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You Say Scrotum, I Say Hoo-Ha

Squeamish school librarians, screaming at a single word they deemed "offensive," have put the screws to an award-winning children's book.
 
 
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Squeamish school librarians, screaming at a single word they deemed "offensive," have put the screws to a scrumptious award-winning children's book called, of all things, The Higher Power of Lucky.

Have our public-knowledge custodians lost their scruples?

With One Word, Children's Book Sets Off Uproar

by Julie Bosman

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 ...

"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."...

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 ...

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."

Let's uncover the anatomy of a literary sex panic, shall we?

A couple dozen prudes got squicked-out, starting with the strangely un-investigated Ms. Nilsson, who is leading the tiny parade of shocked citizens. Reporter Bosman and the Times kicked up the rest of the shocking-pink dust, without diligent reporting.

Ms. Nilsson isn't just a "teacher," she's a leader from the Durango Christian Science Church. When the media reports on issues of language or sexual attitudes and customs, it's incumbent on them to inquire about their informant's religious background and how it affects their decision-making. Who cares what Dana Nilsson thinks about librarianship, if her first priority is her Scriptural views of morality?

This story has pushed the Flying Spaghetti Monster envelope. Ever since Kansas ruled against evolution, and our current President encouraged a world-view that was created in seven days, there is a sense among scientific and empirically-minded Americans that our educational system has lost its marbles. These people, including myself, are the majority, not the Sunday School of the Week Club. We're easily alarmed by any evidence that we've have been swallowed into a Jonah's Whale of a fairy tale that never stops spouting off.

The Times' sample of quotes reveal a group of obvious religious conservatives who betray more about their own ignorance, phobias, and lack of library professionalism than they do about the state of the English vocabulary -- in literature or social life.

Anyone who says that "male genitalia are not in quality literature" needs to have their resumé examined. What's more, this is hardly the first time that the word "scrotum" has appeared in children's books. Think again, Ms. Bosman!

Children's libraries, librarians, and authors are being smeared in stories like these. Children's Lit is a field that includes the greatest writers of all time, speaking on every topic, with every nuance of language. I'm sure E.B. White is turning over in his grave to contemplate this canard, one that Templeton the Rat wouldn't scratch his testes with.

The story ran on the Times front page. At my last view, about 500 people had written into the paper's web site to protest the stink of pre-emptive censorship:

... Most school librarians do not possess a Master of Library Studies -- most are teachers who wound up working in the school library. And doubtless the "librarians" quoted in this article are of a certain political persuasion. Extremely few bona fide (MLS) librarians (e.g. those in public libraries) would ever consider banning this book. -- Posted by Larry McCallum

Librarian Frederick Muller's comment is an example of the selfishness of the opposition: "If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn't want to have to explain that." If there is one teacher out there who cannot put this book in context for a third-grader because of their own squeamishness over the word "scrotum", then our entire education system has been left behind. What is the right grade for Mr. Muller to teach this book to so he won't be embarrassed of his own human condition? -- Posted by Tom

Back in the 70's when my daughter was in second grade she raised her hand for permission to go to the bathroom. The young first-year teacher asked her if she needed to go "number one or number two."
    My daughter replied, "Neither, my vagina itches and I need to scratch it, then wash my hands."
    I received a call from the teacher to discuss my daughter's language in class. I, of course, imagined the worst, as I had often heard some pretty foul language in the schoolyard when I dropped her at school in the mornings.   
    When the teacher told me what my daughter had said I almost laughed out loud; but I very politely asked her what the problem was, as my daughter had answered her question honestly and with the correct anatomical word.
    She informed me that a lot of parents didn't want their children knowing words like these, and didn't I have some "cute little family name for it."
    I told her, no, we didn't, and that I thought the whole thing ridiculous. She was not happy with me, and apparently spoke to the school principal who called me the next day to apologize. It was silly then and it is silly now.
-- Posted by Constance Ledlow

Most librarians are not tight-lipped prudes, they're courageous front-liners on First Amendment issues. Most families are nonchalant about the daily-observed behavior of their dogs and cats. Parents- who are not in the grips of fundamentalist fever- believe it's helpful for young people to know the correct terms for their own body parts, be they a nose, elbow, vulva, or scrotum.

Yes, some parents are shy. My own mother was too timid to say "vagina" out loud, but she was even more disgusted with the damage done to her as a young girl- "the devil makes you bleed down there because you've sinned," etc.

So she went to the LIBRARY, and got a children's book for me about "how babies are born," one that used perfect English anatomical vocabulary. That was 1968- I wonder if you could find that book at Sunnyside Elementary today.

It's difficult to discuss bodies, sex, and reproduction with anyone, if you fear your own - or believe that an almighty power will strike you down with a word. If Howard Stern is Ms. Nilsson's only exposure to public sexual discussion, she might indeed be distorted. A book like Lucky, that would quietly and kindly inform a young person's point of view, is a nothing less than a Godsend! ...If you'll excuse my French.

The religious right needs to stop breaking everyone's balls -- but the fact that they have, so impressively, in every school system and public forum in the country, has made reasonable thinkers everywhere shake in their boots. Lucky's snakebite is nothing to worry about -- but it is one more venomous nail in the coffin of enlightenment.

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and journalist known for her original and pioneering work in sexual politics and erotic expression. She writes about sex and politics every day at her blog.

 
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