Is ‘scrotum’ a bad word?
An award-winning children’s book is being yanked from library shelves because of one word—but not in Chico
In four to six weeks, elementary schools in the Chico Unified School District will receive an award-winning children’s book that is garnering nationwide attention—and being censored in some cases—because of one word: “scrotum.”
The Higher Power of Lucky is the 2007 Newbery Medal winner written by Susan Patron for children ages 9 to 12. The fictional story follows 10-year-old Lucky Trimble, who is the ultimate eavesdropper. Through her eavesdropping, she hears adult conversations that include such matters as 12-step programs and, on the very first page, a dog being bitten on the scrotum.
Some school librarians, particularly in the South, have chosen to ban the book from their libraries, citing the word as being inappropriate for children, while others are showing their support by ordering extra copies. As a result, the book has become unusually controversial, and school library Web sites and blogs are abuzz with debate on the subject.
Patron, who is herself a school librarian, never expected her peers and teachers not to include the book in their collections because she used a term describing a particular male body part. In a response posted Feb. 15 on Publishers Weekly’s Web site (www.publishersweekly.com), Patron defended her decision to include the word “scrotum” and subject matter about 12-step recovery programs.
“I wrote The Higher Power of Lucky for the 10-year-old who lives inside me,” Patron wrote. “That girl was curious about everything and sometimes went to great lengths to get information about the world and how it works.”
It is standard practice for librarians to order copies of the Newbery Medal winner each year. The American Library Association awards the medal for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year.
Chico Unified School District’s elementary librarian, Jill Sonnenberg, is in charge of ordering books for the 13 elementary schools in the district. “I find nothing offensive about the word; it is the accurate term used for that body part,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The bigger concern, for me, was the issue of adult alcoholism and recovery programs, but it is a reality children have to deal with today.”
Sonnenberg said she doesn’t expect any problems from carrying the book in local school libraries. Removing a book from a library is not a simple process, she added. Challenged material has to go through a written process, then it moves on to the school board.
“There is a difference between saying ‘I don’t want my child to read this book’ and ‘I don’t want children in this town to read this book,'” Sonnenberg said. “But we do respect a parent’s choice to guide their child’s reading.”
Besides, the children most likely to read the book are at an age when they are being exposed to terms like “scrotum.”
Girls in the fourth grade, for example, participate in “pre-knowledge” sex education, said Alan Stephenson, CUSD’s director of elementary education. Human growth and development classes are similarly coordinated at each elementary school. By fifth and sixth grades, students learn how and why their bodies are changing.
“There is the use of technical and explicit terms like penis and vagina at that point,” Stephenson said.
“I wouldn’t say librarians who are banning this book accurately represent all librarians,” Sonnenberg said. “The themes in the book are much larger than the one word.”
Although many local elementary-school librarians declined to comment on any aspect of the book or its controversy, Andrea Miller, a library clerk at Shasta Elementary, said she has been following the story online. She said using the word one time was “OK,” but when she learned it was used more than once she began to question what its purpose was. “I’m curious to see what the response is here.”
“I’m glad that it’s creating discussion and promoting reading, because that’s what it’s really doing,” Sonnenberg said. “It really is a lovely little book.”