Anatomically correct word gets book banned from libraries

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The undignified details notwithstanding, I remember when, as a very young boy, I learned the word “scrotum.” (Conversely, I have no clue when I picked up the word’s dozen or so pop-culturally-sanctioned euphemisms.) I was instantly aware of a congruity between the peculiar-sounding signifier and even more peculiar-looking signified.

It makes perfect sense to me, then, that Susan Patron might include a very similar experience in her novel The Higher Power of Lucky, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, which is the highest award in children’s literature. On the first page of her book, Patron’s title character and heroine, Lucky Trimble, overhears someone mention that a snake bit his dog on the scrotum. Lucky, a tenacious 10-year-old, is fascinated and confused by the word.

However, many librarians and teachers across the country are finding their knickers hopelessly twisted over Patron’s inclusion of the word “scrotum.” They find it gratuitous and inappropriate, and have banned the book from their schools and libraries.

What could they possibly be afraid of? A medical term supplanting all those classy euphemisms like “junk” (which subconsciously furthers the idea that genitals are dirty) and “man grenade” (which sounds to me like a pun-tastic title for a feminist essay on male sexual violence)? Do they dread the day when words like “duty” and “pro bono” lose their concomitant giggles? Are they prepared to give Balzac the axe, too?

Libraries and schools are the places where practical information is disseminated, not censored. Surely there are things that 10- and 12-year-olds aren’t ready to learn, but the proper words for their own body parts are not among them.

Some teachers and librarians have offered the excuse that the presence of “scrotum” will prompt awkward situations between naive students and their prim teachers. One elementary school librarian was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson.”

If an elementary school teacher isn’t equipped to handle questions of a sensitive nature, he or she should find a new career pronto, before some idle Monday morning wallops him or her with an out-of-nowhere “Where do babies come from?” or “Why do I have to sleep at grandma’s when Mommy and Daddy play the game with the car keys in the fish bowl?” I should think “What’s a scrotum?” is one of the tamer queries a teacher might receive, and just as simple to answer: “Ask your parents.”

But I think it would be better to live in a world where the traditions of blushingly brushing certain body parts under the rug were obsolete. Refusing to name or acknowledge children’s genitals only mystifies and shames them, promoting ignorance and negative self-image.

A pretty good indicator exists of when to teach children the more intimate details of their bodies: When a child has the self-awareness to ask, he or she is probably ready to know. Language acquisition is an amazing human process, one which some of the greatest modern writers (like James Joyce) have successfully explored.

In the end, talented writers should never be penalized for the puritanical prejudices of others. Teachers and librarians who stand up against censorship are educators of the highest form, simultaneously performing the duties and validating the existence of their profession.

And Susan Patron in particular should be commended for having the balls to give her fictional preteen realistic thoughts and curiosities.