My Scrotum Week

Sunday

The children’s literature world had been bubbling about this for a while, but it was only when my local newspaper, the New York Times, had a front page article about it that things got (pun intended) nuts. Once something ends up on the front page of the paper of record, it goes around the world. Both furious (because of the poor reporting in the article) and curious (as to how quickly things would escalate) I began googling “scrotum.” It took only a few hours for a link related to the controversy to show up on the second page; by now it is fourth on the first.

Monday

Could my hometown paper do anything further the sensationalize the situation? Yes. On Monday on the front page of the Times website appeared an invitation for readers: “The word “scrotum” was used in a children’s book. What do you think?” Of course I and several hundred others told them exactly what we thought and I’d say the vast, vast majority felt as I did. (They’ve since edited that request to include the book title and author’s name.) By then, as I’d anticipated, the story (as reported by the Times) was showing up in news media all over the world.

Tuesday

Monday had been a holiday so I first saw my my 4th graders on Tuesday. I told them that a controversy had erupted about the book (which had been on display in my classroom along with the other award winners for weeks). A couple already knew from their parents, but most did not. I told them I’d read the first few pages of the book and they could try to guess what the fuss was about. And so I did. When I reached the dreaded scrotum passage there was no reaction whatsoever… no confusion, no giggles, no questioning. I kept going to “….he killed that snake even though it bit him in the place where it hurts the worst for a male…” (3) where there might have been a smile or two, but no more. After a few more paragraphs I stopped. Eager hands went up. “It is about the drinking, right?” Others nodded. Finally, one said, “It’s about what happened to the dog?” The two who already knew and I nodded. And the kids all said they didn’t get it. That they see dogs with scrota every day after all. That it was no big deal.

Wednesday

The New York Times weighed in again; this time with an editorial. I read it to my class and then once more the offending passage in the book replacing, as the editorial noted someone recommended, “… that word with ‘a clearing-throat noise,’ a bleep in the form of an “ahem.” Now that made them giggle!

Thursday

The Times published four letters on the topic. Two girls worked on one on their own to send.

Friday

I met with the two letter writers and then sent the letter off to the Times. Who knows? Maybe they will still be interested in publishing one from the intended audience. If not, here it is for you to read (with links to their blogs):

Dear Editor,

Our teacher read to us a bit of the book, The Higher Power of Lucky, and when she asked us what was wrong only one person knew it was about the word scrotum and the rest of us had ideas that had nothing to do with the word. We were appalled to hear that some librarians had banned the book from their libraries just because of some old word. Our teacher only read us a little bit of the book, but we thought it sounded very good and do not agree with people who banned the book.

Sincerely,

M and H

18 Comments

Filed under Reading, Teaching, Writing

18 responses to “My Scrotum Week

  1. thanks for the links and for sharing the letter. I commented on your student’s blogs and I am going to read the letter to my 4th graders next week, maybe it will inspire some of them to write to the newspaper someday on something they believe in!

    Kathy

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  2. Bravo! So happy to see kids taking the initiative to fight this senseless censorship!

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  3. Thanks, Kathy, for commenting. The kids are very pleased to get all the comments.

    Chrissie, thanks. So far I”ve only seen one other report of an actual class reacting to the passage.

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  4. This is my favorite post on the whole ridiculous episode. Thanks for sharing this with us, and for sharing the book with your class.

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  5. Go you, and yayfor your class.

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  6. Go you, and yay for your class.

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  7. What a great teachable moment! And what thoughtful kids! I love the class blog system, too.

    I haven’t shared the book with a class yet, but I wrote about the reactions of a group of my 5th graders to the whole thing here.

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  8. cb

    I have so much trouble understanding what would motivate a parent or other adult to freak out over hearing a word like scrotum … I always think, don’t these people remember what they were like as a kid? Certainly *they* couldn’t have been traumatized beyond recognition when they learned where the testicles hung. I’m starting to think that these people must be pretty disappointed in adult life, and “only if” they can keep their kids from hearing “bad” stuff, they will sail into adult life as cheery, happy, well-adjusted people. Seriously, if someone else has a better explanation, please let me know!

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  9. Thanks–I enjoyed your story, which reminded me of the time when I was in third grade and some parents got upset because we weren’t saying the Pledge of Allegiance. So we stopped what we were doing in social studies for a bit and learned about the Pledge of Allegiance and discussed it and voted about whether or not saying it should be a requirement. We voted no, and the school went with our decision. If only the rest of world worked so sensibly! In any case, I’m glad to know there are other teachers out there doing similar things.

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  10. I’m a little ashamed for my profession on this one. Librarians as a whole do not really stand much for censorship, much less senselessship, which trying to ban a book for a body part really is.

    Kudos for having the [ahems] for reading this story and thanks also for the story. :)

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  11. Penelope

    Am I the only one here who feels sorry for the librarians? After all, the author specifically chose the word “scrotum” because it is a word that makes adults a little uncomfortable, the point being that when her protagonist can talk to an adult about it, it signals the establishment of a really trusting relationship. As she herself says in an interview somewhere,”clavicle” just wouldn’t have worked. So, on what they think is a private forum, some librarians are talking about the book and the word, and it makes some of them uncomfortable. Is this not okay? Are librarians not supposed to be like other human beings who can be made uncomfortable by sensitive topics? Anyway, somehow this private discussion (which may even in some cases have become more emphatic and polarized than the participants might have meant it to be, because that’s what happens sometimes in list serv discussions, although who am I to say, not having read the original postings) becomes public. Not only public, but front page New York Times. These people did not issue a position paper, or take any official action. They were simply talking over this whole issue with colleagues. And yet, all of a sudden, these people (who were simply proving the author’s point that this word can make people uncomfortable) are being portrayed nationwide as book banning First Amendment scoffing prudes and Neil Gaimon is accusing them of having gone over to the dark side. Sheesh! Does everything have to be so black and white? Can you be a good librarian and still maybe feel uncomfortable talking about scrotums to other peoples children? And what about the attempts to process here. Can’t people use these forums to talk about their concerns, and work out solutions? Does everything ever written in one of these supposedly private forums have to represent your definative and final position, or can these forums be places where people can talk about their concerns and work things out? What use is a forum like this if everyone just has to post, “Lovely book. I look forward to having it in my collection.” Must all online speech take the party position? What I’m really concerned about is how a private list serv discussion became public? If you choose to talk in relative private with fellow librarians about dog scrotums, does that somehow mean that you have consented to talk about it in the New York Times? I have many discussions with friends and with colleagues that were never meant for public consumption. (I once told a friend in a private discussion, although to be fair I never said it was in confidence, that I didn’t think another friend’s relationship was going to work out, and that was never supposed to get back to our mutual friend. But that’s another topic entirely. I’m just glad that didn’t wind up on the front page of the NYT.) Is any kind of privacy at all just impossible on the net. Is all speech now public speech? If so, that would be too bad.

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  12. Penelope, you can be a good librarian and be uncomfortable with the word scrotum.

    But you can’t be a good librarian and refuse to have books in your library that contain words that make you uncomfortable.

    If you are a squeamish librarian and a child asks you what a word that makes you uncomfortable means, you have wonderful resources at your disposal — dictionaries, even encyclopedia. But as this post makes clear, the kids mostly already know, and don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

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  13. Penelope

    Liza, I agree, but when does choosing become refusing? It’s one thing not to choose a book for your collection. With limited resources (as libraries these days certainly have) we all make choices, and those choices are often based upon what patrons want (including the parents of children). A library full of books that were good for us but nobody wanted to read would not be fulfilling it’s mission. If it was requested by patrons, do we know that they would have said, “Absolutely not. I refuse to have that book in my collection.”? That’s a different stance entirely.

    And really I’m less concerned about librarians having private discussions about book purchasing choices, (especially when nobody has mentioned the word “banning” except for the press) than I am about those discussions being a) evesdropped upon, b) taken out of context and potentially misinterpreted, and C) sensationalized. Personally, that’s one of the things I think librarians are supposed to do, talk about books.

    As for kids knowing, well, okay. But, as I understand this book from the things I have read (having not read the book itself yet) a meta-message here is about being able to form trusting relationships as manifested through language and conversation. So kids should be able to do this with librarians, but librarians get jumped on when they try to do it with each other? I think people should be able to talk with their colleagues about things that make them uncomfortable (without being hung out to dry), rather than just having to go along and pretend they’re totally cool with it. Where do these librarians get to establish their trusting relationships if not on a private professional list serv?

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  14. 1) Listserv discussions are not [often] private, unless they are internal. This is an age-old lesson that any librarian ought to know. Put out a public opinion, then you better be willing to back it up, maybe even in media. The media’s role is to set the agenda; if there is something that needs to be clarified, then there are alot of avenues to do that. However, I think a public has a right to know when a librarian is “selecting” a book out of a collection.

    2) A newberry award winning book ought to be a fairly high-priority item for any collection development policy. Period.

    3) One of the tenets of public service is that the job ought to have little to nothing to do with the people doing the job. Professionals ought to act in the interest of the public (as determined through the democratic process), not their own “comfort level.” These librarians landed themselves smack into the democratic process, and good on ’em for it.

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  15. Penelope

    Sorry to respond so late…maybe nobody cares anymore…life does go on. :-)

    As to Ryan’s point 1, you’re right. I just think it’s a shame. We have this incredible tool, but it doesn’t work the way that people do. The internet is not a place that tolerates process, or uncertainty, which I think really limits the utility. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could say, “I have concerns about this, does anybody else?” But you can’t. None of these librarians would be embroiled in any controversy if they had just posted, “Lovely book.” and kept their true thoughts to themselves. I’m sure right now they’re wishing they had. But I don’t believe that anybody is ever better off for stifling discussion. I just think it’s a shame that in self-preservation, that’s what prudent people do.

    In point of fact, nobody has selected the book out of their collection.

    As to point #2, probably. So should Charles Dickens, whether anybody reads it or not. Do you think most libraries today have the complete works of Dickens? Maybe they do…

    As to point number 3. Here’s the sticky wicket for me. Who determines the best interests of the public? If everybody in a town voted to exclude certain books from the library, would you say that the democratic process should prevail? Would it depend on what those books were? (Would you want to read the books voted for by the people who voted for your current crop of representatives?) I suspect, that in that case, most Americans would support a librarian who went contrary to the democratic process. I think this is exactly the dilemma of public service – to what extent do you listen to the public, and to what extent do you follow your own conscience and act in the public good even if that’s not the will of the public. I think that public service is a very delicate balancing act, especially if you truly think of yourself as a public servant.

    I don’t think they landed themselves smack into the democratic process. I think they were easy targets on a slow news day, and I think it was a cheap shot.

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  16. Pingback: Scrotumgate, a Children’s Literature Controversy « Read Free or Die

  17. Pingback: Waiting for Lyra: Stoking Up Controversies « educating alice

  18. Penelope:

    #1 The point I’m making is not that the librarians should have stifled themselves, but instead that they should be prepared to back up what they say with evidence, opinion or whatnot. That’s what free-speech is all about. If they did not want what they said public, they should have chosen a non-public venue.

    #2 They do carry Charles Dickens and Huck Finn (which also has its controversies). All of Dickens? Well, I’m not sure all of Dickens applies, but that’s another story.

    #3 Democratic process is not about the public voting on everything, but a complex history of checks and balances including free speech, the rights of the press, institutions, accountability and the gamut. When I say that these librarians fell smack into the democratic process, I mean that the media rightly put them on the spot for their decisions (or what appeared to be decisions they were going to make). That’s what media does. As public institutions, schools and libraries have to respond for decisions they make with taxpayer dollars. The librarians in question here made the mistake of bring that business into the public forum — the media picked up on it; discussion followed, and a public got interested in what their librarians are and are not allowing their kids to read. The public now has decisions to make about who they will vote onto their school boards, congress and even the president’s office. The librarians have to re-think their collections policies. That’s democracy and it is good, despite the possible embarrassment of some librarians.

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