By February 21, 2007 12 Comments Read More →

Scrota and Other Unmentionables

President’s Day, a sleepless baby, and software testing have all conspired to keep me away from the blogosphere lo these past four days. I know the news cycle has probably already pretty much ended on the controversy regarding the use of the word scrotum in Susan Patron’s Newbery-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, but I can’t help it, I just have to add my two cents. For those who did somehow miss it, Julie Bosman covered the story for the New York Times (“With One Word, Children’s Book Sets Off Uproar“):

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. The controversy was first reported by Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine.

This kind of stuff — censorship spurred by the use of a clinically appropriate word – just makes me want to crawl under my bed and stay there until our country grows up. It’s not surprising that other nations are confused by our behavior when we consider ourselves grown-up enough to wage war and yet are too terrified to discuss certain parts of our bodies just because they happen to normally be hidden by underwear.

What word would these prudes prefer? (I heard one cheeky wag suggest the euphemism Balzac.) Or should the rattlesnake simply bite the dog on the leg and spare us all the anguish of acknowledging the terrifying existence of the scrotum? In a work of fiction, couldn’t a rattlesnake pause to consider the societal discomfort resulting from an ill-targeted chomp? Maybe we could include a nice, moral lesson for the rattlesnake!

Further down in the article, a bookseller strays even farther from common sense:

Carol Chittenden, the owner of Eight Cousins, a bookstore in Falmouth, Mass., said she once horrified a customer with "The Adventures of Blue Avenger" by Norma Howe, a novel aimed at junior high school students. "I remember one time showing the book to a grandmother and enthusing about it," she said. "There’s a chapter in there that’s very funny and the word ‘condom’ comes up. And of course, she opens the book right to the page that said ‘condom.’ "

The horror — that a grandmother should be aware of the existence of condoms! I hope no one explains the birds and the bees to her. She should be permitted to live out her golden years without having to consider such filthy thoughts.

While I disagree with Ms. Patron’s assertion that the sound of the word scrotum is “delicious” (let’s cut her some slack and assume she hadn’t had time to organize her thoughts) I share her disbelief at the furor. At a time when our country is engaging in some awfully grown-up behavior around the world, it’s a shame that we prefer to hide our children from the very words that help them understand their bodies (and dogs’ bodies) and the world around them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hide under the bed. I hear Europe laughing.

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Posted in: Likely Stories, News

About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

12 Comments on "Scrota and Other Unmentionables"

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  1. carolynpen@aol.com' Carolyn says:

    Keir, come out from under the bed and read Neil Gaiman’s take on the controversy.

    Yes, he’s in Europe.
    Okay, he’s laughing.
    But you’ll be laughing too after reading http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/2007/02/absence-of-scrota-your-guide-to-quality.html

    Actually, even the URL makes me laugh.

  2. Keir says:

    Thanks, Carolyn! I especially love the helpful list of scrotum-related titles.

    I’m compelled to confess that I’ve never read any of Neil Gaiman’s books. But every time I read his blog, I like it. So I’m adding a permanent link right now.

  3. Bill Ott says:

    I’m way late on this comment, but I did want to stake Booklist’s–and my own–claims where the use of scrotum in print is concerned. In a Back Page column I wrote last May (“Jackets”) about the divinely trashy book jackets that adorn pulp-era paperbacks, I referred to an especially nice example of the genre as a “scrotum-tingler.” But, full disclosure here, as I noted in the column, it wasn’t really my phrase. I was paraphrasing John Dunning in his novel “The Bookwoman’s Last Fling.” Dunning’s character, Cliff Janeway, a rare book dealer, refers at one point to a book jacket that makes his “scrotum tingle.” So, while I’m thrilled that the Newbery now has a scrotum, I must remind the world that Booklist had one first.

  4. Colin Cotterill’s new Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery, which I have the pleasure of reviewing, finds the august national coroner of Laos contemplating a set of fried human testicles as his latest adventure begins. I’m sure Cotterill’s having a chuckle over this controversy, if he’s caught wind of it…

  5. wkabout@yahoo.com' albinoike says:

    Why is it that you look to Europe for approbation(or in this case supposed derision) as to the standards practiced in American bookdom? What is it exactly about the “Europeans” laughing that leaves you so discomfitted? Since when have the “Europeans” become our literary cultural arbiters? As to the inclusion of the word itself, “clinically appropriate” it certainly is. Whether it is appropriate clinically is a different question. Several hundred years of American children’s authors must not have been seeking the stamp of Euro high-brow approval when deciding to write to children in terms only a child could love and not those used by a clinical physician or med student.

  6. jenn@jennimi.com' jennimi says:

    Great piece!!!! We’re not all the same!

    I also love the Gaiman piece, of course. :)

  7. Keir says:

    albinoike, I’m surprised to hear that you’re so upset to learn that Europeans are our literary cultural arbiters. Certainly I run every Likely Stories entry past my own personal Team Europe — Sven in Stockholm, Manfred in Munich, and Pierre in Paris — before I publish a word.

    On a serious note, I used “Europeans” as shorthand for any country that’s evolved beyond our sometimes great nation in terms of puritanical prudishness. I was momentarily forgetting the hackles that the word “Europe” raises, even in a country settled largely by the descendants of Europeans.

    But I take issue with your assertion that the word “scrotum” is vocabulary more appropriate for physicians. And you haven’t answered MY question: if not “scrotum,” what? Is there a cute, cuddly word for it? And do you also believe that children should be taught such non-clinical vocabulary as “wee-wee” and “tinkle”?

  8. Keir says:

    From Carolyn Phelan, via Ilene Cooper, a link to a historical recap of the Great Scrotum Kerfuffle (with diagrams) at pix stix kids pix.

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