WHY HAS ONE WORD, "scrotum," generated such controversy and heated debate over my book, "The Higher Power of Lucky"? Lucky, the protagonist, overhears the word on the first page, doesn't know what it means, and wonders -- but there's no one she can trust enough to ask about it. The tiny town of Hard Pan, Calif., hasn't many resources for a curious, vulnerable 10-year-old trying to figure out how the world works.
The problem with "scrotum," evidently, is discomfort among adults who do not wish to see references to body parts in children's literature. Also, fear of giggling. What if the teacher or librarian loses control of a class of kids, however briefly, while reading the book aloud? Even the (ludicrous) specter of a lawsuit over sexual harassment has been raised!
Ironically, my job as collection development manager (helping children's librarians in the Los Angeles Public Library's branches select, replace and weed their collections) includes responding to public objections to particular books. I also train new children's librarians in handling such complaints. We validate the parent who finds a particular book unsuitable for his child -- parents should be involved in their children's (but only their children's) reading. We do not remove the title from our collection, but we do help the patron to find other, more appropriate books.
Our guiding principle is to offer a wide selection of books, magazines, DVDs and audio books. We buy popular, light reading; "literary" books; controversial materials such as "Harry Potter," "Lemony Snicket" and "Captain Underpants," and other materials compelling to kids. We want to lure them in.
Oh yes, we librarians are driven when it comes to reading. We entice kids with computer centers, reading incentives and free programs -- magicians, storytellers and living, breathing authors. Once we have the children in our clutches, we cannot rest until they've joined the Summer Reading Club, registered for a library card and found some books we hope they'll love. We are relentless in this passionate goal of connecting kids with books.
Of course, adults are right to fear a word in a book, although not, as in this instance, because it names a body part. They are right in the implied assumption that books have enormous power and influence. Children who read widely understand more about the world; they have a foundation for making better decisions. They think, and because of that, they may even challenge their parents' beliefs. For some, a scary idea, but isn't a thinking child preferable to one who accepts the world at face value and has no aim to change it for the better?
Fiction, especially, gives that reading child a tool to decipher the mysteries and paradoxes of being human. Give a child a nonfiction book explaining the cycle of life and death, and he may come to a cerebral understanding of the concepts. Give him "Charlotte's Web" and his heart will burst. He'll feel empathy in a deep and lasting way. That is what happened to me when it was read aloud to my third-grade class.
It was also in third grade at Van Ness Avenue Elementary School that a public librarian visited our classroom. She was lugging an enormous and heavy sack. One by one, she showed us the books, holding them lovingly, opening them to run a finger over the paper and display the interior illustrations, hugging them to her body. I'd never seen anyone so demonstrably in love with books -- both the physical books themselves and the stories they contained. She passed around "Rabbit Hill" and "Ginger Pye" and told us about the Newbery Medal, which both books had won. Before her visit, I'd never heard of the public library. Afterward, my branch became a second home.
I've been reading Newbery Award books ever since, and now, miraculously, I've even written one. Because I love survival, adventure and growing-up stories, some of my favorites are "Julie of the Wolves," "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" and "Bud, Not Buddy."
There are Newberys for every taste and for a range of reading ability and developmental levels. "Sarah, Plain and Tall" is easily accessible to most third- and fourth-graders, while "The Giver" or "Criss Cross" may have more appeal for sixth- to eighth-graders. Certain winning titles introduce concepts such as child abuse, racism, animal neglect, the Holocaust, slavery, abandonment. Why burden children with these heavy subjects? Because they live in the same world we do. They perceive much more than we may want to recognize. Well-written books that respect a child's intelligence enable readers to identify with the protagonist's mental and physical struggles. This helps them to see different perspectives and shades of gray, rather than a world of absolutes.
Books that offer hope to tender and impressionable readers (by which I mean all children) armor them against the confusing, frightening, numbing realities of life. My protagonist, Lucky, terrified that she'll be abandoned by her guardian, makes a desperate plan to run away with her beloved dog. I wanted to write an honest story that would fill readers with hope and let them see that even in a gravely flawed world, there are adults who will nurture them, adults -- no matter how scruffy and unlikely -- who have compassion and integrity. I wanted to give readers a book in which they, like Lucky, would find courage, love and empowerment.
And parents who worry about having to explain the meaning of "scrotum" can relax. Children who read the entire book will discover exactly what it means, in a context that is straightforward, reassuring and truthful.