One-Minute Book Reviews

February 19, 2007

‘That Scrotum Book’ for Children: A Review of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’ by Susan Patron

Some libraries have banned the winner of the American Library Association’s highest award for for children’s literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book that caused the uproar?

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association www.ala.org would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if minature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: You may also want to read two related items posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 22: a reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky and a discussion of six possible reasons why this book one the Newbery despite having the word “scrotum” on the first page. Check the “Children’s Books” category on this site if you don’t see them on the home page of this blog. The reading group guide is also archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

Links: You may also want to read the review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about her comic novels.

If you found this review helpful, please consider forwarding a link to One-Minute Book Reviews to others, particularly sites for parents and libraries. To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive review of The Higher Power of Lucky on the Web that anyone can read without registering or providing personal information and that was written by a highly experienced critic who has judged a national book awards competition. One-Minute Book Reviews is a four-month-old site that has grown rapidly, in part because of links from libraries and other book-related groups or institutions. Additional links will help to make it possible for future reviews like this one to keep appearing

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

8 Comments »

  1. I have not read the Edward Tulane book but agree with you re Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. As book titles for kids (that are not quite as full of literary merit but great fun nonetheless) I have been recommending Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller and The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer.

    Comment by kinderny — February 20, 2007 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  2. Glad to have the recommendations on “Kiki Strike” and “The Case of the Missing Marquess,” which I’ll try to take a look at soon. (I appreciate suggestions for all kinds of books but especially Y.A. novels, because they get so many fewer reviews than adult novels that it’s harder to find reliable information about them.) I’m hoping to review “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair” this Saturday or soon afterward.

    I wonder if it’s a coincidence that “The Higher Power of Lucky” and “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair” about orphans? And by librarians? It’s fascinating to me how trends, whether in children’s or adult books, often seem to arise spontaneously …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 20, 2007 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

  3. Hmm- interesting line of thought. I think the orphan motif is not uncommon because it allows the author to put a character in a different circumstance that allows for conflict. The librarian thing is interesing though- Rules, a middle school/YA title which is also getting attention, was written by a librarian, too (I think).

    Comment by kinderny — February 21, 2007 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  4. Great review. I just posted a review on my blog and will go back and add a link to yours. I suppose I liked the book — I certainly *wanted* to. But I think Patron missed her target audience. As a teacher in a K-8 school, I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to. Who would feel most connected to Lucky? A subsection of fifth grade readers, I suppose, but she might feel too young to some of them. The meandering search for Higher Power (and the rather abstract “signs”) just wouldn’t resonate with most 2nd/3rd/4th grade readers.

    Comment by Mrs. K — March 1, 2007 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

  5. […] Click here for another’ blogger’s thorough review.  […]

    Pingback by Feeling Lucky « Readathon — March 1, 2007 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

  6. Mrs. K: It was great to have a teacher’s perspective on the book. The age questions you raise are exactly the ones I struggled with when reviewing “The Higher Power of Lucky” (and also struggle with when reviewing other children’s books).

    You mentioned the abstract signs not resonating with 2nd/3rd/4th graders … I also wondered what that age group would think of some of the humor — for example, the jokes about “Slow Children.” It seemed to me that the “Slow Children” jokes would be much more likely to seem funny adults (and maybe some teenagers) than to third or fourth graders. But I don’t have children that age, so I wondered if maybe I was out of touch on that one. Thanks so much for bringing up these issues.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 1, 2007 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  7. I have to admit that I bought “The Higher Power of Lucky” so that I could read it before any of my students. I teach sixth grade in a school that encourages students to make their own literature selections. Often my students are reading books that I have not read. I had heard about the s word and was curious. I also did some reading on censorship this summer. As the ALA recommends, it seemed important to actually read the book myself, so that I would be prepared to respond to criticisms that the book might receive. I think that criticism of this book over the use of an accurate biological term is ridiculous. I liked the story. I thought the main character Lucky was a unique and interesting character. I especially liked that she was not an empty headed stereotypical girl. I did not notice the errors in the author’s use of the English language and I am sure I have made some within my comment. English is complex. Most of my students appreciate that. And many kids in middle school love the TTYL books, which I simply cannot bring myself to read. As far as “The HIgher Power of Lucky” moving around the classroom, it has not hit a stride. So here are some that they love – regardless of the awards. The Maximum Ride Series by James Patterson and most things by Anthony Horowitz. Also Ida B – I am sorry I forget the author’s name.

    I am glad that I found this blog.

    Comment by arikherbert — November 20, 2007 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  8. What a great comment, especially your list at the end of books your students love. Many people may decide after reading my review or others that “The Higher Power of Lucky” isn’t for them. And they’ll appreciate your suggestions of other books.

    On this site I tend to express strong views. But I also try to mention special concerns for schools and libraries if these might differ from mine. And I try to offer other services to schools and libraries, too, as putting up a readers’ guides to books like “The Higher Power of Lucky” if the publisher hasn’t.

    It still amazes that Atheneum didn’t offer a guide to “Lucky” right after it won the Newbery. (If it posted one, it didn’t happen until a long time after publication.) What was Atheneum thinking?

    Thanks so much for noticing my blog.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 20, 2007 @ 11:07 pm | Reply


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