Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Over-the-top row over "obscene" children's books

This column of mine was printed in Tuesday's Greenwich (CT) Time. http://www.greenwichtime.com/news/opinion/columnists/scn-gt-03.06.littmanokmar06,0,5162719.column?coll=green-opinion-columnists

March 6, 2007

As an author and columnist, my life revolves around the correct word choice. So I was completely confounded by the kerfuffle over the use of one particular word in this year's Newbery Medal winner.

The word in question appears on the first page of Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky," when the 10-year-old protagonist, Lucky, an orphaned girl living in a tiny desert town in the Eastern Sierras, eavesdrops on an AA meeting and hears a recovering alcoholic speaking about his lowest moment. It came "when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning," and then fell out of his car "when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum." Lucky doesn't know what scrotum means; to her it sounds like "something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much."

The use of the "s" word prompted howls of outrage from a certain subsection of librarians. "Scrotum-gate" as the affair has become known amongst the children's book cognoscenti, spilled over from the pages of Publishers Weekly into the national papers.A New York Times article made the curious statement that "Authors of children's books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase."

Puh-leeze. I just finished a novel with a bulimic protagonist, and I agonized over the use of every word that might be deemed offensive. But as an author of books for young people, it's my job to try to convey essential truths through fiction -- and kids can spot a fake from a mile away.Joni Richards Bodart observed in her article "Books that Help, Books that Heal": "Teens ... want a chance to experience reality vicariously before meeting it head on, and they know the safety of having those experiences through books ... [they] have little patience with unrealistic characters or situations, conversations or emotions."

Ms. Patron, a highly-respected veteran of the Los Angeles Public Library system, is bemused by the controversy her use of medical terminology provoked: "Somehow there's a perception in America that you can put your kids in front of the TV, let them play certain kinds of games and expose them to absolutely atrocious levels of violence and language. But somehow the book is sacred."

Meanwhile, down in Dade County, Florida, parents are "booknapping" titles they find offensive. As parent Dalila Rodriguez explained, "If you take it out and don't return it, no kid can read it. It's not censoring; it's protecting our children from lies." Last June, the Miami-Dade School Board voted to ban the book "Vamos a Cuba" from district libraries, a decision that's being challenged by the ACLU. Of the 48 copies of "Vamos a Cuba" owned and contained in the school district's libraries, 17 are lost or overdue.

But, as Alice in Wonderland would say: "Curiouser and Curiouser." Last week, U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III in Michigan referred allegations that Howell Public Schools teachers violated pornography laws by assigning books by Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Wright in 11th and 12th grade English classes to the FBI for investigation. He did so after receiving a letter from Vicki Fyke of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, who filed the complaint after she failed to persuade the Howell District School Board to remove the books.

Interestingly, Murphy was appointed as U.S. attorney by President George W. Bush in 2005 (he gave $2,000 to Bush's 2004 campaign) and has been nominated for a seat on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It is absolutely bizarre that a high official in the Justice Department would take such a step," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Under the law, the books cannot be found obscene if they have literary merit, which in this case cannot reasonably be questioned." Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said Murphy abdicated his responsibility to protect free speech. "We are told that Murphy 'routinely' refers all obscenity complaints to the FBI. But he has a duty to reject frivolous claims to ensure that there is no chilling effect on books that are protected by the First Amendment...This is not the kind of judgment we expect from a man who has been nominated for a seat on one of our highest courts."

It is, indeed, chilling. What's next? Book burnings?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Great column!

1:29 PM  
Blogger lifelongreader said...

I love this blog - great stuff. I will dig out some stuff on censorship and pass it on.

This sounds very like Fahrenheit 451 - a great book, which I review on my site.

http://lifelongreader.blogspot.com/2007/03/fahrenheit-451.html

9:47 PM  
Blogger lifelongreader said...

Oops - the link was too long, sorry

http://lifelongreader.blogspot.com/2007/03/
fahrenheit-451.html

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about the cat that licked the labia majora?

2:59 PM  
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