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Librarians debate use of ‘s’-word in kid’s book

Yes, controversy sells. Criticism of an award-winning children's book over the word "scrotum" has brought Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky" into the top 40 on Amazon.com.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Yes, controversy sells. Criticism of an award-winning children's book over the word "scrotum" has brought Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky" into the top 40 on Amazon.com.

Meanwhile, a member of the judging committee that in January awarded the prestigious Newbery prize to "The Higher Power of Lucky" defended the book against complaints by some children's librarians.

"We were impressed by the richness of her language and how clearly she portrayed the environment of her characters. We found it a very distinguished book," Edith Ching, a librarian at the lower school of the St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., told The Associated Press during a recent interview.

"The Higher Power of Lucky" is the story of a 10-year-old girl in rural California and her quest for "Higher Power." The opening chapter includes a passage about a man "who had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum."

Librarians have been debating whether "scrotum" was an appropriate word for young readers, especially from a book with the Newbery seal. Patron herself is a children's librarian based in Los Angeles and the Newbery was voted on by a 15-member panel that included booksellers, teachers and librarians.

Atheneum Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, published "Higher Power' last fall with a modest first printing of 10,000. Early reviews from such library publications as School Library Journal and Booklist did not mention "scrotum" — the sac holding a man's testicles — or any other possible problems. Ching said that Newbery judges "were aware the word was there, but were not troubled by it."

The controversy took off after a librarian from Durango, Colo., Dana Nilsson, posted a complaint on LM_Net, a listserv "dedicated to school library media specialists worldwide," and later claimed that she had received some two dozen messages of support. Her remarks were first reported on Feb. 15 by Children's Bookshelf, a newsletter from Publishers Weekly.

The book was in the high 600s on Amazon before Nilsson's comments were publicized, but soon jumped into the top 40. Simon & Schuster had already ordered an extra 100,000 copies after the Newbery was announced.

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"I don't know of any booksellers who had an issue with that word, or wouldn't carry it," says Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children.

"I do feel there's been some frustration that recent Newbery picks have kind of come from out of the blue and haven't had tremendous popular appeal. There's a sense that we're putting too much weight on this award and that Newbery books aren't necessarily the ones customers will love."

While "Higher Power" has been defended everywhere from ABC-TV's "The View" to The New York Times' editorial page, finding an actual librarian — at least one by name — who has banned it can be a challenge.

The AP contacted several librarians who had criticized "Higher Power" on LM_Net. All said they either have it or were still deciding. Even Nilsson, who complained of the book's "Howard Stern-type shock treatment," told the AP that she is carrying it, although she questions whether it was worthy of a Newbery. Nilsson also said that she didn't know of anyone who had refused to stock it.

The Newbery guarantees nationwide attention, but few children's books, Newbery or not, receive universal access. Books eligible for the Newbery are those appropriate for "persons of ages up to and including 14," making it highly unlikely that a single book would appeal, or be right for, all potential readers.

Michelle Fadlala, director of marketing for education and libraries at Simon & Schuster, noted that some libraries did not purchase the 2005 Newbery winner, Cynthia Kadohata's "Kira-Kira," because they felt that its subject matter — a Japanese family's struggles in the 1950s — was too mature for some readers.

"Librarians have these discussions all the time about books and ask each other, ‘How are you handling this situation,'" says Kathleen Horning, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association that administers the Newberys.

"Even with the Newbery, I wouldn't say that every single library is going to buy every single winner. It mostly has to do with age level. An elementary school library might think the book is too old for it readers, while a middle school library might think it's too young."