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FEATURE TOPIC: A Conversation with Susan Patron

Q: FEATURE TOPIC: A Conversation with Susan Patron

Within weeks of winning the 2007 Newbery Medal, Susan Patron’s book, “The Higher Power of Lucky,” catapulted into the headlines and its author was called to account for a word that stopped some people short at the very first page. Fortunately, more people read on and judged the book on the whole story, but by any account this year was a dramatic one for the Newbery and for Susan Patron. Her experience handling this censorship challenge, and as an award-winning author and former children’s librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library is both unique and enlightening.

1. Do you remember the hopes and expectations you had for The Higher Power of Lucky before you learned you’d won the Newbery Medal?

I’d scoured the depths of my heart in writing the book, which took ten years, and felt vulnerable in a way I’d never experienced before. I had decided that if Lucky didn’t do well, I’d return the advance for a sequel that was already in progress. I wasn’t consciously hoping for such a major award, but I did yearn for a positive critical response.

2. With your experience as a librarian, did you anticipate that using the word “scrotum” would prompt objections and challenges?

That response came as a huge surprise. It shocked me to discover that some school library personnel would be so fearful of anticipated complaints about an anatomical term. I was used to Los Angeles Public Library, which provides a large selection of materials for a very diverse community and encourages parents, not librarians, to determine what is suitable for their children (and only their children).

3. Were there complaints before the book won the Newbery?

No. And it’s interesting that in 1993 I had used the word “uterus” in my novel, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe, which targets an even younger reader. There were positive reviews and no objections. So why is uterus okay but scrotum not okay? I’d say that it was the combination of a major award juxtaposed with “scrotum” on page one that ignited the firestorm around Lucky. Those objecting seem to expect Newbery books to be “safe,” that is, not containing material that may make an adult uncomfortable.

4. Once the book did win and the controversy was prominently in the news, were you concerned personally about the consequences of the book being challenged and, possibly, banned?

It was ironic to find myself in the middle of a controversy after years of giving workshops for librarians on freedom of information and freedom of access for kids. Now my own book could serve as the practice case for staff training. I had this irrational urge to go around the country offering to give workshops on how to deal with challenges. But this was unnecessary: professional librarians embrace and defend freedom to read as a basic and profoundly important right in our society. My book is in excellent hands, and I’m very proud of the profession. Having said that, I have to add that there are no statistics or evidence to reveal cases where schools and libraries simply did not purchase the book, despite the award; this would be the most subtle and insidious form of censorship, and we don’t know whether or to what degree it occurred.

5. Did you and your publisher feel the controversy had a negative impact on school, library or retail sales?

Perhaps in some areas of the country; however, controversy is generally good for sales.

6. The book is still getting substantial coverage in the blogosphere. Do you get a lot of inquiries from the online media?

Yes; they’re forwarded through my publisher.

7. From your perspective as an author whose book has been challenged and as a former librarian who has defended other people’s books, what would you recommend to authors who are afraid that a book they’re writing may be controversial?

As writers we choose each word with care so that it conveys our specific meaning, mood, emphasis, style, etc. And we write with respect for the reader’s intelligence. We’re doomed if we permit the specter of censors or critics to enter our creative process. We must not let those crows of fear caw into our ears as we write, or we won’t hear the genuine inner voice that we need to access in order to write honestly and well. (See websites such as PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools) and Facts on Fiction for an idea of the many, many elements that may be considered offensive in literature for kids. My book was analyzed in great detail at the latter site, and although it’s not on the “bad content” list, it took hits for references to peeing, nudity (pictures on a calendar), tobacco and alcohol, a character having a bad attitude, divorce, death, and so on. Writers who believe that readers live in the same world we do must ignore those efforts to suck the life out of literature.

8. Where should authors turn for help on a censorship challenge?

The public library can provide many resources. I was supported by the American Library Association/Association for Library Service to Children, PEN, the SCBWI, the National Coalition Against Censorship. My publisher, Simon and Schuster, was supportive. And, of course, our own colleagues, other writers. I was enormously honored when Judy Blume, no stranger to controversy and an active fighter against censorship, told me that she hadn’t attended a Newbery Award banquet in many years, but she came this year in solidarity with me. It doesn’t get any better than that.