Adventures in Reading

Revisted Reviews: Higher Power of Lucky

A few weeks ago my mother sent me the link to a New York Times’ article: With One Word, Children’s Book Sets Off Uproar. Why are some people so shocked? Why has this book already been pulled from the shelf? Because the word “scrotum” appears on the first page.

Thus in my unfailing curiosity I checked this book out from work to actually see what all the hubbub was about. The word “scrotum” does indeed appear on the first page as our young, heroine Lucky eavesdrops on a conversation and overhears a story about Short Sammy’s dog Roy being bit on the scrotum by a rattlesnake.

Following the use of the “scrotum” in the book it reappears a few pages later as: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important, and Lucky was glad she was a girl and would never have such an aspect as a scrotum to her own body. Deep inside she thought she would be interested in seeing an actual scrotum. But at the same time—and this is where Lucky’s brain was very complicated—she definitely did not want to see one.”

Now if we move beyond this atrocious and horrible idea of using anatomically correct terms in children’s books, The Higher Power of Lucky is the story of a young girl living in the Mojave Desert. The population is 43 and the history we’re given is that Lucky’s parents are divorced and two years ago Lucky’s mother dies accidentally from stepping on a fallen but live electrical line after a storm. Rather than her father taking care of her, Brigitte—Lucky’s father’s first wife—comes to California from France to take care of her.

An important concept in the book is the idea of finding your “higher power,” which Lucky picks up (as well as the “scrotum” story) from eavesdropping on the local 12 Step-esque programs. These programs occur at Hard Pan’s local Found Object Wind Chime Museum where Lucky holds the wonderful job of sweeping the front porch. The programs include Gamblers, Alcoholics, Smokers and Over Eaters groups and those members who have beaten their addictions share stories of how they hit “rock bottom” and managed to find their “higher power.”

The word choice of “scrotum” is entirely appropriate as Short Sammy explains “even though it bit him in the worst place it can hurt for a male” his dog Roy still managed to rescue Short Sammy (who was too drunk to even notice the snake) by killing the snake. Waking into sobriety Sammy makes a deal with himself that if Roy is okay that he’ll stop drinking, go clean, and join AA. Realizing that he was too drunk to even care for himself and could have been killed in the situation Short Sammy realizes that he’s “hit rock bottom” and now attends AA-meetings to share how he found his “higher power.”

The book becomes a story of the complications and trials and tribulations in a child’s life that may not seem quite so serious to adults to downright serious concerns for some children in non-traditional family units. The book becomes a tale of Lucky hitting “rock bottom” and ultimately finding her “higher power” by the end of the book. Also at the end of the book the reader will find:

After a moment Lucky said, “Brigitte, what is a scrotum?”

“It is a little sack of the man or the animal which has in it the sperm to make a baby,” said Brigite in her deep, quiet voice. “Why do you ask about that?”

“It was just something I heard someone say,” said Lucky.”

Overall I don’t think there is anything objectionable in this book but only librarians (for the most part it seems) worried about parent’s squeamish reaction. And can you blame them? In the United States where sex ed largely seems to have gone the way of the dodo, as we’re replaced more and more with abstinence only courses, how often does the public school have to explain or even say the word “scrotum”? The Higher Power of Lucky is an excellent choice for the Newbery medal and if you find yourself with a few free hours on a rainy Sunday I do suggest you visit your local library or bookstore to take a look.

There are many more thoughts on this over at the Newbery Project and some thoughts from Book Nut.


Newbery Project: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

Preparing to read Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature, I decided to first delve back into my own childhood and reread Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and by incident this also kicks off my first book for the Newbery Project. Recently at work, various aged co-workers and I were discussing the excitement surrounding the fast-growing young adult section and reflecting on our own young adulthoods which had far less reading fodder. When I was a young adult literature was certainly available, but I often found myself searching for something to read and one of these conquests led me to Lofting.

It’s difficult to not be familiar with some aspect of Doctor Dolittle even if it’s only that he was a character who could speak with animals. This 1923 Newbery Award winner is told in hindsight from the somewhat fatalistic viewpoint of young Tommy Stubbins. After becoming more or less apprenticed to the good Doctor, the two and their human and animals friends begin a voyage to Spider Monkey Island off the coast of Brazil. Various adventures ensue including stowaways, bull fighting, floating islands, and a shipwreck.

Central ideas in the book are fairly representative of the time; particularly Dolittle’s interest in natural history (the popular scientific study of animals or plants) and the Dawin-esque feel of exploration stealthily lodges Doctor Dolittle into a bubble of historical consciousness. Lofting’s sketches illustrate the quite diminutive Tommy exploring Dolittle’s world. The back story is also quite interesting, as apparently Lofting wrote these tales out as letters to his children when he was a soldier during the World War.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is problematic however in its representation of race, indigenous culture, and colonialism. Two characters in particular stand out: Bumpo an African prince being educated at Oxford who incorrectly uses lengthy words and prefers going about barefoot and Long Arrow a stoic South American indian who venerates Dolittle. So imagine my surprise when I finished the book and learned in Christopher Lofting’s afterword that the Yearling edition is actually an edited version from the original text and that some socially questionable illustrations had also been removed. I confess my interest is peaked more than ever to reread this book in its original format.

Other opinions: Newbery Project.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“When we forget how close the wilderness is in the night, my grandpa said, someday it will come in and get us , for we will have forgotten how real and terrible it will be.”

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of many high school reading selections that I missed out on and combined with my clearing shelf challenge it was a perfect selection. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel that provides an interesting twist away from books like A Brave New World, 1984, and We in that the main focus is the censorship of books. Guy Montag is a fireman and in this futuristic world firemen start fires and particularly fires pertaining to book burnings. Thanks to a girl living next door named Clarisse, Montag finds his beliefs challenged and his viewpoint altered.

The premise of the book is pretty interesting and it’s certainly worth a read. I can definitely see why it’s a popular high school read. It’s not quite as challenging as the previous dystopian novels I listed but it’s an engaging read with a direct correlation to the power that can be found in books. And of course the idea that you are reading a book about a world where all books are banished – it’s definitely intriguing.

I admit though I found myself with growing problems while reading the book and some of Bradbury’s comments in the afterward. This dystopian world of book bashing was supposedly started as the result of minority groups expressing frustration with literature. In the back of the book Bradbury goes into his own experience with criticisms that he should alter his books and plays to provide more roles for women or less racist representations of blacks. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a world that is launched as a result of these expressed demands.

I found this somewhat problematic or at least naive. While indeed this is a form of censorship – though Katherine Mayo’s Mother India is indeed racist it does not mean we should burn it – it is very much a backlash from centuries of oppressing minority voices. Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of Norton’s World Literature from the 1970s versus a more recent edition. It doesn’t mean the texts found in the earlier edition were bad, not at all, but throughout literary history there certainly has not been an equal representation of all voices.

So, I get what Bradbury is saying and I can appreciate it, but I do find it somewhat limited. It was an okay book, I can see why they assign it to high schoolers, but I’m not sure if I was really missing all that much.

And an additional review of Fahrenheit 451 from Cynical Optimism.

Comments Off on Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury