Fuse #8

Friday, February 16, 2007

Oh, Doggone It

Have you heard the buzz over the fact that some of the librarians on the LM_Net listserv aren't going to booktalk or even buy The Higher Power of Lucky for the sole crime of using the word "scrotum"? I knew that a ninny or two might put their Helen Lovejoy faces on and scream, "Won't somebody please think of the children?", but I never dreamed it would be so many members of my own profession. The thought sickens me. PW had an article on these librarians and it really is enough to turn your stomach. If they haven't purchased it, what are the odds that all of them have read it?

Fortunately, Ms. Patron is a librarian herself and has posted a remarkable reply to those librarians who have chosen to stand as censors for other people's children.
If I were a parent of a middle-grade child, I would want to make decisions about my child's reading myself—I'd be appalled that my school librarian had decided to take on the role of censor and deny my child access to a major award-winning book. And if I were a 10-year-old and learned that adults were worried that the current Newbery book was not appropriate for me, I'd figure out a way to get my mitts on it anyway, its allure intensified by the exciting forbidden-ness—by the unexpressed but obvious fear on the part of these adults.
Insofar as I can tell, none of these librarians had any problems with the kid in Kira-Kira getting his leg caught in a bloody bear trap. But involve a word of a body part and whoo-boy! Stand back, momma! Anything but the correct medical term for a portion of the male anatomy! Why, a kid who read that might (GASP!) ask their parents what it meant!!!! Oh, horrors! For the sake of my patrons' safety I should just keep myself from ever purchasing any books that could offend any parent at any time.

And thus we're back at Dick and Jane. White bread suburbia, here we come.

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At 2:45 AM , Blogger Saipan Writer said...

I'm so sorry to inform you of this, but I am a parent and I find Dick and Jane offensive.


(I've already ordered a copy of The POwer of Lucky for my 7th grader to read.)

At 9:38 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike public librarians, school librarians are censors. School budgets aren't large enough to buy every book published, which means librarians make choices about what to buy -- and what not to buy. Additionally, school librarians are required to act in loco parentis, which also requires censorship. It's silly to criticize school librarians for doing what they are required to do.

That said, not buying The Higher Power of Lucky because of the word scrotum is overreacting.

At 10:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

While school libraries can't purchase "every book published," I'm willing to bet most of them do purchase every Newbery book, or at least every recent one and each year's additions.

I would be horrified if our middle-school librarian chose not to purchase "Lucky" based on either this word or the depiction of 12-step programs. Kids are going to ask for the new Newbery winner; posters will feature it (our library has a poster of recent Newbery winners); it should be accessible in school.

I particularly appreciated Ms. Patron's reference to children being lucky to have access to the Robie Harris / Michael Emberley books, since my son pulled "It's Not the Stork!" off our shelves this morning and re-read it, stopping to ask me, "What's a foreskin?"

At 10:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should clarify -- I referred to "our middle-school librarian," but my son is currently in elementary school. I could better understand the elementary-school librarian not purchasing it -- or Kira-Kira, or other previous Newberys that are meant for middle grades -- though I hope that she will purchase Lucky because I do think it's appropriate for the fourth and fifth-graders, and not every book in the library has to be appropriate for all the grades.

At 10:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"White bread suburbia, here we come."

Wait! The irony! Can you really level this criticism when all of the 2007 Newbery books seem like a big gift from one generation of white bookish females to another generation of white bookish females?


At 12:06 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

A point indeed. Though one might mention that the aforementioned "Kira-Kira" doesn't fit this stereotype. But then, this year was uncommonly pale. Not everyone on the committee, however, was a white bookish female. Not many weren't, of course, but let's not lump everyone in together.

At 1:52 PM , Blogger mbpbooks said...

White bookish people, I hear your pain. I hail from a culture where an affectionate morning greeting is, "So, how was your bowel movement this morning?" Courtesy is not about particular words or cultural practices and phobias; it's comes from the HEART. And that's what Susan Patron's book has, my dearies. Back to trying to put some of that into my own writing ...

At 6:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read the opening couple pages of The Higher Power of Lucky to several groups: a kidlit class at a liberal arts college in middle Ameria, a group of K-4 teachers in middle America, a Creative Writing for Children class in middle America. All were hesitant about giving The Higher Power of Lucky to students.

After reading it several times, it's not just the S-Word, or the anonymous 12-step programs--it's something about the tone that is set up immediately. Those things are generally offensive in Middle America, but it's the combination of them, plus the density of the text at first, that creates the strong impression. If a kid doesn't know what a 12-step anonymous program is (AA is never mentioned) then it's hard to understand what is happening. The phrase "Hard Pan Found Object Wind-Chime Museum and Visitor's Center" is a mouthful, and the rest is sometimes--well, it has a different sort of rhythm and flow. And that results in an cumulative tone that doesn't let a reader in.

I don't think it's just that word. But in Middle America, this book will not play well, from my small sampling. Like it or not, much of America is still conservative, while publishing is largely not conservative. They/we are willing to accept the different, the unusual--but this opening strikes the ear and the reader with too much of a dischordant tone.


At 8:12 PM , Blogger Brooke said...


Have any of these naysayers actually owned a dog? Or spent time on an elementary school playground?

And do we really think that kids will have trouble understanding what a twelve-step program is? Give 'em a little credit, people.

Jack Santos once remarked that there seems to be an invisible wall in children's literature keeping certain kinds of families out, not based on race or social status but for pure dysfunctionality -- like Joey Pigza's. (He delicately called them "low supervision homes.") Sad to say, but I think the residents of Hard Pan -- with their addicts, their deadbeat dads, and their dogs who get bit on the crotch -- are bumping up against this wall.

At 11:29 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

In terms of Middle America (from whence I hail) it's less a question of whether or not kids "get" the book than it is a question of whether or not you're going to let them get their grubby little hands on it in the first place. I can totally understand not thinking a kid would like it, but if a kid DOESN'T care for the book then they have the option of putting it down. What we have to do is keep ourselves from not allowing the kids to see it in the first place. You don't want to assign it in school? Totally fine. But I worry that what's being said here is that you wouldn't even add it to a library in the first place for fear that the kids will find it "hard to understand". I might think that "Kira-Kira" was suited only for children ages 12 and above, but it's not my place to keep it out of my library, forbidding access to the younger whippersnappers.

If I understand you correctly, you read the first few pages to three groups of adults and right there and then y'all judged the entire book? My sweet darling, surely there are better ways to review a text. And surely you'd add it to a library in spite of your first impressions, yes?

At 6:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can totally understand not thinking a kid would like it, but if a kid DOESN'T care for the book then they have the option of putting it down. What we have to do is keep ourselves from not allowing the kids to see it in the first place.

Please remember that school libraries and public libraries have different functions, as well as financing. When a school budget is tight (and I've heard of schools that allot $500 a year to their libraries collections, where non-fiction is the priority,) the librarian has to make hard choices. Buying a book he doesn't think his patrons will read and isn't a tied into the school's curriculum becomes necessary. When three of the last five winners (Lucky may or may not join that list,) have very little young reader appeal among the librarian's patrons, not automatically buying the winner may be a valid decision.

At 7:19 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A correction to my post above: instead of saying "non-fiction is the priority" in school library collections, I should have said materials that meet classroom needs are the priority. Obviously, classes study literature. However, they don't necessarily study recent Newbery winners.

At 10:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

WHY do we have to "keep ourselves from not allowing kids to see it in the first place"? There are so many books with more kid appeal and just as interesting characters--and so little time in the world. Why not concentrate on what WE perceive as excellent?
The ALA has named the books they feel are excellent, but why can't a librarian make that same determination for her community? She's paid to do just that, as part of her job in building a collection. Why think that she would blindly accept the word of an ALA committee?

Yes, if the first three pages fail to pull in readers--why continue? You shouldn't have to perservere through a book to get to the good parts. No, we didn't just the "entire book"; just the fact that the opening wasn't kid-friendly, didn't invite readers in and we didn't like it. Again--why continue?

There are hundreds of books that kids can't see each year because there are so many published and so little time/money. There are always books that "we don't allow kids to see in the first place."

At 11:52 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

A second consideration to take into account is the need in the community. If a child is assigned "The Higher Power of Lucky" in school, or it's listed as one of several titles and they go to their library, is it odd to think that they would not be able to get their hands on the most recent Newbery winner? I certainly do not like every book that comes through my library, but if I find that enough people with opinions that I trust DO like it, then I have to take that into accountn as a librarian.

I guess it all comes down to how an individual sees a librarian's role in the community. Now obviously I'm compromised in this conversation since I was on this particular Newbery committee. So if I say something like, "a Newbery book is not the same as the latest Disney Princess adventure" it sounds like I'm tooting my own horn. But that doesn't change the fact that we are talking about the best-known children's book of 2006. If you don't add it to your library it goes beyond your own personal prerogative and denies children access to, what some would deem, a work of literary quality. Your reasons, therefore, should extend beyond a single word or intelligent themes.

Is it censorship via exclusion or simply a case where you feel that "scrotum" and themes make a book a middle grade reader? All this aside, can you honestly judge ANY book in the first three pages? Ever read the first three of "Tuck Everlasting"? Beautiful but not exactly gripping. Three pages seems an awfully small space of time to justify denying kids the chance of reading, in my personal opinion, a wonderful story.

At 11:56 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Another question, actually, that was percolating in my brain today. What is the fear here? I've been wondering this for a while. Has the threat of potential banning caused more librarians to limit books that might cause a stir in their communities? Are people less likely to push the envelope in this increasingly conservative day and age? And are librarians so afraid of offending anyone that they've chosen to no longer fulfill their roles as providers of all kinds of books for all kinds of people? Or am I placing too much concern on a single title? Fascinating stuff!

At 9:40 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

we are talking about the best-known children's book of 2006.

I do think this is hyperbole. Librarians have heard of the book because of the Newbery, but most readers of children's books would probably name another title as "best known."

To be honest, when reading the review of Lucky in School Library Journal I decided to pass on it. It didn't sound like it would appeal to my patrons and there are more good books published that they would like to read than we can afford. I was disappointed when Lucky won the Newbery, but it is now on my shelf. That said, I wouldn't criticize any librarian of a small collection for not purchasing it, assuming the reason was something other than the scrotum issue.


At 10:27 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Granted. Assuming, as you say, the reason was not related to the scrotum issue or, I should think, the 12-step -program (which has caused a similar if smaller debate).

At 1:02 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really find it hard to swallow when I hear about this kind of myopic thinking. It's selling the intelligence of this nation's children far too short.

For one thing, any good middle school would have introduced children the the term "scrotum" in the myriad of sex education classes. I know that my classmates and I used far worse language in our daily lunch discussions. And while I can't remember the title of the book, I can remember pulling some novel out of the fiction section in my middle school's library which quite vividly described a heavy petting session between the two main characters -- it's copyright date was from back in the 1950's -- and my twon was about as white bread suburban as they come.

Just my two bits.

At 10:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apart from it being a wonderful story, the book includes characters and situations that aren't in a lot of other books for the age group, and I think that's a good thing. Your library may well include readers whose parents are in 12-step programs, or who receive government food (hopefully better than the government cheese in the book), or who have guardians rather than parents taking care of them. Excluding this book because "kids won't want to read it and won't be familiar with these themes" is denying them the chance to see that a Newbery-winning book portrays kids in such situations, with empathy and humor and no condescension.

At 1:40 PM , Blogger tut-tut said...

As Joy Williams once wrote: "Words, you know. They're around. They've been used a lot."

But at least Newbery will be spelled correctly, for a while.


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