International Herald Tribune Editorial - Don't close their ears
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: February 23, 2007
A tempest has been brewing in the United States over a children's book that contains a word some find naughty and unsettling. The word is scrotum. It appears only a few times in the book, "The Higher Power of Lucky," by Susan Patron, which is recommended for readers 10 to 12 years of age. The scrotum in question belongs to a dog, who is bitten there by a snake.
The arguments pro and con are bubbling on librarians' message boards. The cons seem vastly outnumbered, though they have gotten a lot of attention. One suggested that teachers reading the book aloud should replace that word with "a loud 'throat-clearing' noise."
All this seems like a lousy way to treat a sweet, funny book whose main character, a smart, curious 10- year-old girl named Lucky Trimble, is already wise to the power and mystery of words: "Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important."
Librarians all over are flinching at the furor, saying it reinforces their profession's hated archetype: Marian the Librarian, the prig in a wet blanket. (Though Marian Paroo, played in the "Music Man" film by the lovely Shirley Jones, is the musical's only real grown-up, a complicated professional who scandalizes River City ladies with her love of bawdy books. Chaucer! Rabelais! BAL-zac!)
Speaking of Balzac, it seems a good time to remember that discomfort about words isn't the fault of the words or of the authors who use them. Plain old uncynical, workmanlike common nouns lose their naughty aura through unembarrassed use. The alternative — silent ignorance or the baby-talk slang that children acquire as surely as strep and ear infections — seems far less healthy.
With every generation, a new cohort of children begins the journey from ignorance to knowledge. Librarians help those children get there. Some barely make it, and end up toting ignorance as baggage, a sniggering puerility about body parts and functions. Children like the thoughtful, dauntless Lucky Trimble and those lucky enough to have read her book will not be among them.