Every year since 1922, one author is awarded the John Newbery Medal for outstanding children's literature. Along with the Caldecott Medal for picture books, the Newbery is considered the highest honor a children's book can receive, and this year, its signature gold seal was affixed to The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron.
Schools and libraries around the nation automatically order several copies of the Newbery winner. But in what has come to epitomize red, white and blue other-worldliness, no sooner had the Patron books been delivered than a teeming outrage over the author's use of a single seven-letter word ignited the literary version of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.
The word that's created a ghastly bunching of polyester-blend undies in educators and parents around the country is—insert dramatic pause—“scrotum.” Adding further trauma to the aggrieved, The Word appears on—gasp!—Page 1, a sinister inclusion, according to critics, by an attention-seeking author. The resulting knee-jerk reaction is, predictably, a sweeping book ban; a New York Times article recently reported that the novel “has already been banned from school libraries in a handful of states in the South, the West and the Northeast,” and librarians around the country have hinted at their inclination to do the same.
My own involuntary reaction---after repeating The Word aloud numerous times, alternately landing a coquettish emphasis on each of it's two corruptive syllables---was to drive 15 mph above speed limit to my local bookseller and gleefully throw down a good fraction of my columnist's salary for the smut in question. Because challenging authority is in my DNA, there is no gauntlet more tantalizing than telling me I can't have it or I shouldn't see it or I'm not allowed to do it. So I read that salacious book, all 134 pages of it and found that The Word does in fact appear on Page 1, overheard by the 10-year-old protagonist, Lucky, as she eavesdrops on an AA meeting. It appears again on Pages 6 and 7 and once more on Page 132.
Not surprisingly, The Word has conveniently been taken out of context to suit the agenda of these alarmists-as-protectors who obviously didn't read the book. Had they done so, these witch-hunters might otherwise applaud, or perhaps simply include in their ban, the larger message of a child learning to live a self-examined life as she ponders---while confronting issues of death, addiction, compassion, trust and second chances---what she might do if she were “to hit rock-bottom.”
But no. It's not about the totality of the book or the enlightenment of future adults. It's about the immediate censorship by those who slammed the reading brakes after encountering a word that elicited in them an uncomfortable tingle.
This thought-provoking story is written for a 9- to 12-year-old audience, and though I don't have a lot of experience with kids this age (besides the fact that I once was one), I can say with confidence that most already know what a scrotum is. They may not call it that because it's a damn funny word (it's not delicate like “clavicle” or sturdy like “femur') and because certain curmudgeons who prefer it remain unmentionable, have created mystery, embarrassment and shame around it as only lip-pursing adults can do. But let's be real, here: Kids know what it is whether they learned it at home or beneath the monkey bars during kindergarten recess one fall morning with Steve Stevens, Albion Olsen and Anthony Quintana.
Of course, it's no shock that certain lemon suckers who are parents thanks only to the stork want to invoke what I call the Transitive Property of Child Rearing. They're going to make sure my kid and your kid don't have access to this book because they don't think it's appropriate for their kids. These censorial types are everywhere, often lurking at the free-food stations in Costco, blocking my way to the high-fructose corn syrup section and never seem to learn that if they don't like it, they don't have to look at it. Don't like the concept in a book? Don't check it out. Don't like Jon Stewart? Change the channel. Don't like to see images of war in the paper? Turn the page. Don't like pornography? Buy it on the sly using secret screen names and hope your congregation doesn't discover your IP address.
More unsettling is the clamor coming primarily from librarians who are moving to limit access more quickly than should be legal for librarians to move. That the author herself is a librarian, and that the Newbery award is bestowed by an arm of the American Library Association is almost Shakespearean. And no amount of thought-stopping could prevent me from attempting to connect this less-evolved breed of library scientologists to those who railed just a few years ago against the provision in the draconian Patriot Act permitting the government to know what books Americans are reading.
I understand if educators don't wish to read this book to classrooms full of pre-pubescent booger-pickers. I can empathize with not wanting to be charged with harnessing that particular unruliness. Fine. Don't read it. But don't throw it on the bonfire, either. There are plenty of anatomy-lovin' parents who will delve fearlessly into this novel, read it with their children and openly discuss the various issues with which our heroine grapples.
The only rational and warranted outrage as I see it should be directed at those who feel superior enough to usurp the First Amendment. These priggish control-freaks, who desperately need to be freaked, may prefer to raise their progeny as self-loathers who think the human form is dirty, who seek to fill their lives with mass consumption and instant gratification. But when these people make decisions on behalf of those of us who wish to de-stigmatize the natural and bring up a generation of self-actualized, kick-ass scrotal and ovary havers, they're overstepping their altar.
Having read the book, I believe the author chose The Word to underscore her point, not to create an uproar. But don't take my word for it. Support Susan Patron and go buy yourself a copy of this year's charming and ballsy Newbery winner.
Write to aaryn@SDcitybeat.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.