Are Some Words Off-Limits in Children's Books?
NEAL CONAN, host:
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There are some words that just make grownups squirm and kids giggle. Scrotum is without a doubt near the top of both lists. And it's news because of Lucky Trimble, the 10-year-old heroine of this year's Newbery Medal-winning children's book "The Higher Power of Lucky."
Because the book includes the word scrotum some schools and libraries decided not to put it on their shelves. Author Susan Patron is a librarian herself and a little perplexed at this controversy.
Are some words just off-limits in kid's books and is this a form of censorship or are local libraries and local schools making local decisions about their communities? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
And Susan Patron joins us now from the studios of MARKETPLACE in Los Angeles. Nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. SUSAN PATRON (Author, "The Higher Power of Lucky): Thank you for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you to begin by reading the first two paragraphs of the higher power of lucky.
Ms. PATRON: I would love to.
Ms. PATRON: (Reading) Lucky Trimble crouched in a wedge of shade behind the Dumpster. Her ear near a hole in the paint-chipped wall of Hard Pan's Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, she listened as Short Sammy told the story of how he hit rock bottom. How he quit drinking and found his Higher Power. Short Sammy's story, of all the rock-bottom stories Lucky had heard at 12-step anonymous meetings — alcoholics, gamblers, smokers and overeaters — was still her favorite.
Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of his car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.
CONAN: That the first two paragraphs of "The Higher Power of Lucky," read by its author Susan Patron.
And Susan, why did you decide to use that particular word?
Ms. PATRON: Well, that's the name of the body part where the dog was bitten.
CONAN: Well, the dog was presumably bitten in your imagination, and you could've chose to have him bitten on any other hilarious body part.
Ms. PATRON: Well, true. Lucky has to hear this word because of a very pivotal scene at the end of the book. She's looking for a parent. She's got a guardian. She's worried that that French guardian will return to France. And she has no one to ask the meaning of this word, no one that she can trust.
By the end of the story - and part of the problem here is people who objected, I think, didn't read the whole story - she is able to finally ask her guardian what the word means. So the reader and Lucky both learn that Brigette loves her and that she can trust Brigette. It's a powerful scene because the word is a little bit taboo.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And even reading just the title and hearing first two paragraphs, we begin to get some idea about this book. The higher power, this is clearly a reference to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Ms. PATRON: Well, it's a reference to the 12-step programs, which address various forms of addiction.
CONAN: So that this - is this part of the structure of the book?
Ms. PATRON: Well, she lives in a little tiny town. There's no church. There's no school. There's no real official organization of any kind. So this is the closest that she can find to a form of spirituality and to people who are seeking redemption. And they're all, as she learns, very brave people who've decided to remake their lives. So it's kind of a metaphor for courage and for taking control of your life.
CONAN: Hmm. We want to invite listeners to join the conversation. We're talking with Susan Patron. Her new book is "The Higher Power of Lucky", this year's Newberry Award winner, and that is the highest award in children's literature. Normally, it's a - well, it's a license to print copies of the book. This one has caused some controversy because of its inclusion of the word scrotum, which we've been talking about.
Is there a line that should not be caused in children's books? What's appropriate? What isn't? Is it censorship if local schools and local libraries decide not to stock the Newberry Award winner this year? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll begin with Marion. Marion's us from Guilford in Connecticut.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
to talk about - and one of the things that NPR is so good at - is raising the issue to a higher level. This isn't about one word. I'm not personally opposed as a parent for my child to hear the word scrotum or to understand body parts. What I am very opposed to is somehow we have become afraid to talk about censorship in school libraries. There are some books that are in school libraries now that are not appropriate for young children.
There's a first grader in my son's class who checked out a book and has had nightmares for weeks because it was about a murderer who killed other people in his family. That's wrong. That should not be available to young school children. And so while I respect this author's right to put whatever word she wants to in her book - and again, I have no objection to that - I think we do need to, on programs like this, talk about it in terms of what is appropriate for school children to be able to check out of their school libraries at different ages and different stages of reading and understanding.
CONAN: And Susan Patron, this is right up your alley. In your day job, if you will, isn't it exactly what you do?
Ms. PATRON: Well, I'm a public librarian, and I think our mission is somewhat different from the school library's mission. So I can't really speak to the school library, but I've read many responses on LISTSERVs from school librarians who feel that this is - as we do in a public library - an issue for the parent to decide. I don't know the book that the caller is referring to…
Ms. PATRON: …does she have a title?
things. But the point is that I want my child to be able to go into a school library or a public library and know that when they're in the children's section, there's age-appropriate material there. While as a parent, I do take responsibility for taking my children to public libraries and think they do a wonderful job, I think that both in the public libraries and the school libraries we have to be careful.
And it's okay to be careful. And we don't have to be afraid to talk about it in terms of, you know, what's age appropriate, what should be on different levels of shelves so that at eye level, those books are appropriate for my first grader. There are books at a higher level, literally, higher level on the shelf that would be appropriate for a 9 to 12 year old.
CONAN: Okay. I think we get the point. Did you have a response, Susan Patron?
Ms. PATRON: Well, I think if I were a parent, I would want to make those decisions, especially when it comes in my own case to a Newberry Award-winning book. I wouldn't want a librarian to say no, it's not appropriate for third grade, but it is fourth, etc. I think that's my decision to make for my child.
CONAN: Marion, thanks for the call and we'll to continue to discuss this with other callers. We appreciate it. Let's see if we can get Monty on the line.
MONTY (Caller): Hi. I just have a really quick question. I'm wondering if texts like this might be taking the childhood away from the child. And I'll listen to your comment on the radio. Thank you.
Ms. PATRON: Yeah. Thanks for that question. I believe children live in a same world we do, and I think many children are experiencing a lot of trauma in their childhood, and if they're not, they're seeing it on television. They're seeing it in real life. And books can only empower them. It gives them a way to make some good decisions, to think deeply about issues, and to make some choices. I don't think we need to fear what is in the book if it's well written and responsibly written.
CONAN: Let's turn now to - this is Karen. Karen's with us from Dansville, New York.
KAREN (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well.
KAREN: Thank you for taking my call.
KAREN: I'm a school librarian in (unintelligible) area, and I found out about the big word scrotum by following (unintelligible) on CNN. And not 10 minutes later, I got an e-mail from the principal saying, do we have this book? Are we going to have this? And as a matter of course order Newberry and Caldecott winners. And I'm just sort of amazed (unintelligible) people seem to have over what is a technical term. It's not even a dirty word.
Ms. PATRON: And I was wondering if you had any comment - people's fear of term of a body part.
Ms. PATRON: I wish parents would talk to their children about these words, because it so demythologizes them. I mean, I think there's a direct ratio between how much we fear a word and how much kids want to find out what it means.
KAREN: I have little children, and we (unintelligible) the proper terminology for their body parts. And I remember the baby (unintelligible) when she said gina, you know, for vagina.
KAREN: And we should have called it a hoo-hoo or some thing, and it just floored me. I mean, it's part of our body.
CONAN: What's interesting - we have an e-mail right along these lines from Beth in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I was discussing this with my mother. My brother and I were raised in a family that believed anatomically correct language was neither crass nor inappropriate, so my mother and I had the same response: And what word would people prefer? Scrotum is an anatomical term. This is, to me, an overreaction.
KAREN: By the way, my principal did (unintelligible) your book. I didn't want you to think that he was censoring us. He just (unintelligible) if I knew about the controversy.
CONAN: Your phone is breaking…
Ms. PATRON: Bravo.
CONAN: …up there. So the principal has authorized the purchase of the book?
KAREN: Yes. He did.
CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much.
KAREN: It was my choice.
CONAN: Okay. But he didn't fire you for doing it.
KAREN: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We're speaking with Susan Patron, the author of "The Higher Power of Lucky", a book which has caused controversy because it includes the word scrotum. It's the winner of this year's Newberry medal, which is the Pulitzer Prize of children's literature. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And here's another e-mail, this one from Celia in Boise, Idaho.
Far more objectionable to me is the author's reference to binge drinking. In the first chapter of her book, Ms. Patron mentioned a character's consumption of a large quantity of rum. I think we heard that excerpt. I appreciate her comments on same.
Ms. PATRON: Well, as we know, if we read along, Sammy has hit rock bottom and he has stopped drinking. I think that's what Lucky finds so empowering and encouraging. He has become an adult that she can trust.
CONAN: So that's why it's so important that this be included?
Ms. PATRON: I think so, yes.
CONAN: And also, children living in that same world that we live in. Certainly, binge drinking is a large part of many children's lives.
Ms. PATRON: Well, it is. And it's more, probably, rare to see adults who have decided to stop, and a very encouraging thing for them to read about.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get Sam on the line. Sam's calling us from St. Louis. Sam, are you there?
SAM (Caller): Yeah.
CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.
SAM: Hi. I just wanted to say that I think maybe the censorship of the book is a little bit too clean cut, and I think we should put the responsibility back into the hands of the teachers to show, you know, what the context of the book is and that to teach the kids how to accept this kinds of things on their own.
CONAN: You're, again, not a school librarian, Susan Patron, but do you think that that would be a wise course of action?
Ms. PATRON: Well, some teachers have been afraid of using this book as well. They're afraid of perceived objections from parents. I think they're also afraid of if they read the book aloud, losing the kids, as you said, at the very beginning and fits of giggling.
Ms. PATRON: But everything in this book is about empowerment and courage. It's a very hopeful book that I think will leave children feeling more secure in their world.
CONAN: Sam, thanks very much.
SAM: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an excerpt. This was an article, this is from an article written by Julie Bosman in the New York Times about the controversy over this book. And in it she says, quote, "Authors of children's books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase." A - Does that happen? And B - Is that what happened in this case?
Ms. PATRON: I'm just so appalled at the idea of any responsible writers sneaking in a word. It's - we all use words as our tools. They're very deliberately, very carefully chosen - very lovingly chosen. So it's certainly not the case.
CONAN: Are there words that should not be used?
Ms. PATRON: I think the writer has to try to write from the heart and try to be as honest as possible and not talk down to the audience. So if that author needs a word such as scrotum to describe where she's going with the story, and she's doing it knowingly - and she would be - then I think it's absolutely appropriate.
CONAN: Well, scrotum - anatomically correct. Accurate - nevertheless, it's caused a controversy. There are words that can cause quite a bit more controversy, as you and I well know.
Ms. PATRON: Yes. And sometimes those books are on young adult shelves. Actually, I think this word scrotum has been used in children's books many times previously, but because this is on the first page and because it's a Newberry book, it's just caused all this controversy. But it's not the first time.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Cynthia. Cynthia's calling us from Memphis.
CYNTHIA: Yeah, I had a question about the comment that Susan made about the school libraries. How did she expect that we would deal with control what our children read at school?
Ms. PATRON: I think you need to be involved in what your children are reading. Ask them what they're reading.
CYNTHIA: Well, if I'm not in school with him, you know, my child's in the fourth grade and he could be reading something and we never know about it. Being that I'm not in school. You know, I understand how I can control what he takes out of the public library.
Ms. PATRON: How about talking to his teacher about what they're reading?
CYNTHIA: Well, I mean, what if his teacher has the same opinion that you have that this is an okay book? That's something that I know, I haven't read the book and I certainly wouldn't pass judgment on it. But I don't see how we can monitor our children from work.
Ms. PATRON: I think you have to talk to your kids, ask them what they are reading.
CONAN: Thanks, Cynthia. We just have a few seconds left, but I want - I did want to ask you, Susan Patron: In your work as a librarian, has there ever been a children's book, which you said no, we really shouldn't do this one. This is over the top.
Ms. PATRON: No. We do have complaints from time to time. Different things offend different people. And sometimes it's from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Ms. PATRON: But what we do is try to validate that the parent should be talking to their children, should be deciding what they're reading, and then lead them to a book that they will find more appropriate for their child.
CONAN: Susan Patron, thanks very much. We appreciate it. And congratulations, by the way, on the award.
Ms. PATRON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Susan Patron is a children's librarian in Los Angeles, the author of this year's Newberry medal. "The Higher Power of Lucky" is her book, and she joined us today from the studios of MARKETPLACE in Los Angeles.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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