Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Virago rant: the latest children's book controversy

Have you seen this article in the NYT about the latest controversy over a Newberry-winning children's book? (Note: subscription required to read link.) The book is The Higher Power of Lucky and children's librarians and bookstore buyers are all in a tizzy because, in a book aimed at 9-12 year-olds, the word "scrotum" appears on the first page.

Oh, no, not scrotum! Not the technical, latinate word for a part of the body! Next thing you know, they'll be teaching kids words like clavicle and femur! The horror!

And get this -- here's the context:

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.”
"Medical and secret, but also important" -- exactly! It is medical, and it is important, and it's because of the easily shocked sensibilities of people like these school librarians that it's still very much something that sounds "secret." Oh, the irony. And it's not even a human scrotum; it's a dog's scrotum. (Honestly, people should be more upset that these fictional characters are not neutering their fictional dog. Do they want to see more fictional puppies end up in the fictional pound?) So forget its connection to human sexuality -- they're worried about kids knowing about dog body parts? Or are they making misreadings that tell us more about them than about kids' potential reactions (see below).

And seriously, age 9-12 is when kids are supposed to be learning about these things, because by the end of that period they'll be going though puberty and needing sex education. Heck, when I was 10, my mom took me to the library, got me a stack of sex ed books for children and adolescents, and I read away, learning all about the scrotum, the penis, the vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and all sorts of other "shocking" body parts and their medical names.

But this book depicts a kid using the proper name for a dog's body parts and school librarians faint across the nation and refuse to stock it in their libraries. Good lord.

But here's the part of the article that had me laughing out loud at the way in which a school librarian can live up to the stereotypes of her profession:
Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

“At least not for children,” she added.
Good thing she added that "at least not for children," because I was about to write to her and suggest she read some Chaucer and Shakespeare. But I still have half a mind to send her a friendly, non-threatening e-mail or letter that points out that it's not men's genitalia being depicted. If it were, that might indeed be kind of weird and creepy for little kids. But it's a dog's scrotum. And what better way to learn about body parts than through the non-threatening figure of a dog? I mean, for pete's sake, there were scrotum galore on the Westminster dog show last week.

And what about the boys? Are Ms. Nilsson and the other librarians quoted in the article assuming that only girls will read a book about a girl? Because I'm pretty sure the boys have noticed that they have a scrotum, even if they don't know what to call it as the boy with the dog Roy does.

So clearly the librarians are only worried that little girls might make the connection between a dog's scrotum and a man's. God forbid we don't keep the sexes complete mysteries to each other for as long as possible. Because, see, if they're mysteries, the kids won't think about it all. No, they won't think that such mysteries sound "secret, but also important" and then want to find out all they can in their own ways.

I don't know why I'm so worked up about this. Maybe it's because I grew up in a household where you used the proper words for things, not silly euphemisms. Or maybe it's because I met men in college who thought women didn't fart because they'd been so sheltered. Or maybe it's because I know children's librarians who are actually really cool and I hate it when people live up to stereotypes and make my friends look bad by association. I don't know what it is, but this really bugged me.


Gemma said...

Thank the gods my dog does not have a scrotum anymore, because who knows what you'd be doing with it, you sickly permissive libertine!!

But seriously, the only thing more horrible and emotionally scarring than seeing the word "scrotum" in a book at a tender age would be, oh, I dunno... watching the Superbowl halftime show, managing to stay awake and glimpsing a momentary view of a 30something breast decorated with a weird silver disc thingy. We as a society have a fantastic ability to get our knickers in a twist over things that are anything but twist-worthy.

Oh, and sorry about all the dog hair. Feel free to wrap Wiley in Saran wrap until I come get him.

Miss you!

Dr. Virago said...

Hey, the dog hair's not Wiley's fault. It's my/our fault for not keeping up on the vacuuming. And having a well-insulated house that has started him blowing his coat *way* early. Seriously -- huge clumps of undercoat trail him from room to room. What's up with that? It's winter!

Meanwhile, back to the topic of the post:

We as a society have a fantastic ability to get our knickers in a twist over things that are anything but twist-worthy.

Hey, speak for yourself. I only get my knickers in a twist over librarians who misread childrens books and get *their* knickers in a twist. I think that makes me meta-twisty.

Tenured Radical said...

I think we should all respond to this by vowing to use the word "scrotum" in a lecture at least once this week.


k8 said...

Some of the librarian blogs and listservs have been discussing this. I blogged about it very briefly yesterday, but I didn't have the patience to write about as well as you did. Most of what I've read on the CCBC listserv indicates that most people find the whole "controversy" absurd.

On a similar note, a couple years ago when I attended the ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents), several authors mentioned that they knew they had 'made it' once one of their books had been challenged. It is a badge of honor, of sorts - one that I think I approve of.

tommy said...

I believe you meant to say "scrota galore." Scrotae? Scrotasia? I don't know... Good thing I've only got one of 'em.

Ah, life in the US of A...

Anniina said...

This bugs me too, for many of the reasons you listed. Folks are not worried about kids blowing things up in war games, but about whether a kid knows the word for genitalia in Latin. There's something fundamentally out of joint in this country, heck, in this world, when books are being banned because of a dog's jewels.

Dr. Virago said...

TR -- But think of the children! Tee-hee! Actually, I'm teaching OE riddles this week, so I know I'll be mentioning the penis and pubic hair, at the very least.

K8 - I'm glad to know that the majority of children's librarians, et al., find this as absurd as I do. But dammit, the knickers-twisters always get their hearing, don't they? But yes, at least it also brings more prominence to the writers and their books, as well. Oh the delicious irony!

Tommy -- While I don't know for sure, I took a wild guess and decided, on a whim, that scrotum was one of those neuter (ha!) nouns (third declension, I think?) that don't change in the plural. Or wait, are those masculine nouns? Oh, who cares, I like the phrase "scrotum galore" -- someone should name a band that.

Anniina -- Hear! Hear!

Rob Barrett said...

Well, during my Parliament of Fowls lecture two weeks ago, I did mention the Roman de la Rose debate between Reason and Genius about the relative textual merits of "testicles" and "balls." Does that count as doing my part?

(This is of course all building up to the most triumphal moment in my survey course: the point in my Swift lecture where I intone, "The turd is both self and other.")

Dr. Virago said...

"The turd is both self and other."

Bahahahahahaha! It's funny because it's true. And because you use the word turd. :)

Bardiac said...

It's scary that although about half of kids have one, people are too afraid to say basic anatomical terms such as "scrotum." Are these the same people who want to insist that the marquee for the Vagina Monologues be instead the Hoohah Monologues?

Do they call their vulva the "front back"?

Scrotum's no dirtier than elbow. (Well, unless you're reading H5, in which case, elbow wins.)

Self-Congratulator said...

You mean women really do fart??? Yikes. I don't know how I am going to make it through the day today.

Gemma said...

"meta-twisty" may just be the most beautiful word I've heard since my friend Laura, visiting Vegas last week, called the windblown piles of free adult material littering the streets a "pornado."

I see a connection, actually... and now, the debut album from Pornado... "Let's Get Meta-Twisty!"

Also, to contribute my five cents to the declension of "scrotum," when I was at the paper, I had a rabid Pantera fan/reader who used to regularly send me hate mail calling me a "scrote." Oh, how I miss those days. Except not. Smooches to my fave acadamadame...

timna said...

There is a t-shirt to go along with the fuss: "Scrotum is not a dirty word."

tommy said...

Third declension, schmird declension. I say we go with "scrotumses."