Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Oh no, it's the children's book with the word "scrotum" in it! There was a tremendous uproar over this book in the past summer when a listserv of school librarians had a discussion over the offending word, and some said they would and some said they wouldn't purchase the title for their schools. The national media picked it up, and for a little while, the world of the librarian was abuzz. As usual, everyone took it too seriously, and camps divided along the "someone must save the children" vs. the "you must never censor" line, and no one convinced anyone else of anything.

So what is the book about? Lucky lives in hard luck Hard Pan, California. Her mother died a few years before (oh, we mothers, we drop like flies in books, don't we?) and she lives with her father's first wife (second wife was the mom), a French woman who misses her life in France. Lucky, whose father is a non-presence in her life, is terrified that Brigitte is going to abandon her and run back to France where there are no snakes and no dust storms and no tasteless government cheese. Lucky decides to run away in order to force Brigitte's hand, and all becomes well after a scary sandstorm misadventure. Oh, and the s-word? Lucky hears it while eavesdropping on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Well, the controversy is all over now, and we can hopefully look at the book for what it is worth. And what is it worth? Well, it is a short little book, pretty nicely written, with an interesting girl protagonist, but I have to confess that the book underwhelmed me. I felt that the central conflict (is Brigitte preparing to leave Lucky and return to France?) rests on the very thin premise that Brigitte would hide 2 facts: 1) that she is taking online restaurant management classes in order to open a cafe in Hard Pan, and 2) that she is in the process of doing the paperwork to officially adopt Lucky. I find point 1 harder to believe than point 2, as I can't see an adult in a caregiving role never telling a 10-year old - "be quiet, I have to STUDY!"

So what about the book? It was no better - or worse - than other books I had read over the past year. It is probably better than the run of the mill, but is it a Newbery? I don't know. I preferred both Rules by Cynthia Lord and Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm, which were Honor Books. I work with a librarian who thinks Lucky was chosen precisely for the word "scrotum" on the first page, in hopes that the controversy might revive an award that is prestigious in library-land but means little to your average reader... I'm not sure that the Newbery is languishing, but I do think she has a point. So it all comes down to - "What hill do you want to die on?" If I were a school librarian today, and I thought my community would freak out at the deadly word on page 1, would I stock the book anyway? Would I fight for it? Well, sorry library idealists, but probably not. The book just doesn't have enough child appeal, in my opinion, to be worth it. On the other hand, if I thought my community would accept it, I'd probably buy it. Either way, I hate to say, I don't think the book would circulate much.

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