I'm doing it.

GraceAnne said...

This is boneheaded on so many levels (she said boneheaded. heh heh) that it is really hard to know how to respond. Actually, I cannot respond, except to be grateful, in a bizarre way, that you pointed out the boneheadedness.

Jordan Sonnenblick said...

I've been very involved in this issue; on behalf of AS IF! (Authors Support Intellectual Freedom; www.asifnews.blogspot.com), I was the one who contacted Publishers Weekly to get this story rolling. I was also the first person to challenge all of the LM_NET posters online, and the one who put the NY Times reporter in touch with Susan Patron.

So I feel very invested in this, and read the NYT story very carefully. I don't actually mind that the Times story dwells on the inane arguments of the librarians who speak against the book, because I feel that their silliness is self-evident to anyone who reads the paper with any kind of critical intelligence.

Which proves our point: that anyone who is refusing to order this Newbery book for a children's library is making a bizarre and foolish choice.

Andy Laties said...

Why don't objecting librarians just break out those old bottles of white-out last used to conceal Mickey's male genitalia on publication and Caldecott-Honor-winning of Sendak's "In The Night Kitchen"?! The word "scrotum" could easily be concealed...and the sneaky author silenced.

Kelly Fineman said...

How clever the NY Times is to figure out that authors insert specific words into their texts in hopes of being banned. Because, really, all authors want as few people as possible to have access to their books. Not.

Franki said...

I'm not sure why the librarians seem more worried about the parents who might object to a word in a book instead of the parents who would expect that their child be able to find every Newbery title in the library. I am quite sure that there are many of us around who would be bothered by the fact that the library didn't have it....
hmmm.

Melinda said...

Neither of my libraries had it! And yes indeed, I was bothered. Am.

Anonymous said...

I preface this to say I am totally against censorship of any kind, and I found nothing striking with the word choice in this book.

But no one can ever convince me that placing the word scrotum in a children's book - and most directly on the first page - was not planned by the author.

Of course it had to be planned. And there is no way that any author, even if he or she is anywhere near naive, cannot predict the reaction the public will have to it. There are specifc words which, by their nature, will elicit such reaction. It isn't a matter of whether the use of them is right or wrong, it's a completely individual judgment.

Yet this controversy will likely prove a distinct advantage to the author. The book is becoming a household name and the sales will most certainly increase. Good for her! And bravo to her publisher too!

Hmm...Now, the question remains....What will be the *next* hot word in children's publishing? Let me get back to my writing!

M

Anonymous said...

I wrote a long comment and it disappeared.

short version -- the front page of AOL now has a link to the Times article. Now, instead of a few parents in a few schools being upset when they stumble upon it, the huge mass of anti-children's book people will organize to attack every school and public library in the USA. Thanks heaps, AOL.

-librarian in a public library where we are an equal-offensive library. We have something to offend everbody.

Andy Laties said...

M Wrote:
"Yet this controversy will likely prove a distinct advantage to the author. The book is becoming a household name and the sales will most certainly increase. Good for her! And bravo to her publisher too!"

So, Jordan, since you have been such an active player here, I'd suggest you send an invoice for P.R. Services Rendered over to Rick Richter, prez of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (perhaps said invoice could serve as cover letter for your next manuscript submission: publishers do covet authors who know how to work the media!)

(Say -- BTW -- wasn't it Rick Richter's house that published "Rainbow Party" to such critical hoo-ha last year? He was quoted in the national media defending the book. What is it with Simon & Schuster and male genitalia...?)

Barbjn said...

Gee, where are the PETA people? Because surely worse that using the word scrotum, is that some poor dog got a bite on one of his. And snakes. Now there will be a slew of senseless rattlesnake killings...

Seriously, someone jump in here and educate me, but isn't scrotum the scienctific name for that piece of skin covering the testes? Look up the dictionary definition. It wasn't like the author used some form of vulgar slang. If kids can't understand and use that word then how do they understand the inpsiring story of Lance Armstrong and the fact that he defeated testicular cancer? Is that glossed over, as well?

I guess I will just go off to bang my head against a wall....

Roger Sutton said...

Melinda--the reason your libraries don't have it probably has to do with the fact that it was a late fall book, and not an award front-runner. Many libraries would not have ordered it until the award was announced, and the publisher immediately ran out of copies.

While controversy can boost sales for adult books, it doesn't do the same for children's books. And I have to agree with Jordan that most any public library that doesn't buy the book is in fact guilty of censorship of the most clear-cut kind.

Robin said...

Thanks, Roger, for highlighting the stupidest sentence I have read about this testes tempest.

Dean and I have been wondering all morning--WHICH BOOKS? WHICH WORDS?
I have never once heard this line of "thought." And, though certainly the reference to a DOG'S scotum was on purpose (she did actually type the all the words of her book), it does not mean that she (or any other writer) would "sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph" just to "leave librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase."

Librarians banning books. Let me try to catch my breath.

rindawriter said...

I was greatly amused by the statement the word scrotum is not used in "polite conversation...excuse me, but if, for example, my husband had testicular cancer or some other cancer in the scrotal area, scrotum would indeed be a matter and a word used in polite conversation...and if a dog got bit on the scrotum in front of children, then use the word in front of them or anyone else.

As for sneaky writers, since neither I nor any other human being am not God and wouldn't be an authority on the actual condition of the minds and hearts of other writers when they write things...anyone using the label "sneaky" to describe another writer only highlights the his or her own stuipdity and arrogance...

Anonymous said...

As is far too often the case, I find myself stunned by another news item about what upsets the American public (and, worse in this case, librarians! and I used to be one!). In Higher Power? Not the death of the mother. not the abandonment by the father. Not the fact that a town of population 43 has more than one group of twelve-step program attendees, or that another character has a mother in jail and cannot be without "Are You My Mother." No, it's the use of an anatomically correct word. I despair, my friends. I despair.
ls

Kirsten said...

I guess children should not read the Bible since there is a lot of begetting-is that not a more suggestive word? My husband wrote this haiku
The dog's glistening
scrotum a big problem
for small minds"

Chris Barton said...

"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."

Yes, and editors of major newspapers sometimes sneak in a single unfounded generalization, leaving readers to choose whether to abandon an entire newspaper over one asinine phrase.

Melinda said...

Have you noticed that these guardians seem to think that we (the writers) are interested only in corrupting young, tender minds? When actually we're interested in making the big bucks while corrupting minds.

Roger, that makes sense. I saw just now that the first print run was only 10,000, so no wonder. But both libraries have it on order, which is good.

I wonder how long it will be until some local fundamentalist notices the word. Because they don't believe in scrotums; the devil created those for his usual devious purposes, whatever those happen to be.

Anonymous said...

Roger writes:
"While controversy can boost sales for adult books, it doesn't do the same for children's books."

I'm shocked and fascinated by this. Would you mind elaborating? It is, of course, easy to think of examples in which negative publicity increased sales of a book, movie or other. But instances in which an event caused a sales trajectory to drop are harder to recall. Right now, LUCKY is #31 on Amazon. That's not definitive, but it's not a bad indicator that a word, any word, from the NYT doesn't hurt. --m

Roger Sutton said...

I'm guessing that Lucky is #31 on Amazon because it won the Newbery--a huge boost to sales even for scrotumless winners.

Grownups love to read juicy stuff for themselves but don't like it in books for kids, and grownups buy the books. While plenty of people will buy Lucky despite its scrotum, no one will do so for its presence.

shahairyzad said...

Okay, this is sure to be an unpopular position, but:

a) I'm sick to death about hearing about this book and its unfortunate scrotum;

b) While I think the word "scrotum" is completely benign and no more worthy of a brouhaha than the words "thighs" or "armpit", I also don't find any need for the word in the book. The passage in which it appears is just a silly little character-setting anecdote and if the word "scrotum" was removed, nothing important about the book would be changed (other than the controversy);

c) This book did not deserve the Newbery, scrotum or no scrotum. It's a good book. It has lots of nice writing and Lucky is a cute and sympathetic character. But the plot was about as linear as you can get, the characters somewhat sketchy, the climax predictable and clicheed (think kids falling in wells, etc.), and the subject matter somewhat at odds with the intended age group. So why, out of all the great books that came out in 2007, did this one get the Newbery? Because it was the last one out the door? Because of the cute drawings?

Maybe we should debate that for a while, and take a break from the obsessive scrotum licking.

Anonymous said...

Roger said:

"Grownups love to read juicy stuff for themselves but don't like it in books for kids, and grownups buy the books. While plenty of people will buy Lucky despite its scrotum, no one will do so for its presence."

I agree with your conclusion that people won't buy this book simply because of the presence the dreaded word, but sales will likely be great nonetheless.

The point is yes - some parents may not wish a benign word like scrotum to show up in a children's book, and some libraries may not either, and this may prevent the initial sales. But the publicity alone - good and bad - will get more people to at least be aware of this book as a Newbury winner.

Ask any 100 parents out there what the Newbury winners were for the last five years. I venture a guess that almost none of them will recall any titles except this year's. And this year's will stick in their mind.

In the end, the public's long term memory is poor. It is one of the main factors that drives politics. What will likely remain is the fact that "The Higher Power of Lucky" won the Newbury - the controversy will fall by the wayside.

M

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Shahairyzad.

I sometimes think that the real transgression within the world of children's books is in pointing out that the emperor isn't fully clothed, not in pointing out the emperor's scrotum. Or that of his dog.

I would have liked to see more discussion about this book and its merits, and about the Newbery award in general. I know there was a discussion of that nature here-- though very little such discussion elsewhere. And even here, I felt that people were very careful not to be critical of the book itself.

In this community of children's writers, publishers, librarians and reviewers-- a community which is close, small and warm (all generally appealling qualities)-- is it considered more appropriate to criticize the inclusion of a word than to criticize a lauded book as a whole?

There have been several well-received books this year that, while I certainly found them worthy of praise and attention, I also thought would have benefitted from more forthright, thoughtful, and critical discussion.

Is that where we are truly inhibited within this community?

Ruth

Lynn said...

Our copies of Lucky arrived Thursday and I was able to read it over the weekend. With all of the discussion, I expected the word usage to be in a more graphic manner. It was used correctly and at the end of the story defined simply by Lucky's guardian.

I agree with Ruth, there were other elements in the book more deserving of critical discussion beyond that single word (no matter how many times it was utilized).

Sales of the book will be brisk; it is an award winner and many juvenile collections will have duplicate copies. I am lucky to be in an academic library with a strong teacher education program. There was no question of adding the book, students need to be aware of both the book and it's controversy so they are able to evaluate and address it's potential classroom use.

What a shame should a librarian determine it necessary to ban the book. The sheer "wrongness" of the move harkens back to a previous discussion on collection development and censorship. No one will say they have banned the book. It will be said the collection development policy determined it should not be added. And while librarians owe it to their patrons and constituants to make the best purchases possible, eliminating an award winner ...

And that is another can of worms.

Anonymous said...

Ruth and shahairyzad,

i don't like to say this, but i believe it is true: Lucky only won the newbery *because* it used the word scrotum. And if anything is more stupid than banning a book because of a single word, that is it.

this whole discussion is embarrassing. and I don't think that the person (mentioned previously) who pointed the NYT in the direction of the controversy did the community any service. how many librarians are banning the book? what tiny percent of librarians are they? seeing themselves in the NYT isn't going to change their minds. it only drives up the level of hysteria beyond any hope of measured intelligent discussion. now thoughtful open-minded people must rabidly defend this so-so book, and the NYT has made a few crackpots the voice of american librarians. thanks. thanks a lot.

i would also like to see a critical discussion of the book's value, but the NYT isn't the place, and neither is this blog, or almost any blog I know. a blog is usually an exchange of bumper-sticker like comments. i think that's why their discussions devolve so quickly to name calling. no doubt we will hear that anyone who doesn't like Lucky is a prude and anyone who does is an idiot.

-heron

Jordan Sonnenblick said...

Heron,

I think there are a lot of questionable thoughts in your post, but I'll confine myself to focusing on one:

Where in the world did you come up with the wacky idea that the word "scrotum" won Lucky the Newbery?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of critical discussion: did it bother anyone else that the knot-tying and "survival backpack" motifs were overly explicated? Show, don't tell!!
Kids can figure out the symbolism. Trust them.

I think that the explanations of the symbolism will take away lot of the fun of reading the book. And, after all, the book will live or die on the shelf based on whether or not kids like reading it.

Marion

Anonymous said...

jordan,

why the wacky idea? partly based on my impression of the book. I don't see anything else about lucky that makes it stand out. it's a nice book. i don't think the writing is distinguished, though. or the plot, or the characterization. and partly based on my impression of the newbery committee this year. i think the idea of using scrotum on the front page was so gosh-all exciting they just had to give it the newbery. i was happier when i didn't know anything about who was on the committee and i thought they were gods off in the atmosphere. instead, i find they are just people, and fairly pedestrian ones at that.

heron

MotherReader said...

M's comment: "Ask any 100 parents out there what the Newbery winners were for the last five years. I venture a guess that almost none of them will recall any titles except this year's. And this year's will stick in their mind"

Actually, I'd be willing to bet that not only would the parents not know the last five years' winners, that most parents wouldn't know this year's winner. We live in an isolated world in children's literature, assuming that everyone follows these awards as much as we do. Surprise. They don't. In some ways, the best thing to happen for The Higher Power of Lucky is showing up on The View because of the Scrotum Issue. At least parents may hear about the book.

Anonymous said...

Would other kidlit titles garnered more attention if the word "scrotum" had been thrown around more loosely?

Goodnight, Scrotum
Are You There God? It's Me, Scrotum
In the Night Scrotum
A Scrotum In Times Square
Ramona Scrotum, Age 8

mb

Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with the use of the word "scrotum" in children's literature meant for tweens. IMO, the word "scrotum" is a more elevated term than others the author might have used:

nutsack
applesack
ballsack

Right? I mean, at least "scrotum" is the proper anatomical term.

Anonymous said...

excellent editorial in the
TIMES this morning!

teresa said...

I am curious to know whether this inane discussion among school librarians is in any way informed by the type of educational background they received. There are many school librarians with Masters in Education and little real "library" training in terms of philosophy of libraries and reading.
I would imagine that those with a degree in library science would support ALA's "Freedom to Read" and purchase based on the award and the positive reviews. I am sure children are much more mature about the content of this book than many of the adults raising the issue.
A School Librarian

Roger Sutton said...

and THAT can be found here (Thank you Mitali!)

Barbjn said...

Mother Reader said:
"Actually, I'd be willing to bet that not only would the parents not know the last five years' winners, that most parents wouldn't know this year's winner."

I agree one hundred percent. Two dear New England friends of mine, also avid readers of the Times, were very eager to to discuss the article with me, knowing I am "in the busines."

And we did talk about it. But here is the funny part: all they could remember was "scrotum" and the issues with the libraries. They couldn't recall the name of the book at all!

YS Doug said...

I recall back in 7th grade when I read Hal Borland's "When the Legends Die." It was a powerful YA novel that I loved, published in 1963.
I don't recall anyone complaining about the phrase (and I'm paraphrasing here) "the water felt like knives on his testicles." It was jarring for me to see the word in print, but hardly controversial.
Can't people find something more important on which to take a stand?