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ISSUE 120 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/9/2007

Outcry over Newberry

By Peter Farrell
Variety Editor

Friday, March 9, 2007

I distinctly remember the first time I learned the word “scrotum.” Mr. Smith and Mr. O’Toole, two gravelly-voiced ex-marines, were teaching my fifth-grade sexual education class, and to lighten the mood, Mr. Smith was cracking genitalia jokes. “What do you call twelve naked men sitting on each others shoulders?” he asked. With no one daring to respond, Mr. Smith threw his hands in the air and supplied the answer with glee: “A scrotum pole!” He then flipped on a projector and proceeded to break down the different parts that constitute a man’s junk. Needless to say, Mr. Smith had a knack for clever transitions.

Of course, I had already learned other terms to describe that general area: nuts, balls, testicles, sack, etc. But the word “scrotum” had an official ambience. It’s the sort of word I would learn in the classroom and not from my best friends Greg and Matt, both of whom ate boogers on a semi-regular basis.

My young, fragile mind survived exposure to the word “scrotum.” But judging by the response to Susan Patron, recipient of this year’s Newberry Medal, my case is exceptional.

On the first page of Patron’s book, “The Higher Power of Lucky,” she drops the dreaded s-word after her plucky protagonist overhears another character talk about how a rattlesnake nipped his dog in the ‘nads: “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.”

Sounds like a pretty innocent use of the word, right? Wrong. The fact that Patron won a Newberry Medal, the most esteemed prize in children’s literature, means that her book is a hot commodity in libraries across the country. Usually, Newberry books are subject to high exposure, with planned public readings and premium shelf space guaranteed. But children’s librarians have balked at the prospect of stocking a book that mentions an unmentionable.

Already banned in several states, an article in The New York Times indicates that most librarians are leaning towards eliminating the book for what one woman in Durango, Colo. called its “Howard Stern-type shock.” Apparently, the prospect of upset parents and confused children trumps the potential merit of the book – explaining a scrotum just isn’t worth the headache.

Poor Susan Patron, scandalous peddler of pornographic children’s literature! I understand that we live in a country that considers whether or not Harry Potter books encourage Satanism a pressing issue, but censoring a book for exposing children to the word scrotum reinforces the very worst trends in America’s preoccupation with sexual purity. Patron’s book – aimed at children aged 9-12 – does not focus on scrotums. It mentions a scrotum, once, in passing, in the context of a humorous anecdote about a dog named Roy.

If a parent finds those two sentences disconcerting, then that parent has every right to limit his or her child’s exposure to “The Higher Power of Lucky.” But children’s librarians shouldn’t be making those decisions. Public libraries have a responsibility to stock the finest children’s literature available, especially if that literature deals with serious topics with grace and humor.

Putting our collective head in the sand and treating children like morons when it comes to issues of sexuality just might account for that eye-popping Congressional report on abstinence-only education, which found, among other things, that students in federally-funded programs have learned “that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person's genitals can result in pregnancy.” Clearly, children need more exposure to words like scrotum, not less.

By all accounts, Patron has written a wonderful book that that chronicles a young girl’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death. The word “scrotum” shouldn’t get in the way of child’s ability to access a book like that in our public libraries.

Variety Editor Peter Farrell is a junior from Eden Prairie, Minn. He majors in history and in English.

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