The Lady Speaks

Scrotum is an Odd Word

There is something very wrong about teachers and librarians pulling a book off the shelves in a frenzied attack over the use of the word ‘scrotum‘ in a Newberry Medal-winning book, The Higher Power of Lucky.

From the New York Times:

The word “scrotum” does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter.


Yet there it is on the first page of “The Higher Power of Lucky,” by Susan Patron, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature.


The inclusion of the word has shocked some school librarians, who have pledged to ban the book from elementary schools, and reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books. The controversy was first reported by Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine.

The title character, a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky – whose mother was electrocuted in a storm, whose absentee father imports a guardian from Paris in the form of his ex-wife, Brigitte, and who eavesdrops on 12-step meetings – overhears another character mention his dog was bitten in the scrotum by a rattlesnake. Lucky has no idea what that is, but to her it sounds like something green and medical.

This book is intended for ages 9-11, but already it sounds like one I’d like to order. My two nieces in the target audience would probably like it, and my daughter and other niece – a few years above the 9-11 age group – would probably enjoy it as well.

But, the controversy is over an author using word scrotum in a children’s book. It’s not so much about children reading the perfectly-proper medical name for a body part, as it is about prissy, prudish types facing that moment when they have to tell their kids about body parts they’d prefer they didn’t know about.

This is a “war” between those who think children should know the proper names and the functions of their body parts, and the ignoramuses who’d prefer children were kept ignorant until they marry, at which time they can procreate and pass their ignorance to another generation. And so on.

“Gasp!” say those pearl-wearers. “Wh-wha-what if the poor child asks, ‘Mommy, what is a scrotum?'”

Whereas, in more enlightened homes, a kid in the target audience giggles at the idea of a snake biting a dog on the scrotum. They know what it is just like they know that they have arms and legs and eyes and ears.

This is a non-issue for me. I’m the mother of two people with scrotums and one without. I’ve been married to a person who had one, and I’m the sister of two with and two without. I have an almost-5-year-old nephew who not only knows what a scrotum is, but knows it contains “tessacles.”

I got my kids to adulthood and semi-adulthood without them turning to drugs or alcohol or self-destructive behavior like so many others their age do in order to blot the pain of miserable childhoods filled with too many toys and games and too much time around a helicopter-mom who drove them the half-block to the high school, took away nail clippers because she was afraid they might injure themselves, and worried whether or not watching ‘Bambi’ or reading the word like ‘scrotum‘ in a book would scar them for life.

Instead, I have fairly normal children who do things like give blood and fix their littlest cousin’s harmonica (even though listening to him play it makes them crazy) and let him have free rein with the Playstation but keep him from watching bad movies, who listen to annoying music, and find themselves watching Finding Nemo and Ice Age, and ride sleds tied to the back of their friend’s car…. Okay, the last one was only done by the oldest child, and only once.

I allowed them to read whatever they liked, without wondering if it was “age-appropriate” or making sure it contained no ‘bad’ words. Just because childhood is a time of innocence doesn’t mean it should be a time of ignorance, too. Adults are the ones who think in connotations. Kids just want definitions.

The fact is, the people whining the loudest are afraid of a word. Which proves that words have power, something I’ve known since a high school teacher tried to stop me from reading Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird in 9th grade.

Words don’t just have power. They are power. String enough of the right ones into sentences and paragraphs and chapters, and you can create a revolution or two, inspire millions, or cause the downfall of a President. You can cause millions to shiver with fear and sleep with the light on. You can give others the power to fight a deadly disease or help them work through their grief.

And the examples above are just a teeny-tiny, sub-miscroscopic look at the power of people who know the power of words. It didn’t even get into classic literature, poetry, song lyrics, or any of the other ways that words have been put to use over the millennia since human beings learned to communicate with one another.

If you know words, lots of words, the meanings, the connotations, the inferences, then you have power.

The pearl-clutchers are free to protect their kids from the scawwy words. The rest of us will continue to allow our kids to read and learn and grow and go wherever their minds take them. We will give our children the power of the words.


February 19, 2007 - Posted by | America, Books, Children, Education, Family


  1. I read “Valley of the Dolls” in high school. A pretty tame book by today’s Hollywood standards but it caused an uproar in the Bible belt. However, America and all it valued did not come to a screeching halt because teenage girls were reading “Valley of the Dolls.”
    Unlike my friends, however, I did not have to hid the book from my mom. In fact, she read it when I finished it. She answered questions I had, and laughed at parts I found so serious.
    Readers Digest use to run a section called, “Send Me a Man Who Can Read.” The idea being just what you have said, if you know words, you have knowledge. Knowledge gives you power.
    As a nurse, I often had to write the word Scrotum when describing male parts. What would they have preferred, “Patient has a swollen NUT SACK.” Or his Privates are inflamed.
    Boys and Girls know they have these parts. Maybe we just ought to be honest, and call a spade a spade, or in this case, A Scrotum a Scrotum.
    Silly Rabbits trying to ban books. Making them far more attractive.

    Comment by mom | February 19, 2007 | Reply

  2. I personally don’t care about the word being used. However, I do think it is very strange to use such a word in a story for children. Is it an educational book about the body or is it just a story?

    Comment by David | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  3. In the interests of disclosure, I haven’t read the book. (I do plan on buying it, however, and I’m sure I’ll write a little review when I do.)

    That said, it’s just a story, about a girl named Lucky with a rough start to her life, who’s afraid her guardian will abandon her, and – because of her eavesdropping – is searching for her Higher Power. (Thus the title.)

    The word is used, from what I’ve read in various reports/reviews, just twice. Once when she overhears it, and once later in the book when she finally asks the owner of the dog what it is. When she does, it’s explained simply as “the place that hurts worst on a male”.

    From what I understand, the reason the dog was bitten there – as opposed to leg – was to emphasize the fact that Lucky knows things she doesn’t understand AND can’t ask about. She’s confused by life, and this is just one more detail to show that confusion.

    Personally, I think the pearl-clutchers got off easy. I’ve been to some 12-step meetings (with a friend) and there was some stuff mentioned that isn’t appropriate for anyone of any age. Penthouse would have rejected them as “too disgusting, even for us!”

    Comment by PA_Lady | February 24, 2007 | Reply

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