>Hey, scholars like dismemberment, too!

>No, this isn’t another silly zombie post.

The NY Times Book Review has a review by Charles McGrath of two new and one year-old adaptations of Beowulf for children and young adults. They sound pretty cool and if I get to teach a graduate seminar on the original poem and its adaptations and translations, I may add these books.

But what inspire the post’s title is the opening paragraph of the review (bold mine):

“Beowulf,” a 3,000-line epic poem composed early in the eighth century, is the first significant text written in English, or in what eventually became English. What interests scholars about the story is its place in our linguistic development, and also the way it blends both Christian and pagan details. But what recommends “Beowulf” to children — and to older readers who haven’t lost a child’s delight in stories that are both scary and gory — is that it’s also a first-rate horror yarn, featuring slaughter, dismemberment and underwater sword fights.

OK, first of all, that “What interests scholars…” sentence should be in the past tense; that’s what interested scholars half a century ago and more. But more important: what’s with the false dichotomy between scholars on the one hand and “older readers who haven’t lost a child’s delight in stories that are both scar and gory” on the other? Doesn’t he realize that’s precisely why many of us became medieval scholars?


But the books sound pretty cool. Surely they have to be better than Beowulf & Grendel or that Grendel movie on SciFi that Dr. Nokes so hilariously skewered.

>A Virago rant: the latest children’s book controversy

>Have you seen this article in the NYT about the latest controversy over a Newberry-winning children’s book? (Note: subscription required to read link.) The book is The Higher Power of Lucky and children’s librarians and bookstore buyers are all in a tizzy because, in a book aimed at 9-12 year-olds, the word “scrotum” appears on the first page.

Oh, no, not scrotum! Not the technical, latinate word for a part of the body! Next thing you know, they’ll be teaching kids words like clavicle and femur! The horror!

And get this — here’s the context:

The book’s heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much,” the book continues. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

“Medical and secret, but also important” — exactly! It is medical, and it is important, and it’s because of the easily shocked sensibilities of people like these school librarians that it’s still very much something that sounds “secret.” Oh, the irony. And it’s not even a human scrotum; it’s a dog’s scrotum. (Honestly, people should be more upset that these fictional characters are not neutering their fictional dog. Do they want to see more fictional puppies end up in the fictional pound?) So forget its connection to human sexuality — they’re worried about kids knowing about dog body parts? Or are they making misreadings that tell us more about them than about kids’ potential reactions (see below).

And seriously, age 9-12 is when kids are supposed to be learning about these things, because by the end of that period they’ll be going though puberty and needing sex education. Heck, when I was 10, my mom took me to the library, got me a stack of sex ed books for children and adolescents, and I read away, learning all about the scrotum, the penis, the vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and all sorts of other “shocking” body parts and their medical names.

But this book depicts a kid using the proper name for a dog’s body parts and school librarians faint across the nation and refuse to stock it in their libraries. Good lord.

But here’s the part of the article that had me laughing out loud at the way in which a school librarian can live up to the stereotypes of her profession:

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

“At least not for children,” she added.

Good thing she added that “at least not for children,” because I was about to write to her and suggest she read some Chaucer and Shakespeare. But I still have half a mind to send her a friendly, non-threatening e-mail or letter that points out that it’s not men’s genitalia being depicted. If it were, that might indeed be kind of weird and creepy for little kids. But it’s a dog’s scrotum. And what better way to learn about body parts than through the non-threatening figure of a dog? I mean, for pete’s sake, there were scrotum galore on the Westminster dog show last week.

And what about the boys? Are Ms. Nilsson and the other librarians quoted in the article assuming that only girls will read a book about a girl? Because I’m pretty sure the boys have noticed that they have a scrotum, even if they don’t know what to call it as the boy with the dog Roy does.

So clearly the librarians are only worried that little girls might make the connection between a dog’s scrotum and a man’s. God forbid we don’t keep the sexes complete mysteries to each other for as long as possible. Because, see, if they’re mysteries, the kids won’t think about it all. No, they won’t think that such mysteries sound “secret, but also important” and then want to find out all they can in their own ways.

I don’t know why I’m so worked up about this. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a household where you used the proper words for things, not silly euphemisms. Or maybe it’s because I met men in college who thought women didn’t fart because they’d been so sheltered. Or maybe it’s because I know children’s librarians who are actually really cool and I hate it when people live up to stereotypes and make my friends look bad by association. I don’t know what it is, but this really bugged me.