Allow me to destroy your mind: SCROTUM!
Gee, that was almost too easy.
The novel starts with a ten-year-old girl named Lucky hearing a conversation from next door. The neighbor’s dog has just been bitten by a snake . . . on his scrotum. (Poor thing.)
Lucky hasn’t heard this word before. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.” Like any language-loving kid, she finds these secret words fascinating. (Much like my tridecalogism obsession in Midnighters, but along a somewhat different axis.)
Cue the real world.
According to the Times article, Librarian.net has been burning up with this seven-letter kerfuffle. That’s not exactly true, but some school librarians have actually said they’ll ban the book, and the debate has leaked out to various litblogs and library sites. So I thought I’d offer my thoughts.
First some odd but revealing quotes.
The Times reporter writes, “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.”
Hmm. How does one “sneak” something into a book? Everything in a book is right there in black and white, literally. The only people past whom the contents of a book can be snuck are people who don’t read books. You know, the ones who leaf through them distractedly, looking for reasons to ban them.
Nice of you to adopt their framework, NY Times.
And by the way, the word (cover your eyes!) “scrotum” appears on page one of Lucky. That’s some pretty crappy sneaking. All my snuck-in words are printed upside down on page 217 in invisible ink. (Hint: Lemon juice.)
Also bizarre is the phrase “leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book.” Yes, that’s us lazy authors, leaving librarians to ban our books. Why can’t we ban our own books for once?
A teacher and librarian from Colorado is also quoted: “This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didnâ€™t have the children in mind.”**
This is just so random. Who else would Susan Patron have in mind, except children? Children who find fascination in new words. Word-nerd kids for whom the mysteries of the body and those of language are wrapped up together. And does anyone really believe Patron is trying to get on Howard Stern with this?***
But I don’t mean to be harsh, especially not on school librarians! I know you have a tough job. You have all the usual trials of working at a school, plus tons of crackpots hanging around waiting to pounce on every word in every book you shelve. I also realize that librarians have more at stake in this than I have. Like, their jobs. And I get that my books are YA, while Lucky is middle grade, and will admit that I haven’t ever used the word “scrotum” myself. (The subject hasn’t come up.)
But let’s remember that we all have children in mind. They are our readers, without whom we’re just wasting our time. No authors I know are trying to sneak, offend, or randomly envelope push. We’re trying to write the best, most relevant books we can.
That often means balancing the needs of kids who want to read their own stories in their own vernacular with the needs of parents who don’t want their cotton-candy invented memories of what childhood is like disturbed. This is a very hard line to walk.
Susan Patron walks this line by telling an uplifting tale of surviving the loss of a parent, while throwing in one amusing anatomical term. I walk this line by writing about bomb-throwing, eco-terrorist, self-harming, champagne-drinking, tattooed heroines, while never using dirty words. (The astonishing thing is that I get away with it and Patron doesn’t. Even with the age difference, this tends to support what I said about some folks scanning rather than reading.)
But we all face the same problem: it’s impossible to please everyone. So all we authors and librarians can ask of each other is, yes, to keep children in mind. Especially these children:
The word-loving kids, for whom silly seven-letter terms that make adults blush are pure magic, the sort that animates a lifetime of language acquisition.
The kids who face abuse and addiction at home, whose only way to understand what they’re going through is through narratives that will curl your hair and mine.
The bomb-throwing kids, for whom tales of future revolution give a framework for their own necessary confrontations with authority.
The vacuum readers, who consume anything and everything, and thereby learn to filter out whatever they’re not ready for.
As long as we keep all these kids stocked up with lots of books, we’re doing a pretty good job.
Now a question for my teen readers, for whom this post was no doubt really boring:
What’s your favorite dorky-dirty word? The kind that makes you giggle, and you’d get vaguely in trouble if you used it at school.
Mine is “dingleberry.”
*Full disclosure: The publishers of Lucky are Simon & Schuster, one of my 29 publishers worldwide. Dude! I just counted : I have 29 publishers!
** “They didn’t have the children in mind?” Why “they”? Lucky is written by one author. Is this a conspiracy? Why am I always the last to be informed of the scrotum-sneaking children’s literature conspiracies? I pay my dues! And why are people always worried about “the children,” and not just “children”? What’s up with that?
***Some people seem to subsist entirely on outrage, and think everyone else is constantly trying to outrage them, because we want to get famous or something. Trust me on this: Most of the time, we had no clue you’d be outraged!