Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Literary Image of the Day
Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.—Excerpt from the opening page of The Higher Power of Lucky, as quoted by Julie Bosman in "With One Word, Children’s Book Sets Off Uproar"
The children's book The Higher Power of Lucky won the Newbery Medal, "the most prestigious award in children’s literature." Lucky is a 10-year-old orphan, and from the title you may wonder whether he's also an alcoholic. But is he too young to be savoring words like "scrotum"?
In the story a snake has bitten a friend's dog on the scrotum. Now school librarians are at sixes and sevens as to whether the book should be introduced to the elementary school. And I'm sympathetic to both sides.
Whatever the book is about it seems safe to say that it isn't about scrota. So I can understand librarian Dana Nilsson who wrote, "This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope." But I think she's being a bit disingenuous when she adds, "but they didn’t have the children in mind." It isn't the children who were ignored, but the poor librarians! Can you imagine having to explain to a cadre of irate evangelical parents who've shown up at the local school board meeting why you felt that little Mary Punkinhead really would enjoy reading this book?
On the other hand "scrotum" is not a "dirty" word, even if it sounds like one. And the children are surely calling those little danglies something or other, so shouldn't they learn the "proper" word?
It seems to me that author Susan Patron understood full well what she was dealing with when she wrote that the word "sounded medical and secret." And the view of the many is that it should stay that way. If Susan Patron had really wanted to introduce the word "scrotum" to an elementary school audience, she would have done everyone a favor by writing a nonfiction work—Body Parts: Big Words Your Doctor Uses, or some such equivalent.
So I think the real problem here is context. For a 10-year-old to discover the word "scrotum" in a storybook has to be as titillating as the "good parts" of Lady Chatterley's Lover were for us in high school. (The only person I know who actually read the entire novel went on to become an English professor.) And you can bet that The Higher Power of Lucky will fly off the shelf of any elementary school library that carries it. But who can censure the librarian or teacher who doesn't have the balls to stock it?
A postcard from the edge (2/21/05)