Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Power of a word

The word “scrotum” does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter. However, in the children’s book, The Higher Power of Lucky, 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. To quote from the page:“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.”

The inclusion of the word has shocked some school librarians, who have pledged to ban the book from elementary schools, and reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books. To make matters worse, or better this is not just any book. The author, Susan Patron, won the Newbery Award. If it were any other novel, it probably would have gone unnoticed, unordered and unread. But in the world of children’s books, winning a Newbery is the rough equivalent of being selected as an Oprah’s Book Club title.

Visiting friends and family in Europe and now living here I have often been surprised and at times shocked by what is generally accepted by the public. Young children peeing in public, if a bit discreetly, at the foot of a tree or alongside the road and large billboard advertisements showing woman’s breasts or male buttocks. Such things are not seen in the United States, being considered too rude or crude for public consumption. There are a few exceptions over here, such as the British renaming the second Austin Powers movie, because they found the word shag offensive. Of course, when it comes to offensive or crude, my European friends are correct to point out that the sex and violence and language, to the point of gratuitous, in Hollywood movies on television and in song lyrics pervade the American culture.

So why does the word scrotum worry and offend so many? I really do not have the answer. I think that an opportunity has been lost, however, in the banning of this book in some school libraries. American teachers have lost the opportunity to do what they do best, teach; while parents have lost the chance to do the same. For a culture that is supposedly at war with itself here was the opportunity that every conservative should want: parental instruction of their children unfettered by schools and the government. This too offered liberals a chance to show how inclusion of literature can be the common ground or at the very least the start of dialogue. Let us hope for a next time.

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