Show Some Balls for the Children

By Mark Trodden | February 17, 2007 10:46 pm

In Sunday’s New York Times, Julie Bosman has an interesting article about a mini-crusade to keep an award-winning children’s book off library shelves. The book, “The Higher Power of Lucky,” by Susan Patron, won this year’s Newbery Medal, and is taking flak because of a single word, which appears on the very first page. That word is (and I hope any children reading will cover their eyes) scrotum.

So what is this filth that threatens to infiltrate children’s libraries? Well, the word apparently arises is the following context

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.

The Times article contains a number of quotes from librarians that I found pretty silly

“This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didn’t have the children in mind,” Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colo., wrote…

“I think it’s a good case of an author not realizing her audience,” said Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, N.J.


Andrea Koch, the librarian at French Road Elementary School in Brighton, N.Y., said she anticipated angry calls from parents if she ordered it. “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson,” she said in an interview.

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

“At least not for children,” she added.

What exactly is going on here? Around fifty percent of the people who might read this book will have already found, after a casual inspection, that they possess a scrotum. If one wanted a natural way to talk to one’s children about what their body parts are and what they are called, surely having one crop up in a kids book would provide that. There is certainly nothing sexual about a dog being bitten on his scrotum (unless he specifically asked the rattlesnake to do it, and was found tied to his kennel with silk scarves. But I digress.). And telling a child that a scrotum is a particular body part that either they or their classmates possess does not seem to be necessarily sexual either.

Is it thought that keeping the name of the body part secret will make them less likely to realize that it can be used for Satan’s work?

The author is understandably, to my mind, confused by the kerfuffle.

Reached at her home in Los Angeles, Ms. Patron said she was stunned by the objections. The story of the rattlesnake bite, she said, was based on a true incident involving a friend’s dog.

And one of the themes of the book is that Lucky is preparing herself to be a grown-up, Ms. Patron said. Learning about language and body parts, then, is very important to her.

This is what really gets me about censorship. Nobody would argue that the children’s section of the library should contain hard-core pornography, but I wish people weren’t so touchy as to squash things that might trigger, and help nurture curiosity. I would have thought that any teacher worth their salt would welcome a child initiating “that vocabulary lesson”. Micromanaging a child’s environment to this level, where one tries to avoid their knowing what perfectly natural body parts are called, strikes me as, well, you know, what a scrotum contains – bollocks!.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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