Zombies, unicorns, scrotum (updated)

What have I started? Arguments about the relative merits of zombies and unicorns rage across the intramanets. And on each thread someone suggests the zombie-unicorn hybrid. Great minds think alike? Or fools seldom differ?

I was greatly distressed that lovely friends of mine like Holly Black, Cecil Castellucci, Meg McCarron and Literaticat have fallen pray to the false glittery charms of unicorns despite the fact that being virgin fascists unicorns would have nothing to do with them. I guess it falls into the whole desiring-what-you-can’t-have camp. Perhaps to resolve our issues Holly and I should collaborate on a Zombies vesus Unicorns novel? I will write the zombies and she can have the unicorns. Though I’m not sure how well that will work given that she won’t read about zombies and I won’t read about unicorns.

Some school librarians are saying that they won’t have Susan Patron’s Newbery Award-winning novel, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, in their library because it contains the word “scrotum” (in reference to a dog). Apparently “scrotum” is an offensive word. I had no idea. I thought it was an anatomical term for a part of the male body. I’ve never heard anyone use it as a swear word and I come from a swearing people.

The New York Times also covers the story but seems to think that authors sneak words like “scrotum” into their novels solely to offend.1 Um, what now? Rosemary Graham responds eloquently to the extremely unbalanced Times coverage. The best reporting on the whole story can be found at Publishers Weekly which points out the role Jordan Sonnenblick and Asif! had in drawing attention to it.

I write novels to tell the best stories I can for teenagers. I try very hard to write characters who are believeable and I choose the language they use accordingly. I do not set out to offend anyone. I’m sorry when that happens, but I’m not going to write less believable stories in order not to offend people. That leads to the worst possible kind of censorship: When you start second-guessing yourself. Can I use the word “pom”? No, that will offend English people. Can I use the word “pink”? No, that will offend pink-haters (and possibly also pink-lovers). How about “jasmine”? No, Margo Lanagan will come gunning for me. When does it end?

Librarians and school librarians in particular have an incredibly hard job. I admire them tremendously. I just wish we were living in a world where people’s response to being offended was to talk about why, to explain the history and context of the word, and how that has made it offensive to them, rather than trying to wipe the books that contain the word off the face of the earth. I mean I am not advocating banning books about unicorns. I just won’t blurb them.

As soon as it is warm enough to go outside I’m off to buy a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky from my local children’s bookshop.

Update: Scott adds his two cents’ worth.

  1. For the record, if concerned adults can find the naughty words we wicked authors sneak into our books then we clearly haven’t been sneaky enough. []


  1. Seth Christenfeld on #

    seriously – scrotum? there are so many better bad words to sneak into things. like “felch.” or “bukkake.” or “george w. bush.”

  2. orangedragonfly on #

    i may be 28 years old, but still…every time i hear someone say “you shouldn’t read this” it makes me want to read it! it started when i was a kid; if any book was banned, i wanted to read it even if i’d never heard of it before. funny stuff.

    but honestly..a newbery book??! and aren’t parents/teachers always trying to get kids to use correct anatomical words instead of slang? bizarre.

  3. jessiegirl on #

    I am greatly disappointed to hear that Holly Black places herself firmly in the pro-unicorn camp.

    Zombies are way better. No glitter, no frolicking, no mystical phooey. You don’t even have to hunt down a zombie, or worry about spooking a zombie because chances are it will come right for you.

  4. margo on #

    I think people are getting unicorns mixed up with My Little Pony here. There’s nothing like a well-done unicorn. Yum.

  5. Carol on #

    I first encountered the word “scrotum” in the children’s section of the public library – in a collection of Norse myths, where Loki was (I think – it’s been a long time!) trying to make giants laugh by, in this version, tying a goat’s beard to his scrotum. I was eight years old but, apart from some slight anatomical confusion, I think I’ve escaped permanent scarring…

  6. Justine on #

    Seth Christenfeld: “Bukkake”? Can’t be bothered googling. Plus if it’s anything like your other word I might not want to look at what I find. Ewww!

    Orangedragonfly: I am exactly the same. Sadly, even at my advanced age the best way to get me to do something is to tell me not to do it.

    Jessiegirl: It is disappointing. Fortunately, the lame-brained opinions of writers frequently have no bearing on the wondrousness of their books. And no matter what icky things Holly likes her books will still be fabulous.

    Margo: There’s clearly some confusion going on or they’d be in the pro-zombie camp.

    Carol: Hah! I read that story. But at much older age. In fact in uni when I was studying old norse. Funny!

    Are you sure you’ve escaped permanent damage?

  7. Kevin Wignall on #

    you weren’t disturbed by someone tying a goat’s beard to his scrotum?!?! it’s a concept i’m finding very disturbing even now.

    justine, you really shouldn’t look up bukkake, though of course, i also now know that my warning will send you off to google – prepare to be… hmm, what’s the word?

  8. Justine on #

    I can’t speak for Carol but I wasn’t disturbed because it was a god doing it and it were funny.

    Oh and public service announcement: if you’re even slightly appalled by grossness, don’t google Seth’s words. They’re both majorly ewwwwwerific. If you’re anything like me you will now go google them, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. YUK!

  9. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    justine, that’s why you should always google words like that with “wiki” – so at least you get the wikipedia entry and not … well, something else altogether. still gross, but far less likely to include pictures.

    and since they have alternate meanings on there as well, you can content yourself that maybe seth meant “felch township, michigan” or “bukkake, the noun form of the japanese word meaning “to splash” or “to dash”, as in noodle dishes ‘bukkake-udon’, &c.”

    also, i like the idea of margo lanagan “gunning for you.” i imagine that she hovers above the country in a hot-air balloon, armed to the teeth, silently waiting for someone to slip a opalescent jasmine into their book… and then she strikes!

    lastly, unicorn fascists will grind your precious zombies into mulch with their relentless diamond hooves. and i’d like to see you try to stop them.

  10. Justine on #

    Heh hem, Jennifer, unicorns aren’t just fascists, they’re fascists about women being virgins. I’m shocked that that does not disturb you! And why are all you unicorn lovers so violent about it? Even more disturbing!

    Margo Lanagan is a very scary person.

    I will stick to wikipedia entries in the future. You are wise. (On that matter.)

  11. maureen on #

    I can’t believe I missed this debate. I’m so about the zombie. In fact, I feel like we should all be in a constant state of preparation for the coming of our future undead overlords. Unicorns? Plu-ese.

  12. Lenna on #

    1. Unicorns ARE fascists for the mere fact that if you aren’t a virgine, they will buck you offf there back like you’re a bull rider. I suggest, in all hatingness of unicorns we invest in unicorn UGGS, i’m sure the UGG company makes them.
    2. scrotum’s a bad word?
    have you ever herd the scrotum song? it’s fun fun fun. it’s even mentioned in the book “prep”, but that is not how i know of it.

  13. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    well at least unicorns will give some of the population an opportunity to survive.

    zombies will go on wholesale brain-eating rampages, leaving nought in their wake but blood and ichor.


  14. Salokin on #

    I know I’m probably going to make a complete ass out of myself, but what’s the point of all this censorship? Why do librarians find the need to ban normal books? I can see not buying Laurell K. Hamilton for an elementary school, but it should be up to the students to make their own choices. And if parents can find a way to be offended, maybe they should take an interest in their child’s life themselves, and not leave it up to the school.
    And um, endrant.

  15. Nicky on #

    Long time hidey person but the unicorn/zombie erm, debate has been a source of great amusement. Both to read here & then to continue debating with my partner (he’s pro zombie fyi). Me, I just wonder what would happen if the unicorn/zombie encounter crossed over with the whole astronaut/caveman issue. Perhaps it’s dependent on which type of writer one is (with tv/film writers going for the non-fantastical animal debate).

    I’m going to go hide quietly now…away from both unicorns & zombies.

  16. Rebecca on #

    bloody scrotum! the “concerned adults” are at it again.

    as for seth’s words: ewwwwwwww. especially the third one.

    and i, like the idiot that i am, just had to google “the scrotum song.”

  17. Chris S. on #

    I was just at the SCBWI* conference at which we heard from Robie Harris, a writer whose friendly, factual books about the facts of life have been banned in more than 30 places. She talked movingly about how brave and strong children’s librarians are these days.

    Boy, she’d be disappointed.

    *Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Our motto: Worst Acronym Ever!

  18. Justine on #

    Chris S: But, you know, I still think this is a very small minority of librarians. The vast majority, like ALA itself, are actively against censorship and work hard to defend books. I’ve now met librarians from all over the country and been incredibly impressed.

    I love that acronym: Scibwee! Sciiiibweee! Sciiibweeee!!!

  19. Karen on #

    i run a small library in rural canada and just ordered patron’s book (the best way i could think of to protest this silly censorship thing). mind you, i don’t think it will be a big deal here. all sorts of critters walk around with exposed scrota. the kids don’t seem the least traumatized.

  20. Sarah M on #

    just for the record, not all of us librarians think that books should be banned (not even for the use of the word scrotum) I hate being lumped with the few (and it really is a few rather than the majority) librarians that seek to censor. in fact, I’ll make sure I have extra copies because now the book will be in high demand.

  21. Justine on #

    Karen & Sarah M: I’m sorry if my post made it look like I thought a majority of librarians are part of this banning madness. I did use the word “some” on purpose. And as I said upstream in this comment thread the vast majority of librarians are on the side of justice. I think you librarians are awesome.

  22. Penni on #

    I’ve tried.
    And I’ve tried.
    And I just can’t find a stance on unicorns and zombies. I can’t love zombies. They’re all fall aparty and their dialogue is tedious. But then the whole unicorn thing…well. I have a terrible feeling my eldest daughter is going to discover unicorns one day. She likes horses. She likes pink and purple. She lives in a strange dreamy haze most of the time.
    Go scrotums. Personally I think she should get extra points for using it in a sentence.
    How about the Times article’s suggestion that the newbery award is the equivalent of Oprah’s book club in the children’s literature world? Yeah, nuh. It’s a highly prestigious award for the most distinguished contribution to American literature, which is a world away from celebrity endorsement (which alas probably generates more sales, but in my world at least says a great deal less about the literary value of a book).

  23. Annie on #

    I’m a visitor from Diana’s blog and found it so amusing to have seen an link for these avenging unicorns on my LJ friend’s page after seeing the unicorn v. zombie debate here. So thought I’d share.

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