February 18, 2007

Is “Scrotum” A Dirty Word?

And even if it isn’t, is it appropriate for a children’s book?

The word “scrotum” does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter.

Yet there it is on the first page of “The Higher Power of Lucky,” by Susan Patron, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. 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.”

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. The controversy was first reported by Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine.

On electronic mailing lists like, dozens of literary blogs and pages on the social-networking site LiveJournal, teachers, authors and school librarians took sides over the book. Librarians from all over the country, including Missoula, Mont.; upstate New York; Central Pennsylvania; and Portland, Ore., weighed in, questioning the role of the librarian when selecting — or censoring, some argued — literature for children.

Ah, what a furor over a single word that describes a part of the human body! And the debate is pretty intense, with some going so far as to raise it to the level of a Serious First Amendment Question. But is it? Or is it simply a case of librarians exercising good judgment about what should or should not be on the shelves of their school libraries, based upon questions of age-appropriateness and community values?

And let’s be clear – age-appropriateness is a major factor with this book, targeted at kids from 9-12. Personally, I don’t see the word as being problematic for the older kids in that age range (sixth and seventh graders, generally), but can understand where there would be those troubled by having to explain what a scrotum is to a third grader, even in this decidedly non-prurient context. It creates serious problems for educational professionals, who must then face the ire of parents and school boards over how much “sex talk” is acceptable with students, and at what ages.

And yet, this is definitely a work of quality – Newbery Awards are not given out lightly and are not particularly political in nature. Should a single, non-obscene word be sufficient to keep a Newbery Award winner out of school libraries? I would hope not, but I understand the problem faced by librarians. Look at the problems faced by teachers who have shown Schindler’s List, Amistad, or other movies to classes – non-prurient nudity has been a source of controversy in these great historical movies.

Personally, I think that librarians should order the book – but I won’t condemn those who don’t. And I certainly won’t cry “censorship” over the decision by these professionals to exercise their best professional judgment over what will be acceptable in their schools and communities.

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Comments on Is “Scrotum” A Dirty Word?

Substitute vagina for scrotum.

Would your attitude change?

I think this book is pushing the envelope. 

|| Posted by Tour Marm, February 21, 2007 11:19 AM ||

Pushing the envelope? Maybe -- but does that make its use inappropriate, and unfit for the age group?

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, February 21, 2007 07:22 PM ||

Thanks for your balanced comments. Librarians are not in the censorship business, but we are in the business of selecting the best books for our own patrons. It is a responsibility we take very seriously.

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LOL considering this was spammed to hell and back, I wanted to say one thing.

Scrotum in books for children without the parents consent would be pushing it even more. Teaching children about their sexual and reproductive parts without parental consent is just plain wrong at pre-teen to very early teens.

If you were reading books in class with 9 year olds and were speaking "vagina" and other words, I'd imagine your teaching position would be stripped quite quickly, as this takes a thin line between a form of emotionally sexual molestation (AKA molestation without physical contact), which nowadays, can get you into a lot of trouble.

You can't teach children about their reproductive organs and stuff unless you have qualifications and are teaching this in a class specifically for that subject, or else you are in serious trouble.

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