Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

"It Was ... the Word 'Scrotum* on the First Page": Educators' Perspectives of Controversial Literature

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

"It Was ... the Word 'Scrotum* on the First Page": Educators' Perspectives of Controversial Literature

Article excerpt

A children's book rarely receives widespread media attention, but that is exactly what happened in 2007, just weeks after the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), announced The Higher Power of Lucky (Patron, 2006) as its pick for the prestigious Newbery Medal. While some news outlets give brief reports about each year's Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky landed on the front page of the New York Times on February 18, 2007, because of the controversy it incited among school librarians participating in an online listserv discussion (see Bosnian, 2007). Although the book addresses topics such as addiction and abandonment, the main source of the controversy was the appearance of "scrotum" on the book's first page. The protagonist, 10-year-old Lucky, overhears a story about a dog bit on the scrotum by a rattlesnake. Curiosity about the word nags Lucky until the novel's conclusion when, in a moment of trust-seeking and vulnerability, she asks her guardian about its meaning. Although The Higher Power of Lucky has not appeared on ALA's list of most frequently banned books for any given year since it was published, ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom reports that it has been challenged for "offensive language" and being "unsuitable to age group" (S. Pickett, personal communication, December 14, 2015). The controversy surrounding The Higher Power of Lucky is notable in the attention it drew to the issues of censorship and intellectual freedom.

Indeed, freedom of speech is a long-held tenet in the United States, including in the realm of public education. Related to the idea of freedom of speech are intellectual freedom and the "right to read," which the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE; 2009) defines as "the right of any individual not just to read but to read whatever he or she wants to read." NCTE and other organizations such as ALA are strong proponents of permitting children and young adults access to the literature they want to read, including the literature that may be considered controversial. Proponents of the right to read insist that it is a right "basic to a democratic society" (NCTE, 2009). Support for students' right to read has been codified in documents like ALA's (1980) Library Bill of Rights.

Yet, the democratic ideal of the right to read has often been contested, and nowhere is this more visible than in the school library and English classroom. Books of all varieties have long been the objects of censorship because of controversy surrounding their content or authors' ideologies (Jenkins, 2008). According to ALA's (2017) Office of Intellectual Freedom, the top three reasons for book challenges are "sexually explicit" material, "offensive language," and content "unsuited to any age group." Whatever the reason, censorship has resulted in restricted access to particular books or the outright banning of books in classrooms and libraries. Such censorship has the effect of violating students' intellectual freedom and right to read, and it is a manifestation of the power teachers and others exercise over young readers (Knox, 2014a). Unfortunately, the very books that are censored are often the ones young people want, and even need, to read (Alexie, 2011).

Banning books and restricting access to books are highly visible forms of censorship, yet one form of censorship receiving less attention and publicity is what Fanetti (2012) terms "preemptive censorship" (p. 8). According to Fanetti, preemptive censorship is the self-censorship that teachers and librarians engage in when they avoid including books in the curriculum or library collection to prevent controversy and challenges from parents and community members. For instance, preemptive censorship occurred when The Higher Power of Lucky incited controversy, and consequently many librarians refused to order the book for their collections (Bosman, 2007). Other terms have been used to describe preemptive censorship, such as "stealth censorship" (Roser, 2004) and "censorproofing" (Schrader, 1996). …

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