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Good Books and Bad Reactions

The Newbery Medal was awarded to a book in which the word "scrotum" appears. How are schools respond

"Angus Solomon," sighed Ms Lowry, "Is that a penis you've drawn in your exercise book?"

Angus jumped, startled, and remembered where he was.

Ms Lowry was standing next to his desk, staring down at the page. Other kids were sniggering.

Angus felt his mouth go dry and his heart speed up. For a second he thought about lying. He decided not to. "No, Miss," he admitted, "It's a submarine."

Ms Lowry nodded grimly. "I thought as much," she said. "Now stop wasting time and draw a penis like I asked you to." She pointed to the one she'd drawn on the blackboard.

"That's not fair," thought Angus. "I wasn't wasting time." He took a deep breath.

"Excuse me, Miss," he said, "I wasn't wasting time. I was working on my pirate character for the school play. He lives in a submarine and ..."

"Enough," interrupted Ms Lowry, "You know perfectly well play rehearsals aren't until tomorrow. Today we're doing human reproduction. I don't want to hear another word about pirates."

"Angus Solomon," sighed Ms Lowry, "Is that a penis you've drawn in your exercise book?" That's how one of Australia's most popular and well-respected children's books begins.

Thus begins the best-selling children's book Bumface, by one of Australia's finest authors, Morris Gleitzman. Bumface has won countless literary awards and is a regular poll winner any time Australian children are asked to name their favorite books. You would be hard-pressed to find an Australian fifth-grade classroom without a copy of the book.

Why does this matter? It matters because those radicals at the American Library Association just presented the Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. The book joins the likes of Sounder, A Wrinkle in Time and Johnny Tremain in the pantheon of outstanding American children's literature.

However, The New York Times reports that school librarians are banning the book from coast to coast. School libraries haven't witnessed this much hysteria since the adventures of Captain Underpants.

The Higher Power of Lucky tells the story of a "scrappy" ten-year-old orphan girl who hears the word "scrotum" through a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

"Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much," the book continues. "It sounded medical and secret, but also important."

The use of a clinical term describing a part of the human anatomy has apparently shocked some school librarians, while others are refusing to purchase the book, regardless of its literary value or appeal to children. This represents another milestone in school contributions to illiteracy.

Do encyclopedias include content on the scrotum? You bet they do! Will schools lock up their encyclopedias? Probably not, though many have banned the online Wikipedia, and Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska proposed legislation to ban all such interactive Web sites including blogs.

If teachers don't wish to read anatomical words aloud, can't the books be available in the library anyway? The author's livelihood is threatened by this censorship, and our students may be deprived of a great read. And some children go home to watch The Maury Show on TV with programs such as "I Had Sex with My Mother's Boyfriend! He's My Baby's Father!" televised on February 12, 2007. How do we serve students when teachers are afraid of words like "scrotum"? Isn't it the responsibility of educators to speak with candor, clarity and calm?

I realize that this country has a long tradition of banning books, despite our professed belief in freedom, but shouldn't we grow up a bit? Are our Aussie counterparts that much more sophisticated and less neurotic? Let me know what you think online.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of District Administration magazine and editor of The Pulse:Education's Place for Debate (