Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky

by Susan Patron, illustrations by Matt Phelan. 2007 Newberry Medal winner.

I just finished this book. It has been talked all over the kidlitosphere not only because it won the Newberry this year but also because of the controversy over Paton’s use of the word scrotum in the story. I was pretty much ignoring the whole thing as silly until I read what Pixie Stix Kids Pix had to say about it and then I understood more of the implications. It seems some librarians on a list serv were discussing the book and it’s surprise winning of the Newberry (I was just as surprised as anyone). Some of them mentioned that they might feel uncomfortable reading the book out loud to kids because the word scrotum is right on the first page and used off and on through out the story. Well, fine. I can understand that hesitation. You never know how a group of kids is going to react; much less their parents. That has nothing to do with censorship. But some journalists picked up the conversation from the list serv and put it in the news. It wound up on the front page of the New York Times. It got blown way out of proportion such that it can now be called “Scrotumgate”. Sheesh. Who knew that an honest conversation on a list serv with a specialized membership would be taken so far? It makes me wish I knew how to keep my own mouth shut. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to apologize for what I have posted on adoption forums by spouting just off the top of my head. Makes me think even little ol’ me could say something worthy of media spin.

I wouldn’t even have thought much about the use of the word scrotum in the story if it wasn’t such a big issue. Lucky is a sweet girl whose mother died and whose father is too busy to raise her. She is living in a trailer in a tiny little town on the edge of the dessert in Arizona with her guardian, who happens to be her father’s first wife. Her father married her in France (she’s French), decided he didn’t want kids when she did, and divorced her. He came back to America, married Lucky’s mother and still didn’t want kids. Lucky happened anyway and her parents got divorced. Tragically her mother was electrocuted in a thunderstorm when Lucky was eight. Her father asked his first wife Brigitte to come to America and take care of her until he could figure something else out.

Lucky is the kind of girl you never forget. She reminds me of Opal in Winn Dixie, Heidi in So B. It, or Ramona Quimby. She is smart, passionate and thoughtful. She comes up with all sorts of brilliant plans to improve her life. She works sweeping the patio at the place where the town 12 step meetings are held and she listens in to the stories people tell about hitting rock bottom and finding their Higher Power. She wants to figure out how to find her own Higher Power so she can figure out how to get Brigitte to want to adopt her. If Brigitte goes back to France Lucky is “wondering about some way to trap and catch the exact right” mother.

One of the stories she hears from the AA meeting is about a man who stops drinking after his dog gets bit in the scrotum by a rattlesnake but doesn’t die. Lucky wonders what a scrotum is and doesn’t know who to ask. Now that I think about it, if she is in fifth grade it is a little odd that she doesn’t know that word. I remember in Ohio in the 70s we had s*x education every year from fifth through twelfth. I am sure we learned the vocabulary in fifth if we didn’t know it sooner. I teach my sons those words right along with all the other body words, as well as the ones for the female parts as soon as they ask at about two years old. Lucky knows enough biology to refer to her brain as being covered with wrinkles and crevices full of thoughts and questions. She refers to her “meanness gland” and her “hunger gland” and thinks they respond to environmental stimulus. She thinks her friend Lincoln’s brain squeezes out “a powerful knot-tying secretion that went through his capillaries and made his hands want to tie knots.” Seems like she would have run across that word in a textbook somewhere.

I think it is a very sweet story. The language is beautiful. Lucky’s honesty and tenderness toward hers friends is touching. The line drawings scattered through-out the book are poetically delightful and really add to my understanding of the character’s point of view. The story line is interesting and the ending even surprised me a little. Briggite is described from Lucky’s poignant and hopeful point of view so you are not sure what she is really planning to do until the very last chapter. I wish her father wasn’t a useless shadow figure, but that is her point of view too so it fits. Lucky and her friends are people I would like to know in real life. This is a gem of a book and I highly recommend it.

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