Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rhymes with "Float 'Em"

(Warning: There are four-letter words in this post, as well as other words of varying lengths and opinions readers might find offensive. Read at your own risk.)

This weekend my friend Katy went to the Tate Modern gallery in London, which was having a major retrospective of the English artists Gilbert & George. Gilbert & George are most famous for huge, aggressively colored photomontages, usually featuring pictures of themselves among other iconography; to go straight to the most notorious and extreme example of their work, in the mid-1990s they completed a series called "the Naked Shit pictures," featuring both themselves naked and pictures of feces and urine. (Both links are safe for work and explain a little more of the artists' metier.) Katy didn't see the Tate exhibition itself, but she said to me after her visit to the museum, "I'd rather have one of their pictures on my wall than a Thomas Kinkade."

"Really?" I said.

"Definitely," she said firmly. "Wouldn't you?"

And here it was, the extremes of these two choices forming a wonderfully devilish artistic "Would You Rather": "Which would you rather have on your living-room wall: A six-foot-high, purposely confrontational photomontage of two naked men pointing their anuses and genitalia at the viewer? Or an overly idealized, artistically simple-minded, corporately marketed, sickeningly sentimental painting of a lighthouse at sunset? Painters of shit (literally) or painter of shit (aesthetically)? Art as meaning, or as decoration?"

And what did I answer? I didn't. I cannot in good conscience say I'd prefer living with a Gilbert & George, particularly the one cited in the conundrum; I come home to rest and think and be, and I don't need a challenge literally hanging over my head 24/7. But Thomas Kinkade is the antithesis of everything I think art should be -- light without dark, generalization without individuation, beauty without truth, which makes it only a pretty lie. I think I would go with Gilbert & George in the end, solely to maintain my intellectual self-respect. But I'm not 100% sure about that choice, nor that I'd be happy with it.

All of which is leading me to, of course, the current debate over The Higher Power of Lucky. For those readers not involved in children's books, this year's Newbery winner by Susan Patron uses the word "scrotum" on page one, where the main character (Lucky) hears a man say his dog was bitten on that body part by a rattlesnake. Lucky does not know what the word means, and her attempts to find out apparently form a minor and in the end meaningful motif throughout the book (which I have not yet read; this opinion taken from Linnea Hendrickson's post on child_lit). Many librarians know that their patrons will object to the mere appearance of this word and thus have announced they will not stock the book. (See the New York Times article here for a (poorly-written) summation of the debate.) The discussion that followed on ccbc-net, child_lit, and various blogs has tend to run along these lines:

  • It's an anatomically correct term for a body part. Are we not going to tell children about their bodies? Isn't it best to give them the correct information from the beginning?
  • Yes, but parents have the right to determine when their children learn information about their bodies.
  • Do they really? Aren't librarians supposed to provide information to whoever is looking for it -- particularly when other people (like parents) don't want them to have it?
  • But the libraries are financially supported by the community. Shouldn't they follow the standards of the community?
  • And librarians have such small budgets and so much to do, and frequently no support from their higher-ups when challenges come in . . . Isn't it easiest and perhaps best to avoid the issue altogether?
  • Those stupid, uneducated Southerners and Midwesterners -- I'm sick of them taking over the country and trying to make the rest of us conform to their Puritan moralism. Down with George W. Bush!
  • This is all irrelevant as the book has no child appeal anyway. Can't the Newbery committee pick a book kids would actually want to read for once? I miss Holes.

Now, this isn't quite as in-your-face as Gilbert & George vs. Thomas Kinkade. But it strikes me as the same thing in the end, complicated by the public-funding debate and all the questions always implicit in adults making and purchasing art for children: How much truth do we want to have? And here, How much truth do we want children to have? And, What if I disagree with your answers? And finally, of course, Who gets to determine truth anyway?

And again, I'm in the mushy middle here. Not on the principles of the thing -- I think we should always use correct, precise language, and libraries shouldn't decide not to purchase the book based solely on that word -- but on its practicalities: the poor librarians having to deal with challenges, which distracts them from their larger mission of serving their communities as a whole; and parents, who, it seems to me, do deserve to determine how much information their children have about sex and the body parts involved in it until the children reach a certain age (though the children will likely beat them to the information long before). For some people, seeing the word "scrotum" is like being forced to live with the Gilbert & George: It's something they don't want to look at, for whatever reason, and we have to respect their right to that. But neither should they be able to deny us the right to look at it, to keep ourselves from living in a Thomas Kinkade world. I wish the repressive communities would change, become more open-minded and thoughtful, but until that happens, I guess I sympathize with everyone but the book-banners.

Which, I freely admit, makes me pretty much useless.

The one thing I am absolutely sure about here is where the author and editor fit in to the truth debate. When these issues come up for me as an editor -- and they have -- the question is simple: What's best for the artistic integrity of the book? Does this word or plot development in question feel integral to the character's journey, the voice, the themes, and the overall story? If it does fit, it belongs there; if it doesn't, it should come out anyway. With Lucky it sounds very much as if the word is used intelligently and sensitively, in a manner consistent with the overall storytelling, so it seems perfectly appropriate. (And Richard Jackson is an editorial genius who has seen this all before -- he edited Judy Blume in the 1970s -- so I doubt it was ever a question.) It was part of Susan Patron's vision of Lucky's truth, and as the author, she gets to determine that; readers and communities fight out whether they agree with it with their purchasing power.

(Though I have to say I'm frustrated with The Higher Power of Lucky getting all this press because of one little word, when I edited an absolutely brilliant book where God disappears and Jesus is seen as friendly but useless -- and no one has challenged it yet! This follows the general trend among book-banners where they're so obsessed with the overt content of a book that they miss the larger and much more dangerous point . . . people who go after Harry Potter before His Dark Materials, for example. I know I would fight to the point of physical violence for libraries to have the right to purchase His Dark Materials; maybe I'll feel the same way about Lucky after I read it. In the meantime, book-banners, my book is called The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer, it was published last year, it's funny and beautiful and joyous and wise -- bring the challenges on! And bring your media circus with you!)

So. If you feel strongly about your school or local library having the right or responsibility to purchase The Higher Power of Lucky, or any other banned book, make your opinion known to the librarian in writing. That was s/he can point to your letter as an example of community support for the book should it be challenged -- or you might simply get it bought in the first place. All of us should try not to be self-righteous, please. Keep on writing your truths. And may the Higher Power bless us, every one.


  1. I've thought before of the dilemma that you illustrate with the G&G vs. the Painter of Lite, but never in such concrete terms.

    I might end up going with the G&G for the same reasons you might, but I suppose I'm trying to think of a way to take the Kinkade, and artfully deface it.

  2. Even as a conservative evangelical Christian, I do not get what all the fuss is about. I'm quite sure that if I'd picked up that book I would have breezed right through the word "scrotum" (after a brief pause to laugh at and/or feel sorry for the poor bitten dog) and kept going. It's a medical term, people. Even if the young heroine goes on wondering off and on throughout the book what it means, I don't see the problem here.

    I am beginning to wonder if some people go into bookstores, open books to the first page and read them looking for Naughty Language to complain about. Possibly if the word had been buried on, say, page 10 instead of page 1, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now?

  3. I was looking forward to your post on this one, Cheryl. Excellent as always - and that *was* a poorly written Times article.

  4. Hmmm…. And hmmm again… interesting conundrum… A sugary lighthouse or a bunch of guys’ butts? Jeepers… aren’t there a third choice when it comes to sofa kunst? Can’t you choose art for your walls at home, which serves an entirely different function than gallery art, from an endless array of images that make you feel a certain way?

    Art gallery paintings have a language all its own, designed to be thought provoking and prod the viewer to see the world in a new light. Art in your home should sooth, calm, entertain, decorate and delight.

    Books for kids are like that too. There are books that are hard to chew, stories that really challenge kids to think about how the world works. Once you get done reading, if you’ve done your job right, your young audience may be tired and perhaps worn out but hopefully their minds are stretched. There are also stories that act like a nice decorative painting or a pretty illustration in a fairy tale book. They comfort and give hope. So, I’m thinking, if there were only two works of art in the whole world by some Twilight Zone twist of magic and one was a Mapplethorpe and the other was “Dogs Playing Poker” then people would be sensible and buy a nice mirror instead.

    I guess I fall into the “Aren't librarians supposed to provide information to whoever is looking for it?” camp. As for the fuss about “scrotum” in a kid’s book, I’m cracking up. What a funny word! I live in the house of guys. I’m outnumbered, guy husband, guy son, guy cat, heck, even the fish are guys. The word is “balls” or “privates” And psst… I’ll let you in on a secret; they all have them and know they have them. Why people would be offended a dog has them is beyond me. (Poor dog!)

    “The Higher Power of Lucky” sounds like a tough book full of difficult problems. A special kind of thoughtful, mature kid who really likes to read might get a lot out of it. (I’d be wary of it, just because I personally, and this is my own weakness, have a problem with stories that have a dead parent.) Then again, that same thoughtful mature kid might get just as much out of “Little Women” or “Holes” or “Harry Potter”. Should these books be in libraries? Heck yeah! Isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to monitor their kid’s reading material? Yep, as well as their television watching, video games, and what they eat and wear.

    I’m not worried so much about banned books. My first job out of college was working for the Newport Beach Public Libraries. Forget any stereotypes you might have, those librarians were a tough bunch. I’m more concerned about the utter lack of independent thought in young readers. I teach a fourth grade Junior Great Book class and most of the kids are incapable of gleaning any kind of moral from a story. All their interpretations are completely literal. “Goldilocks” is just a story about a girl who breaks into a house and steals oatmeal. I’m working hard to get them to think about what stories mean but some days it is uphill both ways.

    If you’re feeling revolutionary, I’d recommend writing a letter protesting paced learning (every kid on the same page regardless of ability) and government mandated testing. Teachers have become test proctors, not teachers, and soon, though the libraries may be full of lovely, dangerous thought provoking books, there will not be any young minds capable of understanding them.

    Blessings back, Cheryl! We're off on vacation to Big Sur for a week! Pine trees! Yay!


  5. I'd go with the Kinkade, just because I don't want to see anyone's genitalia on my walls, let alone their urine and feces.

    I'd also keep the word scrotum in my text if it continued to move the story forward.

    And if I was the author of The Higher Power of Lucky, I'd feel lucky for getting all of this great publicity! ;-D

  6. Oh! I was the previous Anon!

    Kelsey Johnson Defatte :-) (I like to take credit for my own thoughts--for better or worse! hee, hee!)

  7. Not all of Gilbert & George's work is as naughty as you might think. Some of them are very beautiful, and safe enough to show your Nan. I went to the show at Tate Modern last night, and I saw plenty that, if I had the money, I would have on the walls of my house (probably not the ones with turds or spunk in, to be fair). Gilbert & Geroge are about a lot more than arseholes and bodily secretions.

    Anyhow, I always enjoy your blog. Do keep it up.

  8. Thanks for the post Cheryl, and for the honesty ... it takes a brave woman to make a stand on either side of a controversy, but sometimes it takes an even braver one to admit to feeling torn and to give both sides their due.

    -- from a fellow mushy middler (though I'd stand firmly on the side of Kinkaid on the art question ... I could ignore a lighthouse in my living room but would have a tough time enuring myself to feces!)

  9. I just picked up The Higher Power of Lucky from my library this afternoon. Ironically, there were many posters at the sign out desk, advertising the forthcoming “Freedom to Read Week”. It’s worth a good GOOGLE to see how this week has evolved and how many librarians, teachers, authors etc. in Canada continuously support the opportunity to read all that is written.

    Of course, I quickly read page one. The word scrotum did not offend me one bit. But, because there is a huge debate, I began to think about the use of the word. Being a dog owner, I’m wondering exactly how this dog was sitting/sleeping in the car, making this snake bite possible. I’m wondering if it’s a short haired dog. I’m wondering how the rattlesnake maneuvered this. I’m wondering if the use of this word is to show that the drunk telling the story is actually an intelligent man, perhaps a doctor/vet?
    I asked my teenage son to read page one. He thought it was funny. My younger son said they call that body area the gooch. Would that have been better? NO.
    I do agree with Cheryl. If a word is not necessary, skip it. If it works for the story, keep it. There is nothing wrong with using the right word.
    Now, to finish the book....

  10. I finished the book today and oh how I loved it. Great characters, great setting, wonderful story. The scrotum had a true purpose, although you don't really get that until the end of the book. I'd talk about it, but I don't want to give anything away.

    AND, I asked my 9 YO if he knew what one was. I thought he did. He didn't. I told him, so now he knows!

  11. I personally don't like books that toss around words that make me cringe. I'm very prudish.

    BUT ~ this really doesn't seem to be the case here. Sounds like the word was used with respect of the audience, and it is, afterall, politically correct. Sounds like it was written tastefully, so what's the beef?

  12. All I can say, Cheryl, is AMEN! You have covered it all in your post--thank you. By the way, what is the title of your wonderfully subversive book? Got to get a copy!

  13. Lovely post, Cheryl! I have several friends with a passionate hatred of Thomas Kinkade, and it shall be forwarded to them.

  14. OOps! I just saw the title of your book...must have been momentarily blinded by Thomas Kincaide's corporate light show! (bluk!) I'll have to check it out.
    Thanks again for your wit and wisdom.

  15. great post...i quickly went from immediate indignation at the uproar to a less comfortable but more truthful 'guess i have to look at all sides' spot in the middle.

    and the book of everything is amazing.

  16. Thanks for this post! It got me thinking. I don't have much art on my walls (unless you count the crayon/marker/pencil/pen drawings of my children), but I think I would prefer the TK art. Not because of the lie it tells, but because I look at it as a fantasy world.

    I'd much rather look at it and pretend that things could be like that than look at the art of G&G that tells how it really is. I have enough reality staring me in the face every day. I'm all for a little fantasy now and then. :D

    As for the books, my response would be similar to r.j.'s. I'd probably have a good laugh, feel sorry for the dog, and move on. I don't like crude terms thrown into books for a "shock" factor, but it doesn't sound like it is used that way in "Lucky."

    Parents have a right to decide what is appropriate for their children to read/view, but in today's world, it is nearly impossible to "shield" our children from everything. My mission as a parent is to ensure that they hear about "sensitive" topics from me first. :)