Monday, February 19, 2007

BOOKS: Book Banning Redux

I've just spent the weekend putting the finishing touches on a radio segment I'm doing for Definitely Not the Opera. It's about censorship, children's literature, and farting -- three topics near and dear to my heart -- so you can imagine how much fun I've been having.

But man, if I thought the word "fart" could get a bunch of people's panties in a wad, just
try to imagine how much trouble the word "scrotum" is causing.

(Ups to Susi for the link!)


Doppelsis said...

I think with the millions of words out there that the author could have come up with something else - be a little more creative (not so lazy). The concept of the story comes from a true incident that should be shared around a watercooler not a children's book.

Doppelganger said...

Really? You don’t think the word “scrotum” is kind of creative? Because I do. It’s not disgusting or profane. It’s a medical word for a body part, and it has a weird sound to it. I can imagine, if I were a word-lovin’ kid that, that if I heard someone say “scrotum” I’d be intrigued and fascinated by what it could possibly mean.

While I haven’t read the book, I’m speculating that perhaps that was the author’s intent, especially given this passage from the article I linked to:

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.

“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.”

I love that bit: “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.” It totally takes me back to being a kid and hearing tantalizing new words. Words, even relatively benign ones (which, I’m sorry, “scrotum” is), have the power to excite and titillate on an intellectual level. That’s reality, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

This, of course, is my subjective opinion, and everyone’s entitled to their own. I’m not here to try to change anyone’s mind. But my problem with censorship is that people who ban books ARE trying to control what other people read, and usually it’s a small, vocal minority trying to tell the vast majority of us what we should read. If someone doesn’t want their kid to read a book, fine, that’s between that person and their kid. If someone doesn’t want MY kid to read a book, they’d better be prepared for a fight.

Here in Canada, the Canadian Library Association has a Statement of Intellectual Freedom, which states that "all persons in Canada have the fundamental right, as embodied in the nations' Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to have access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity." When a book is banned at the school and library level, this flies in the face of that very statement.

However. I also support the right of any individual or group to FLAG potentially age-inappropriate content. From what I understand, librarians and administrators don’t have the luxury of being able to read every book that comes through their doors, and so rely on peer reviews (i.e. publishing magazines and awards such as the Newbery) for recommendations. IF a parent or administrator reads a book and is concerned about the material, I think it’s a great opportunity to bring this up for discussion among the parent and teacher community, and to talk about the fact that some texts might need parent- or teacher-driven contextualization for kids.

That’s fine! That’s great! In my ideal world, parents and kids and teachers would be talking about books ALL THE TIME. I’m cool with it! But to just summarily BAN a book rather than address what makes the book challenging? Now THAT’S lazy.

Doppelsis said...

Let kids be kids as long as they can. I tell my kids exactly what their body parts are called - no princess or wee wee in this household. Yes scrotum is a silly sounding word. I just think the author was lazy and could have come up with a word on her own. The book is probably funny to an adult who gets the joke. The book sounds hilarious.

No I don't want people telling me what I can and cannot read. I think in this case the banning in a school would be appropriate where parents aren't there to help the kids with their choices.

Do you still love me?

Doppelganger said...

I think in this case the banning in a school would be appropriate where parents aren't there to help the kids with their choices.

Noooooooo! You didn't just say that! But scrotum isn't a dirty word! It's in a young adult novel, not a picture book! If you ban this fairly innocuous book, where does it stop? Arrrrrrgh! Can't you see you're killing me?!

(Yes, I still love you.)

swatcher, polish-ranger said...

In library school my friends and I did a huge 50 page project on censorship in children's libraries. We made up a fictional library and developed a policy on how to deal with challenges and what steps needed to be taken. It was fascinating and I learned a lot and it also reinforced my view on censorship which is that, ultimately, it is up to the parent and the child to have an intelligent discussion about what they feel their child should or should not be reading.

I don't have children yet so this hasn't ever been an issue but I can see where some parents may be offended by certain material. However, that should NEVER give them the right to say that someone else's child doesn't have the right to read that same material.

And seriously, scrotum?! What's all the fuss about?

Gretchen said...

I honestly don't understand what the problem is. Truly. Obviously, if the story was about seeing a rattlesnake bite the dog on the dog's leg, that's no big deal. What if the bite was to the dog's butt? No big deal. Why is scrotum any different? It's a freaking body part, people. Every male has one. They know what it is. I just truly don't see anything dirty about it! Help me understand what I'm missing.

Anonymous said...

The dirtiness of "scrotum" rises in tandem with the amount of chaw spit out right after.

Anonymous said...

Via a comment on my post about this same issue, I offer the following: Youth Literature is Filled with Scrotums

Anonymous said...

I think Jane's post points out what is perhaps the most disturbing thing about this whole debate, which is the fact that this debate only exists because the word is on the first page of the book, where parents who don't read the books their children read can easily find it.

Apparently scrotally-sensitive-book-banners don't have the time to read entire books in order to find this dangerous and offensive word, heck, they've let "All Creatures Great and Small" be thought of as a treasured classic for more than 30 years!

If the author had written the book so that "the word" came up on page ten instead of page one, would we be having this discussion at all?

I don't think so, and that's really sad.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Doppelsis, as well as the author could have been more creative. Let children be children. Your children can read it at home if you like, but you don't have to expose everyone's children to it.

Far too easy to make yourself feel good for being "so liberal-minded," rather than asking what does a child need? Remember that the Charter is all about rights, but says nothing about responsibilities - and the responsibility we have to protect children is too easily taken lightly.

Sarah Louise said...

I just finished doing a Mother Daughter Book Club meeting on Freaky Friday, a classic, where the mother is buying gin, smoking and there is at least one swear word. I have not yet read the Newbery, but for crying out loud! And if the author HAD made up a word, isn't that going the way of "his hardness" which you find in bosum heaving romance novels? Are we teaching children they can't use the actual names of actual body parts? And that scrotum is a dirty word? Where is Ursula Nordstrom when we need her?

(oh, and I'm a Children's Librarian at a public library.)

ToboReads said...

I don't think it's so much a matter of creativity when the experience recounted in the book was something that apparently happened to that particular author as a child, and the experience was memorable because of the 'weirdness' of that particular word.

Anonymous said...

I've read the book, and it's terrific. And completely appropriate for the 9-12 age group. I would read it to my 7-year-old, but there are a couple of themes I think he could wait a year or two for -- but it has nothing to do with the word "scrotum".

Anonymous said...

How is a child no longer a child because they know the proper word for a body part? If the author said balls or dick or coochie or tits, then obviously that is an entirely different story, but it's an anatomically correct term. how does that end childhood? Should biology textbooks that use appropriate terms be banned from school libraries, because children may discover words like mammary gland or vas deferens?

It has nothing to do with feeling good about being liberal-minded and everything to do with puritanical overreaction based on the belief that body parts are somehow shameful.

Tammy said...

Far too easy to make yourself feel good for being "so liberal-minded," rather than asking what does a child need?

I hope that nothing I've said makes it sound like I'm looking for an easy route. The opposite was my intention. I'm proposing that, rather than just summarily dismiss a book based on one word, that teachers and parents talk about it. And if the book is deemed worthy but challenging -- which requires you to read the entire thing, and not just the first page -- then teachers and parents need to agree on a way to present it to children. Perhaps this means shelving the book in such a way that kids can only access it with parental permission. I don't know. But all this requires people to talk, and then read, and then talk some more, and then collaborate on a solution. None of it is easy, but it's all worthwhile. And in the world we all live in, where there are more and more of us with different opinions, I think that modelling intelligent, rational discussion and collaboration for our kids is essential.

As for the "parents can read the book to their kids at home" argument, I think it's easy to forget that this argument comes from a place of privilege. A lot of parents can't afford to buy books for their kids. This is why libraries are so essential. I certainly didn't own a lot of books when I was a kid, and so relied on weekly library visits to devour the dozen or so books I read every week. My world would have been a narrower, poorer place if challenging books had not been available.

Doppelsis said...

I did not mean for the author to give scrotum a pet name. I meant for her to write about something else.

I just came from volunteering at my children's school. I had an interesting conversation with another mother about her 8 year old. Her daughter is telling her that boys are saying that they want to "hump" her and have sex with her. Where is all of this potty mouth talk coming from???? I would be more likely to blame older siblings/kids and the boob tube for this.

I get enough aggravation from my kids constantly talking and giggling about farting, peeing, burping and pooping. I don't need to add scrotum to the mix.

Andi said...

My Thesis Director read about the "scrotum" hoo-hah in our Intro to Children's Lit course that we team teach. Our class got a kick out of it. It leaves me to wonder...would "balls" have been better?

One wonders.

spacepotatoes said...

I'm with you when it comes to the issue of keeping lines of communication open between parents and children.

And, while I can also see where having the word "scrotum" appear on the very first page may be a little offputting to some, context is important too and the way the author has used the word here doesn't seem at all inappropriate. Besides, I used to think the exact same thing back in my day :)

What I really came to post, though, was this article I saw on The Onion today that isn't related to book-banning, per se, but could tie in with the issue of censorship and kids: Child-Safety Experts Call for Restrictions on Childhood Imagination". Sad, but very often true.

tuckova said...

If a person is old enough to handle the concept of a child's mother dying in a freak accident and then being raised by her father's ex, old enough to handle the concept of 12-step programs, then that person is old enough to handle medically accurate words used in the appropriate context.

Newbery books are not targeted to young children and I absolutely can't grasp the fuss over this, nor can I understand that LIBRARIANS are the ones fussing. I always think of them as the strongest defenders of words and written thought; stronger than politicians or even writers. At the very worst, they should have the book behind the desk where it can be checked out with parental permission, but to refuse to even have the book in the library is beyond my imagining.

Claire said...

I'm not a fan of the banning of books, but I am a huge fan of parents knowing what their kids are reading...chances are if you're involved in their reading it's a goo thing, scrotums or nay!


Lisa Jean said...

Authors all over the world are killed and jailed and tortured for their words and ideas. I am glad I live in a country where the ideal is freedom of expression. It doesn't always happen and I think this "scrotum" debate is interesting because it is forcing people to think about what freedom of expression and book banning means to them. As for me--I say, buy the book, talk to your kids.

Claudia said...

According the article, the book is aimed at 9 to 12-year-olds. When I was 9, they split up my fourth grade class and taught us about the wonders of menstruation. So I cannot imagine why it's inappropriate for a 9-year-old to see the word 'scrotum'.

Anonymous said...

My friends and I had a big discussion on this last night. I was not in favor of banning, but I do think the author was trying to get a little thrill by using the word scrotum. My problem was not that the author used the word scrotum used, but that she claimed she used it because it was "natural". I have a hard time believing any 10 or 11 year old child has ever used scrotum naturally, unless it was directly followed by giggles of hilarity at having dared to use the word. In fact, the word "Balls" would have disturbed me less, because I do think that would have at least been a more natural way for a child at that age to talk. So while I'm not in favor of book banning, and I don't think scrotum is a dirty word, I do think the author probably used it more out of a desire to be daring than a desire to be natural, which raises the question of whether the word had a real and appropriate place in the book.

Anonymous said...

I was a pretty wideread girl by the age of 11. So, I think banning this book is a bad idea for a variety of reasons - it's one word in a big book, and a kid of ten or so is not going to be scarred by finding out what it is. Which they don't, in the book, anyway.

I read plenty of things like Enid Blyton when I was younger, which go through periods of being popular/unpopular and I'd say the ideas they have in there (rich is better than poor, WOW Carlotta is Spanish, she rides a horse, has a fiery temper and is SOOOOO exotic!) are more out there than this one word. (Even when I was young, 7 or 8, I knew that the views in Enid Blyton were not what my life was like at all.)

Maybe I'm completely off track here, as well, but how many kids are going to get it out of the library at school compared with other libraries/the bookstore? (I could be completely wrong because our school libraries - well, the fiction section at my junior school for 250 kids was about the same size as my fiction section at secondary school for 2000 kids.)

So I disagree with it being banned!

This also reminds me of being in the library when I was about 12 and the librarian wouldn't let me get Schindler's Ark out. She told my mom it was too old for me. Which it may well have been but all it meant was I read it on the floor in the history section. Heh. Also, I was annoyed for YEARS and avoided getting books out in front of that librarian so HA.