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!.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, News, Words
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  • Scott

    Most kids aren’t going to just fall apart when they hear a controversial word. Example: I was visiting my sister and her family recently when she put a well-known DVD on–one of the characters used a well known word that starts with “F”. I turned to my two middle-school nieces and asked them if hearing that word was going to cause them brain damage. They both gave me a cynical, slightly amused look and said they’ve heard that word a few times before when “mommy and daddy are fighting” and it wasn’t the end of the world.

  • http://vacuumenergy.blogspot.com Joseph

    Hi Mark,

    Whether or not the word “scrotum” belongs on a third grader’s vocabularly list seems like a side issue compared to the fact that the book includes a dog who has been bitten on the scrotum by a rattlesnake. Doesn’t this seem like a shockingly cruel punishment for the author to inflict upon a fictional canine? I think that 10-year-old children could very easily be more disturbed by discussion of this rather bizarre animal attack than by a discussion of perfectly natural body parts.

    Joe

  • http://www.thecrossedpond.com adam

    Hear the word ‘scrotum’ today, teenaged runaway crackwhore tomorrow. It’s a logical progression, a fight we have to win, and Our Nations Librarians are in the front line.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Joseph – the sooner kids realize that the world is a cruel heartless place where a rattlesnake will bite a dog’s nuts just as soon as look at him, the better prepared they’ll be for a life of protecting their pet’s gonads. It’s a snake eat dog world out there.

  • http://www.thecrossedpond.com adam

    Damn straight.

  • fh

    Actually it’s an old topos in literature. “That which can not be named”. It’s only by giving a name to something that it obtains a conceptual reality. In Judaism you can not name G-d. Harry Potter is fictionally shown to be “the chosen one” by being the only one who dares call Voldemort by his name, the intentional omissions in Orwells 1984 Newspeak which make certain concepts inaccessible to thepeople using this language, as they can not be expressed in it, etc, etc…

  • http://www.savory.de/blog.htm Stu Savory

    Do not think about the white horse.
    (Zen)

  • thereisnorule6

    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

    Incorrect. In a Howard Stern-type shock treatment, the dog would have tea-bagged the rattlesnake.

  • Linda C

    If you think this is not great, try reading “The Boy who looked like Lincoln”.
    I am not a prude but I have a problem with a 6 year old reading that one.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Why, Linda C.?

  • Trixie

    Why should the Librarian decide what children should or should not read?? Why dont they let the parents decide what they want their children to read?? To not have the book available at all in the library is absurd. Its a matter of individual choice. Though some people may find the word scrotum uncomfortable to discuss there are many other who’ve no problem at all explaining such things to their children. This is the USA for chrissakes!!!!!

  • Trixie

    They’re ten year olds – I can assure they had heard MUCH WORSE at that age!

  • SJA

    These librarians need to get some **s of their own. How ridiculous that librarians and other “professional” people who have undoubtedly had some schooling and ought to know about body parts and good literature are condemning this book. If this audience is intended to be third graders (who are usually 9 or 10) then I don’t see what the big deal is to have used this word. The book (although I haven’t read it) is supposed to be about growing up. It is not about the coming-of-age sexual antics of the main character but rather about her learning about life. I for one want my children to learn about the experiences of other people and other cultures too. I want them to know what their body parts are called and NOT “wee-wee” or “pee-pee”. I have the feeling that if more people talked to their children about life and body parts in a straight-forward, honest, matter-of-fact, this-is-what-it-is way then there would be less “Britney Spears” and “Anna Nicole”‘s in the world. KEEP THE BOOK IN THE LIBRARY and TELL CHILDREN THE TRUTH. At 9 or 10 they should know what a scrotum is.

  • Anne

    Well, I read the News Story, and then the comments posted here..
    First, Please allow me to correct “Joe”.. it isn’t a fictional story of the canine being attacked by the Rattle Snake.. the Writer of the Book clearly stated it was based on a true event that had happened to a friend. Many things in this world happen, and we have to explain them to our children. When my 3 children were younger, and learning to potty train, some people where horrified that I taught my girls the word (Hold on to your pants here people, it’s a shocker) “Vagina”. How dare I?? Well here is how I dare.. It’s the correct name of that body part.. It’s not a coochie, or a cookie, or a susie.. It’s not a WhoHa.. or a thinga-ma-bob. I’d rather hear my chyild said “vagina” then “pussy”… unless, she is refering to the cat.

    My son, who is now 6, started calling his scrotum, his.. “winky Bobs”.. where he got that I’ll never know.. And I have banned him from saying it. It’s his scrotum, and his PENIS! Eegads, I will be locked up for using such language.

    This censorship of Correct terminoligy is REDICULOUS! Next people will be saying you need ban “Breast”.. How do explain to some one you support Boobie Cancer awareness month? Or Tah-Tahs exams? Please explain to me how it is ok for a child to come home and say.. “So and So got kicked in the nuts today in P.E”.. and Not ok for them to say..:So and So got kicked in the scrotum..”

    Allow me, one last chance to illustrate my point here ( to those who take everything literally) .. How would you feel if your 10 year old came home from school and ..”Johny ate my cookie today”.. and you use the word “cookie” to name a vagina..

    See my point here?

    Any parent who has ever taken their child to a Doctor has had that child hear words, The CORRECT words of the body.. Medical texts do not include, nads, prick, balls or susie, or for that matter.. melons, tahtas, or butthole.

    Sheesh

  • Jamie

    I agree completely with Anne. As a former middle school English teacher I can tell you that the word “scrotum” is a very mild word in most middle schoolers vocabulary. When I began teaching I was amazed at the words my students used, most of which they had learned at home. Pardon me for saying but I once had a student ask me what another word for “pussy” would be in describing what he had seen a pornographic picture that another student had brought to school to show all his buddies. Curiously enough the student who brought the picture was a preachers son. I believe if you don’t censor words and ideas from kids they lose almost all of their shock power which is the main reason children use such language. When words such as scrotum are discused at home and in the school system kids aren’t nearly as fascinated by them. When words are considered “bad” that is when kids most want to use them. Parents who say they don’t want their child exposed to such words need to open their eyes and realize that their kids have already heard much worse words. Censorship is never an acceptable way to teach children right from wrong.

  • http://www.thecrossedpond.com adam

    Certainly not. Brutal physical punishment will teach them right from wrong!

  • Lee Ann

    Grow up people, 90% of the kids who read that word would pretty much skip over it. If they don’t already know the meaning, they are not going to ask. Everyone is worried about a single word in a book and the author is sitting at home going…THANK YOU PEOPLE FOR THE FREE PRESS. Let’s find a real problem to talk about…teenage drug use, sexual abuse, physical abuse…things that really matter.

  • Ben

    comon people there children i know there not going to fall apart jsut because of that word but there children if they were teenagers then this wouldnt get any attention what so ever

    Some ideas

    1. edit the book
    or
    2. restrict the book to certain ages
    or
    3. or ban it

    Ben

  • Marye

    Ode to the man with common sense.
    First, the words weren’t used in a derogatory or pornographic way, so let’s all be adults here and chill out. It’s a scrotum. This is not a bad word.
    As adam (who is a genius god, thank you for your sarcastic yet accurate perception) said, children seeing the word scrotum do not become sexual fiends and feel the need to rush out and bang some other poor little child that’s lived in a bubble and never seen such word, (as believed by their parent). How do such technical words suddenly become so taboo? Help me please. I personally disagree with ANY book being banned from ANYBODY. Books of all kinds are used for intellectual and social enhancement and understanding.
    Lets ban ‘Of mice and men’, right? Because kids might go out and become murderers from seeing such things in literature. Is ‘Huckleberry Finn’ going to make us all racists? Let’s get a clue people. Let’s head into a world in which Orwell portrayed in ‘1984’, in which human thought and human souls were controlled by this exact argument. If you don’t like the words, then don’t read the book…..don’t control what anyone except yourself reads. That is called oppression. Thank you, and don’t be angry over people’s opinions.

  • R. Young

    Do the people that ban the book because they object to the the word scrotum

    also ban ET? One of the brothers in ET uses the term “Penis Breath”(I believe

    that was it). The only shock effect taking place is to the adults. Kids don’t even
    flinch.

  • George

    It certainly is no suprise that some librarians, teachers and/or parents do not want to confront sex education/terminology/issues raised by children. It is a conundrum our society created. Those persons are ill-equipped to handle the stress of telling the truth. My own mother was one such person. When I inquired about the name of my sex organ, she was visibly shaken. After a long agonizing pause, she surrendered to the truth. She said “penis.” Not being familiar with the word, I responded quizzically “peanuts?” “Yes,” she said emphatically. “Peanuts!” Needless to say, when I used that term with classmates, I suffered derision. Today’s generation of first-graders prefers words like “Balls.” When correcting my granson, I suggested he use a socially acceptable term like “scrotum” when complaining about his cousin hitting him there. This was met with puzzlement. “No Grandpa,” he replied laughing. “They are BALLS!”

  • Kevin

    A child should know the TRUE name for his or her body parts. What do you tell your son??? You have a nut sack, a pair of balls, call them his short and curlys?!?!?!? By the time children can read, they should know the medical names for their body parts. It is cute to give them children’s names like “your pee pee” or “your treasure chest” but sooner or later they will have to know so they will not be 10 years old telling the school nurse their pee pee hurts. The nurse will think they belong in special ed. At least she used the medical term because most kids would say his dog got bit in the nuts!!!! This is a NEW generation of kids. They know more about sex by the 5th grade then we did by the 9th. Some children are having sex before they reach high school and in some cases before MIDDLE (Jr. High) SCHOOL!!! Get it together people!!!! Better for them to read something like that from an award winning aurthor then in the pages of Hustler with PICTURES!!!!

  • Linda

    It is a sad world when children do not get to learn about life in its real form, snakes bite dogs and people, people moleste children, liabrians take all the good books for themselves, but taking one word turning it around and churning it upside down until it causes a panic in the news wow what a way to sell a book my friends, can not wait to get this for my grandchildren. They own dogs and should know snakes bite and that their parents and grandparents have enough scrotum to let them read good literature and will explain any word they do not understand.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Having just attended a carnevale parade last night, the first thing I thought, when I read the title was its literal meaning. More balls for children! I say. :-)

  • Kevin Runnels

    The word “uvula” has scarred me since childhood. It just sounds so naughty.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    That’s quite enough of that filth Kevin Runnels!

  • Charles T

    Well then, it’s time to take the Bibles off the school bookshelves too.

    Deuteronomy 23:1 He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

    Poor old Roy is going to have a hard time getting into Doggy Heaven 😉

  • Scott

    At least that comment wasn’t submitted by Dick Johnson (ouch)

  • spyder

    Damn words, they are so well armed and powerful. Must be hard for them to carry around all these nuclear weapons, cruise missles and cluster bombs. Scrotum obviously is longer and thus stronger (it kicks ass) than nuts or balls, so we have much to fear from it. It is a good and just thing we have so many word police out there, otherwise we would need a giant army to keep words at bay. Next thing we know, we might even have to use them ourselves; they are that insidious and full of treachery. I say it is time to neuter and spay all words.

    Doesn’t the word “snake” allude to evil and temptation and sin and all that? It must be a very powerful and bad word too. Spank that term!

  • Scott

    I don’t like “evil” but “temptation” could be fun!

  • Rover

    When I read that the story begins with a snake biting a dog on the balls, I thought this must be one of Aesop’s fables, incorporating a moral lesson suitable for presentation to children. But what is the moral here? Well, I would have to read the rest of this intriguing tale to make a judgement. But it’s hard to imagine that a snake has ever really bitten a dog on the balls outside the Dahmer property in Akron, Ohio, and I wonder about the pertinence of this story to anything worthwhile. I tend to side with the prudes on this one. Not because of the word ‘scrotum’, but because of the stupidity of the story.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    “Snake” refers to evil and temptation and sin only in the Christian worldview. Why should I accept that?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Well Rover, if we’re going to ban bad literature that’s a whole other discussion, but it doesn’t amount to siding with the prudes. I would have thought that the book having won awards would at least suggest that it is quite well done.

  • EDT

    Am I the only one who has the left-hand side of the postings clipped by the border?

    -EDT

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    EDT, it looks okay to me. What operating system/browser combination are you using?

  • EDT

    Sean-

    Starting at the “Andrea Koch…” line the posting starts gradually shifting to the left. The shift increasese with every paragraph/section break. I’m using IE6 on Win2k. I’m also getting an “Error on Page” message:

    Line 55, Char 3 document.GetElementByID is null or not an object.

    This is a new occurrence. Normally it looks fine.
    Thanks,
    -EDT

  • Alex R

    I find this whole story very depressing. To me the fact that there is even a controversy at all indicates two things: (1) There *is* a culture war, and (2) The good guys may not be losing, but they aren’t winning either.

    I don’t even know what else to say — the whole idea that the word “scrotum” would be considered objectionable for kids of any age, much less middle schoolers, is so incomprehensible to me…

  • Jeremy Chapman

    That’s both funny and unfortunate. Sadly I’m not surprised by the objection, but I’m glad there are people out there like me who object to the objection.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    On the other hand, how does rewarding the author for intentionally fanning the flames of protectionist conservatives move us towards a more unified, harmonious culture?

    Starting fights for publicity purposes does not strike me as a particularly noble activity.

  • Charon

    I grew up in a household that didn’t use swearwords, so I can actually remember learning my first one from a friend in kindergarden. By first grade I knew most of them, since I had, for example, a friend who used the word “fuck” every other sentence. Any elementary school child, no matter how sheltered at home, will know those words. Though they may not know “scrotum” since, you know, it’s not a swearword.

    Amusingly, since I was of a learned bent even in elementary school, and my parents had a prominently displayed unabridged dictionary in our house, all the children at my elementary school would ask me what the swearwords actually meant :)

  • http://thechocolatefish.blogspot.com/ Yvette

    Did anyone else here ever read Lois Lowry’s The Giver when it first came out in ~1994? It also won the Newbery, and covers topics like war, sex/hormones, indaviduality vs conformity, the murder of babies and the elderly, and all sorts of things like that.

    I read it. In second grade. No one cared, and in fact teachers and librarians were avidly encouraging their students to read it because it’s the great work of literature it truly is. So why the huge uproar now?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Why not argue about this book?
    http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/180462

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    It doesn’t seem relevant to this post and thread Arun.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Well, let’s make it recommended reading for school children. Why not?

  • Alex R

    Lablemming referred to the author of the book as “intentionally fanning the flames” of conservative outrage. This response is the sort of thing I am talking about — what indication of *any* kind is there that the author is deliberately trying to provoke conservatives? Indeed, as it says in the article: “Ms. Patron said she was stunned by the objections.” Is Lablemming accusing the author of lying, or did he simply not read the article? I will say that if I were a librarian, reviewing this book for my library, it simply would not have occurred to me that someone might object to this…

    The only ones who are “starting fights for publicity purposes” it seems to me, are those raising these objections.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    If the author can show documentation that shows this particular word sailed through all her drafts unedited, and her editor and publisher went through all their rewrites and discussions without commenting, then I’ll believe her.

    Children’s books get analysed to death. Of course I think the author is lying. That’s how fiction writers earn their living.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I don’t think we should even waste our time asking the question of whether she was deliberately fanning the flames of conservative outrage. I don’t think she was, but one shouldn’t remove books from shelves just because the author may have had it in for prudish idiots. The fact is that the book as written just shouldn’t be considered offensive.

  • http://www.thecrossedpond.com adam

    I don’t think that ‘writing fiction’ is the same as ‘lying’, unless the author is claiming to be writing a true account of past events and is, instead, writing fiction (in which case the lie is still not in the writing of the fiction, but in the misrepresentation of what it is).

    I can’t believe that someone with a dastardly plot to outrage the panty-wetting hysterics that constitute much of the socon gang would merely execute this plan with a reference to a dog’s scrotum. I mean, seriously.

    The only effect that not knowing the word ‘scrotum’ would have had on my life is that I’d be able to drive past the town of ‘Scotrun’ in PA without doubletaking at the signs on I80.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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