Saturday, February 17, 2007

Controversy Over An Award

Apologies for posting so late, but I was having problems with Blogger yesterday. I wrote my Saturday post, but could not--for the life of me--publish it. After a dozen tries over several hours, I gave up and decided to come back again later when Blogger was feeling more cooperative.

As some of you have probably already heard, the Newbery and Caldecott medal winners for 2007 were announced last month on January 22nd.

For those of you not familiar with children's literature, the Newbery and Caldecott medals are considered the most prestigious awards for children's lit in the U.S. The medals are given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. The Newbery Medal is awarded to the writer of the most outstanding American book for children in a given year, while the Caldecott Medal is awarded to the artist of the most outstanding American picture book for children in a given year. The Newbery has been awarded since 1922 and the Caldecott since 1937.

This year's winners were Susan Patron, author of The Higher Power of Lucky and David Wiesner, illustrator of Flotsam.

The Newbery Medal Committee chair described The Higher Power of Lucky this way in the press release: "Lucky is a perfectly nuanced blend of adventure, survival (emotional and physical) and hilarious character study . . . as well as a blueprint for a self-examined life."

Lucky is the story of a ten-year-old girl who has already known a lot of abandonment in her short lifetime; her mother died and her father walked out. In a remarkable show of generosity, her father's first wife moved from France to the dusty, godforsaken California town named Hard Pan, where Lucky Trimble lives, to care for the child. When her guardian becomes homesick for France, Lucky, an "aspiring scientist" according to the L.A. Public Library's press release, decides to run away.

In the month since the book was awarded the Medal, controversy has grown on the Internet over the author's use of the word "scrotum" in naming that specific part of the male body. Children's Bookshelf, a newsletter from Publishers Weekly, reported on the growing uproar in its 2/15 issue:

Many of the objections have been voiced on LM_Net, a listserv open to school library media specialists and those involved with that field. One of the first to raise concerns over Patron's word choice was Dana Nilsson, a teacher/librarian at Sunnyside Elementary in Durango, Colorado . . . "Part of my job is to introduce students to quality, age-appropriate literature. I would not be doing my job if I booktalked or recommended this book to young audiences . . . Because of that one word, I would not be able to read that book aloud. There are so many other options that the author could have used instead."

Other options like what, I ask? "Balls," "testicles," or "privates"? Isn't it better to use the scientific name than to use a nickname or euphemism?

I'm being facetious, I know. I'm sure Ms. Nilsson would prefer that the subject matter of the sac containing the male testes not be included in a children's book at all. I just don't agree with her.

I think that we do children an enormous disservice in our attempts to protect them from the world at large. I can still remember being eight years old and asking my mother what the word "rape" meant.

My mother, who was a devoted Catholic and sheltered herself, wasn't about to enter into a discussion of rape with me. She directed me to our dictionary. I can still remember that exact definition: "Rape: The unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman without her consent."

No better off than when I'd started, I looked up "carnal" and "consent" before abandoning the effort. Then I did what any child seeking information does. I took my question to the streets; specifically, to the school bus where I was told that rape was "rough sex" and "the killing of a woman" by a couple of older kids who rode to school with me. It was some years before I was able to put the word into proper context.

I never forgot the experience, which left me feeling there were things that I could not talk to my mother about. That was the start of a deep chasm between us where the subjects we could not discuss kept us apart.

Nowadays, when I'm asked a question about a word by nieces or godchildren, I first try to find out where they heard the word, and then what they think it might mean. When my godchild at the age of six asked me about "good sex," I asked her where she'd heard it and what she thought it was. She said, "At school" and "You know." And I responded, "I know what I think it is, but I'd like to know what you think it is." She replied, "K-I-S-S-I-N-G." I smiled and said, "Yes, good sex includes kissing." That ended the conversation, and she went away happy.

Every writer knows that words are tools. Tools we use to convey information, opinion and feelings. My personal belief is that words alone are not evil. The way in which men and women use them may be evil, but the words themselves are simply a form of communication. When I hear a white person use the "N" word in a scornful manner, for instance, I make decisions about his level of education, sophistication and prejudice. I make different assumptions when I hear a black teenager using the word as a form of affection for a friend.

Before I could decide to boycott (another word for "censor" in this case) a children's book--particularly one that had been awarded a prestigious prize by a group charged with judging books--I would have to be convinced that the word was used in a manner that would be harmful to the child. Not simply that it would make ME feel uncomfortable to read that word aloud.

Using the proper words for the parts of the human body does not automatically harm a child. Behaving as though his body is something to be ashamed of, rather than the miraculous God-given gift it is, might be.

1 comment: said...

I did not think the inclusion of that word alone and nothing more is a big deal.

However, you said, "Before I could decide to boycott (another word for "censor" in this case) a children's book--particularly one that had been awarded a prestigious prize by a group charged with judging books--I would have to be convinced that the word was used in a manner that would be harmful to the child."

First of all, keeping sexually inappropriate books away from children is NOT censorship.

Second, the "prestigious prize by a group charged with judging books" means, with regard to the ALA, that the book likely has inappropriate material for children, and the ALA is using the award to ensure the widest possible dispersion. See "Porn Pushers - The ALA and Looking For Alaska - One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children." Indeed it's the very trust that the ALA expects everyone to give the ALA that is used to take advantage of those who are not aware the ALA has changed from an American library association to something entirely different in every way.