|Early in 2007, the Newbery Award-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron became the subject of a dispute among authors and librarians across the country over its use of the word “scrotum.” Following a report in the New York Times, the story of Patron’s challenged book became national news, and many school librarians have hesitated to purchase the book for their school collections. Such actions would have serious First Amendment consequences.
Susan Patron is the Juvenile Materials Collection Manager at the Los Angeles Public Library and the author of five other books for children. We asked her about the controversy over The Higher Power of Lucky, and librarians’ role in defending the First Amendment:
Simon & Schuster interview with Susan Patron
NCAC: Most of the recent media attention for The Higher Power of Lucky has focused on a single word on the book’s opening page: scrotum. What do you hope children take away from your book as a whole?
Susan Patron: The community of Hard Pan is populated by eccentric, poor, and more or less uneducated people, most of them recovering from some addiction, and they are trying to become better human beings. Lucky needs information and some kind of spiritual guidance because she’s growing up. She tries to figure out the way the world works by eavesdropping at 12 step programs, listening to the stories of how people struggle and survive. So I hope readers will discover something about bravery and facing difficult challenges. I hope they will identify with Lucky’s courage. I want them to see that, in all of this, love is key.
NCAC: What have been the responses you’ve received about the book from children who have read it?
SP: Two examples: Leah, an 8-year-old from the Midwest, wrote to me that she loved the story and especially that Lucky was adopted, just as Leah herself was adopted. Leah also noticed and commented enthusiastically on the design of the book, which interested me. She paid attention to aspects usually not noticed by adults, whereas she paid no attention to the word scrotum, which stopped a number of adults in their tracks.
A teacher of a fourth grade class in Oakland, California read The Higher Power of Lucky aloud to her class. She wrote that they responded positively to the story. The teacher then told them there has been a controversy about it, and asked what they thought it might be about. They guessed drinking, smoking, or cremation. When she told them it concerned the word scrotum, a group of them went to look it up in the dictionary. They concluded that if The Higher Power of Lucky is banned by any libraries, the dictionary should be banned as well.
NCAC: What responses have you received from other authors and/or publishers about the book?
SP: Writers and organizations for writers (PEN and SCBWI) have been fiercely supportive. The authors of the three 2007 Newbery Honor books posted a statement of support online. Maurice Sendak posted support on a blog. My own publisher, Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, is hosting a hospitality suite at the American Library Association’s annual conference, with the theme of “In Support of Every Word,” to thank librarians and authors who have spoken out in support of the book.
NCAC: Did you anticipate any controversy over or challenges to the book as you were writing it?
SP: No. I was focusing on re-creating the mind and attitudes of a particular ten-year-old and I was trying to be as honest and authentic as possible.
NCAC: What was your first reaction when you heard that your book was being challenged for the use of the word, “scrotum”?
NCAC: As a children’s librarian, what kinds of criteria do you use for selecting materials?
SP: At the Los Angeles Public Library, we look at many factors, including quality of writing, popularity or demand, comprehensiveness of the branch collection, controversy (we want to make materials available that are being discussed) and budget. Our branches routinely order all major award-winning books.
NCAC: In the past, have you ever been confronted with challenges to other books in your library? How did you deal with the situation(s)?
SP: Yes. We discuss our selection policy with the patron, listen to his complaint, and determine whether he has read the book in its entirety. We affirm the parents’ responsibility in selecting material they feel is appropriate for their child (and only for their child) to read, and we offer to help them find such books. We have never removed challenged material, or restricted access by children.
NCAC: What would you say to librarians who are considering not stocking The Higher Power of Lucky in their school or public libraries because it contains the word, “scrotum”?
SP: I believe it would be a form of arrogance for librarians to withhold access to a Newbery title from an entire service group based on reaction to a word. We librarians need to be clear as to our role. There is a difference between the librarian who is a judicious selector of materials and the librarian who puts herself in the role of arbiter of what is acceptable in literature. Our job as librarians is to connect kids with books and information, to stimulate and encourage reading. We need to stay focused on that larger picture and let parents determine appropriateness of materials for their own children from the wide selection that we provide in our collections.
NCAC: What would you say to other children’s authors who may be worried about the implications of potential censorship of The Higher Power of Lucky?
SP: As long as your work is honest, has integrity, and respects the reader, you should never let the fear of censorship enter your creative process. On the other hand, using controversial elements for shock value, or because of a perception that doing so will enhance sales, disrespects readers and shows a lack of integrity.
NCAC:Are you aware of any prior censorship of your own work?
NCAC: How can librarians be effective First Amendment defenders?
- Make sure your library has a strong selection policy and that it is accessible.
- Encourage library administration to offer staff development workshops on handling challenges to materials.
- Workshops should include techniques librarians can use to interact with patrons in a non-confrontational, positive way.
- Build diverse collections. Try to acquire materials that represent various points of view.
- Create Banned Books displays.