The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

This year’s Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has caused quite a stir. If you aren’t familiar with the controversy, this New York Times article will help you catch up. To sum up: the book uses the word “scrotum” to describe where a rattlesnake bit a dog, and it does it on the first page, which has offended a lot of people.

As a librarian, I feel strongly that a book should be judged on its overall merit and not rejected because of a word. And, in my opinion, The Higher Power of Lucky is a very good book. I’m not an educator, I’m not trained in children’s literature (though I have read a lot, does that count?), but I think Lucky’s story is one that would be helpful and powerful for a lot of children.

Lucky, you see, has lost her mother. As her father never really wanted children, Lucky is being raised by a guardian, and Lucky is always aware that her guardian doesn’t have to stay and could leave at any time. Latching on to the terminology of AA (whose meetings she often overhears), she searches for a “Higher Power” to help her get control of her life. Lucky is supported by a memorable cast of characters including Lincoln (who ties knots), Miles (who mooches cookies), and Brigitte (her French guardian). When Lucky finds something that leads her to believe that Brigitte is planning to return to France, she takes action, dragging her backpack/survival kit and her mother’s ashes into a sandstorm to run away rather than being forced to go to an orphanage.

While the AA metaphor and concept of what a Higher Power is will probably evade children as much as it evades Lucky, I think many children these days can relate to her feelings of abandonment and hitting “rock bottom.” They will also enjoy the quirky town and its characters as Lucky learns to accept her mother’s death and trust the people around her. Lucky herself is a very realistic character, and children will, I think, be drawn to her as much as I was.

As far as using the word “scrotum,” I think part of growing up is learning that there are appropriate times and places to use words like that, and I appreciate that the book handles Lucky’s questions in a mature way. I think it’s important that we talk to children in appropriate ways about sex, and I think it’s important that we teach them what the correct words are (because, let’s face it, many of them already know the slang). Before I left for vacation, we had a discussion at work about some local middle schoolers who are pregnant. I am not saying that a book is going to dramatically keep kids from getting pregnant, but I do believe that talking to kids in responsible ways about sex should be something our culture values. Using correct words in a mature way is part of that. I understand that time and the threat of parents’ complaints and the general culture of education in this country might make teachers and librarians hesitant about defining the word in a classroom setting, but . . . I think they are ultimately worrying about the wrong things. And, in doing so, are keeping kids from reading a wonderful book.

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