Mark Terry

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bit On The Scrotum

February 21, 2007
Warning: Some Readers May Be Offended By This Post (That's why I wrote it!)

There's been a little bit of controversy over a children's book titled THE HIGH POWER OF LUCKY by Susan Patron. I've read about it in a number of locations, though primarily on Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter I receive. A number of bookstores and/or parents have objected to the fact that early on in the book--the first page, from what I understand--a dog is bit on the scrotum by a rattlesnake.

The objection apparently is to the word "scrotum." I don't actually know if anybody objects to the rattlesnake biting the dog or not. The author has claimed that it is based on a true event and I don't doubt it. Dog scrotums do sort of just dangle there for the world to see (unless, like with my dog Frodo, the apparently objectionable organ has been surgically removed), after all, and a wandering (slithering) rattlesnake, if being aggravated by a dog, may very well find that to be the most opportune target.

I was trying to think of another word Ms. Patron might have used instead of "scrotum" and frankly, I'm drawing a blank. Balls?

If she had said that the poor aggrieved animal had been bit on the balls by a rattlesnake, would bookstores and/or parents objected to the word "balls"? The mind reels.


But from a particularly specific anatomical point of view, the dog wasn't bit on the testicles, it was bit on the sac that holds the testicles, which, by most would be called the scrotum, or perhaps, balls.

So what these bookstores and/or parents are really suggesting is that Ms. Patron change the story.

Perhaps they wish for the dog to have been bitten by the rattlesnake on the penis (dick, wiener, tallywhacker, cock, one-eyed trouser snake, etc.). Or perhaps genitalia is the issue--surely no parents, children or booksellers have genitalia of their own?--and Ms. Patron could have had the animal bit on the ass (butt, rear, rump, hind end, hind quarters, etc.). Of course, Ms. Patron was being quite specific. She didn't say the dog was bit on the genitalia or in the crotch (which I don't believe would be accurate in dogs, and neither would groin). She was quite specific, as most writing instructors suggest we must be. The tree is not pretty, after all; the oak was splendid, its leaves having turned for the fall, orange and red and yellow.

So if the dog had been bit on the ass, perhaps it would then have been bit on the anus (rectum, asshole, poop chute, etc.). Or would they have preferred nose (snout?). Well, different story, right?

Among many things that I think about this story is one I often think about: people care about the damndest things.

Mark Terry


Blogger Shannon said...

Although I laughed through your post, I had to sigh at the end. It's so sad, really. It seems that people are just waiting around, wiggling in their collective seats to find SOMETHING to be offended by. Is it really that much fun to feel offended? Is this some new form of recreation that those of us that say 'live and let live' just don't get?

I mean, geesh, every expert I've ever heard on the subject says to use the correct word for body parts when speaking with children. Does this command not apply to fiction? Maybe in the fictional worlds we create there is no need for such body parts. After all, they are used for procreation, and we as the god-authors are the creators....hmmmm. This is seriously unbelievable.

8:18 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Here's a shocker: kids, everywhere seem to know they have sexual organs. And most of them have shown each other said organs when they were four - seven, just to see how they're different.

Good lord. Someone needs to tell these nit-pickers to shut up and mind their own business. No one is forcing them to read it.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Mind boggling. Now, I do wonder about the adults who are concerned about children reading the word "scrotum." Presumably the adults are familir with the word or else they wouldn't want kids to see it. Do those adults consider that they are somehow impaired (mentally, morally?) by knowing the word? Or is OK for "adults" to be subjected to the word? But if at some point one has developed a defense against the word scrotum and can read it without any harm, when exactly is this point? 18? If you read the word the day before you are 18...well...we won't go into the dire consequences...but the day after, one has developed some sort od defenses. If you are going to enforce this sort of censorship you need to know these things, othrwise the only safe approach is to make sure no one ever reads the word scrotum (and other such words) from cradle to grave.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Granted, there are a couple other issues here which I glossed over a bit.

1. The readership for the book is supposed to be for 8-9 year olds.

2. This book deals with some tough issues and the main character learns a lot of these things by eavesdropping on adults--especially adults at a 12-step meeting, which is where she hears this story and where she also hears about "her higher power," which drives the book.

3. My suspicion is that the real reason there's a furor is because this book won the Newberry Award (or perhaps the Caldecott) and that tends to put it automatically on potential book lists for 2nd, 3rd and 4th and 5th grade teachers. Rick Riordan had a lovely post on his blog about Newberry Awards and how sometimes kids don't seem to like them--they're chosen by adults for their contributions to "children's literature," which doesn't necessarily translate into books kids like. And that, as much as Rick, a former middle school teacher, admits, often the teachers haven't read the book. They see it on the list and just assign it. In this context, I think the author was doing those teachers a favor by getting right into the so-called offensive part in the first or second paragraph of the story, so even lazy elementary or middle school teachers should catch on quick.

But I still go back to my last statement from the post: people are really bothered by weird things.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

I picked up a book in the YA section of Borders, mostly because my daughter tends to peruse that section. The first page I flipped to described a girl sucking her boyfriend's toes. I've been careful to check out what my daughter reads since then. Words by themselves seem to fall under more scrutiny than actions. Odd, isn't it? I, personally, have no objection to the word "scrotum." I do have an objection to reading about being bit there by a snake! Nightmares will surely follow.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

One of the things I suspect is making people uncomfortable here is parents of daughters being asked what a scrotum is.

Although a fair amount of fuss is being made over the "word," I suspect there's an overall context here that's making some people uncomfortable.

I've now read the first page and as a parent I think I would probably have a few qualms about the book. On the other hand, I'm the parent. Let me decide that, not the librarian or the bookstore owner.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of terrific fiction for kids that deals with some tough issues--as kids do on a day to day basis--and this book is one of them.

And children's fiction is pretty bizarre anyway, right? Aren't most fairytales pretty horrifying?

How about the one about the two children who are abandoned by their parents in the woods, then come upon a cannibalistic witch, who they then kill in self-defense? You know, Hansel & Gretel.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

And lets not forget that we always end the story of David right after he kills Goliath. We kind of skip the part where he cuts of Goliath's head and parades it around. I still kind of wonder how you get a children's book out of a dog getting snakebit on the family jewels (you missed that one). I mean, like...ewwww. Yes, I'm doubled over right now.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first questions that leap to mind are:

Is the location of the snakebite relative to the story? Or was the author merely causing controversy knowingly by inserting the word in the hopes of driving sales?

And I say that adults with an overdeveloped need to censor should remember that dinner conversations with a four year old regularly involve the words "poop" or "boogers." Scrotum seems so harmless in light of that.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I vote balls! Perhaps then the nobler of parents could tell their children the writer meant the tennis balls clutched in its mouth. I do remember those coversations with the little ones where they asked questions about body parts. (I had two girls) However I always just gave them the facts...or as much of the fact that would stop the questions. Of course when I explained to my four year old what the world vagina meant she managed to work that in to as many conversations as she could. . .
More seriously; I do worry when I use cus words in my writing, even if I feel they belong there because they do portray something about the character, I worry about reader reaction. Of course I was scarred by a critique group who once spent an hour cutting down a woman's writing because she used the word fuck. I never went back to that group as I felt they were too closed minded.
Bottom line; you can't please everyone I just want to please my future agent.

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