Lucky Sparks New Censorship Debate

Anything that borders on censorship will rile up bloggers, and the controversy over a children's book that uses a touchy word has done just that.

Somebody call George Carlin and tell him there’s an eighth word to add to his list. Yep, “scrotum” has set off a censorship controversy in some of our nation’s elementary school libraries.

The word appears several times in Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, a book about Lucky Trimble, a curious ten-year-old girl from the California desert, and this year’s Newbery Medal winner.

Sunday’s New York Times reported that “the book has already been banned from school libraries in a handful of states in the South, the West and the Northeast, and librarians in other schools have indicated in the online debate that they may well follow suit.”

Julie Bosman’s Times piece includes a few minor oversights: is not an electronic mailing list as the article claims, while Bosman also writes that “in the world of children’s books, winning a Newbery is the rough equivalent of being selected as an Oprah’s Book Club title.” Granted, both Oprah and the Newbery are good for sales — but while the Newbery is one of the most prestigious and coveted literary prizes, getting on Oprah is a mere commercial accomplishment, not a literary one.

Less minor, Bosman also 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.” This statement is not attributed — and bloggers are enraged at the assertion. “The quote about authors ‘sneaking’ in words, etc. made me furious,” writes anastasia1901. “Why would I sneak something into something I was writing? I make a conscious decision to use the words, phrases and ideas that I do.”

More broadly, anything that borders on censorship will rile up bloggers, and the Lucky scrotum debate certainly seems to have hit a soft spot, as thousands of comments have been posted in just the last 24 hours. With censorship anathema to bloggers, the criticisms of librarians have been quite vehement.

“It’s a shame that a librarian has the idea that they can dictate what my child reads as well as learns, because they don’t want to approach the word,” writes Joe at “Shame on you for being a closeted censor and educational bigot.”

Ms. Patron, for her part, has responded to the criticism in a dignified but firm manner: “If I were a parent of a middle-grade child, I would want to make decisions about my child’s reading myself — I’d be appalled that my school librarian had decided to take on the role of censor and deny my child access to a major award-winning book.”

Some librarians obviously disagree, countering that the book is simply inappropriate for children in the 3rd grade. “We don’t include middle and high school level books because the content is inappropriate for the age level,” writes one anonymous blogger in New York. “Is that censorship?”

Yep, that’s the definition: Anytime material is kept away from eyes or ears because of its content, it is censorship. But is that censorship warranted?

In the case of Lucky — where the author has inspired at least some kids to drop the remote and pick up a book — I’d say it’s not.

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Dan Goldberg is a CJR intern.