Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Newberry Madness

In 1922, Frederic G. Melcher and the American Library Association launched the first-ever award for children's literature, reasoning that the genre deserved as much "notice and encouragement" as others. The original agreement stated that the award was "To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field."

Through the years, the Newberry has gone to works that include A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brienas, The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli, Daniel Boone by James Daugherty, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, and Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, to mention just a few.

The 2007 Newberry Medal winner is The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, and is described on Simon & Schuster's web site thusly:

"Lucky, age ten, can't wait another day. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan, California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has.

It's all Brigitte's fault -- for wanting to go back to France. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she'll be abandoned to some orphanage in Los Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won't be allowed. She'll have to lose her friends Miles, who lives on cookies, and Lincoln, future U.S. president (maybe) and member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Just as bad, she'll have to give up eavesdropping on twelve-step anonymous programs where the interesting talk is all about Higher Powers. Lucky needs her own -- and quick.

But she hadn't planned on a dust storm.

Or needing to lug the world's heaviest survival-kit backpack into the desert."

Sounds good, right? A book about a girl who wants to take charge of her own destiny, find her place in the world and who, in the process, learns to trust people--particularly her guardian, Brigitte. But apparently even a Newberry book can cause an uproar in libraries, especially school libraries, across America, and it takes just one little word. Wanna know what that word is?

It's right there, on the first page: "Scrotum."

That's it--that's what the uproar is all about. Not an actual scrotum, but the word. The author decided (I think rightly) that using the proper anatomical name was a better fit for her story than, say, hoo-ha or winkey or peepee. And the word choice was germane to the story: Lucky overhears it and spends the entire book learning to trust someone enough to ask what it means.

Here's the thing: Words are just that--words. The only power they have is that which we give them. There is nothing wrong with using the proper names for body parts like scrotum, penis, vagina, breasts, labia, vulva. But there is great harm in NOT using the proper name, as there is in just not talking about "those things" at all. Sure, don't talk about it, don't tell kids what "it" is. They're going to find out anyway--it's human nature. Think they're going to tell you?

Two weeks ago, I did this web search: "is amoxicillyn still good if not refrigerated." I never would have guessed that one of the results would be "Can I still get pregnant if I refrigerate semen to drink later?" I think it's a safe bet that this girl's parents thought that telling her about "the facts of life," or "the birds and the bees" or, better yet, "SEX," would make her promiscuous. That's bullshit, not to mention irresponsible.

You don't have to give them the gory details but, at a minimum, kids need to know the basics--much of which they will have already heard from friends, so be prepared to correct a few misconceptions. Mention, if you like, that it's an expression of love. Talk about the consequences--STDs and pregnancy come to mind. Sure that discussion might be uncomfortable for both parent and kid, but it beats the hell out of the alternative. After all, how many more times do we want to read about girls who thought they couldn't get pregnant the first time? Or standing up? Or any of the other ridiculous things that kids tell each other to fill the information vacuum?

Armed with accurate information, teens might just be more likely to delay sex and to be more careful about protecting themselves when they do have sex. So put the damn book on the shelves, call a scrotum a scrotum and stop treating kids like idiots.


KrisRobinson said...

I couldn't agree with you more, my dear. I just don't see what all of the fuss is about.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear. But I guess by having a blog in Northern California and friends here who read it... we're preaching to the choir about the importance of information and truthful education about sex. In this month's Brain, Child there's a good read essay written by a mom of three kids who ventures into those waters after having "private time" interrupted by her five year old. Each parent thought the other had locked the door. The mom is all for truthful education, the dad wallows in the mire of the dreaded double standard with their daughter. Anyway. I agree with you wholeheartedly.
BTW.... how is Hannah's boonda?

Jessica Córdova said...

I mostly agree, but don't tell them it's an expression of love. It robs young people of their sexual agency and opens them up to exploitation.

Melanie K said...

yeah, I wasn't sure about adding in the love bit, but I figured that if that's what it takes for someone to feel comfortable with giving "the talk," then it wasn't a bad thing. and I did include the "if you must." does that get me off the hook? :D