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>Did she just say what I think she did?

>Sparked by the Speak drama, the Tea Cozy asks the question, “what would you do if someone used your review as ‘proof’ that a book shouldn’t be in a library or a classroom?” and there’s a good discussion in the comments.

My own touchstone for this question is Judy Blume’s Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, in which the word fucking appears once. I know that there are school and public libraries that would not want this book on their shelves because of that single vulgar utterance (by a troubled character, by the way, in case you thought Blume was cussing out her readers or something). But should a review mention it? On the one hand, I can’t think of a review reader who would mind having that pointed out, whether because it stopped them from buying the book, made them aware of potential controversy, or made them even more eager to read it. On the other, in a two-to-three-hundred word review, would quoting that word give its presence in the book undue weight? Or, by omitting any mention, am I trying unfairly to get people to buy the book? (This also happens when a reviewer substitutes the word meditative for the word boring when reviewing a book by a friend or admired author.) In the Blume case, I decided not to mention it because it did not seem fair to the book as a whole. Any book review has responsibilities in two directions–to the book in hand and to the audience of the review. Sometimes these interests can conflict and you have to come down on a side.

On the way to work today I was listening to Shirley Bassey’s latest recording, The Performance. I do love Dame Shirley–have you heard her cover of Pink’s “Get This Party Started?” Majestic. I’m listening to the second track, “The Apartment,” and start chuckling at its work-related (and beautifully enunciated) lyric:

I’m running away from Cinderella
don’t want to go to Rapunzel´s hairdresser
Get me outta this
This, this here fairytale
According to me dreams are hell

Set to a catchy Latin beat, it’s fun, right? But then I hit the second verse:

I don’t want to kiss that faggot froggy
don’t want to fall in love . . .

WHAT? It kind of put me off the whole thing. Even after (actually I suppose I mean to top it all off) I discover it was written by super-gay Rufus Wainwright, the levels of irony, unreliable narration, etc. in the usage just make me work too hard to enjoy the fucking song.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Had this problem with the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing. Yes, I understand that this is "in character" and yes, I think the listener is supposed to see this as shameful.

    Still can't listen to the song with any pleasure.

  2. >The same do-I-point-it-out problem arises in bookselling. Do we point out the word "jackass" on the last page of It's a Book and suggest that readers can substitute "donkey" if it matters to them? If we don't mention the issue, will loyal customers become angry receipt-wielders when they reach the last page?

  3. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    >As a former educational media specialist, I do believe we need to have some standards in selecting and recommending books to children and teens. However, I am not in favor of censureship per se. So saying, my new YA novel, STACY'S SONG, does not have profanity or sex scenes. So I suppose I do impose a form of censureship as an author.

  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >Shoshana, your It's a Book example is interesting–several librarians have told me that they won't buy the book because of the punchline. Is the problem name-calling (Marshall's The Stupids ran into this) or is it the mildly vulgar jackass?

    But parents who can't read through a picture book at a bookstore deserve what they get. 😉

  5. Lyle Blake Smythers says:

    >My goodness. Are people unaware that sometimes "ass" means "butt" and sometimes it means "donkey"? Or maybe they don't care. Perhaps they are alarmed that some people will confuse the two meanings, or perhaps be moved to think about words. Have they asked that their library remove its copy of Elizabeth Levy and Mordecai Gerstein's Something Queer at the Library, which has nothing to do with sexuality? Lord, give me strength.
    Lyle Blake Smythers

  6. >To be fair, all the brouhaha I've personally seen over It's a Book has been among gatekeepers deciding where to shelve it and how to sell it. (We have it quietly shelved among the picture books and more prominently displayed among the gift books.) But I suspect that a few parents and grandparents might have knee-jerk reactions to the "profanity."

  7. >This is such a tough call. Often, I've noticed that reviews in journals which cater to a mostly school clientele will spoil the plot of the book to let people know how a difficult topic was handled (for example, the SLJ review of my book Breaking Point, which dealt with a school bombing, said something to the effect that "no one gets hurt"). This can be a good thing because it let potential buyers of the book know that the author dealt with an issue responsibly, or not. Similarly, I would think school librarians need to know that Speak is a book about rape. In either case, the intended buyer might actually be *more* likely to buy the book because of the spoiler, if it fit that library's needs.

    But there's that other sort of stuff, like a certain famous scene in Looking for Alaska. Should that be mentioned? I would imagine educators, particularly those in religious schools, really do need to know about such issues. But it is so hard to do this because it's not the same reviewer reading every book. So a liberal reading Looking for Alaska might not comment on the sex, while I've seen reviews from conservative reviewers that make fairly mild books sound like smut. That's really not fair, and it seems to happen most often with first-time authors (for whom reviews are that much more important since they have no readership), where the reviewer didn't know what to expect. Reviewers know that Chris Crutcher's books contain the F-word, so they don't mention it, but they might mention milder language in a new author's book.

    And everyone's standards are different. I might not have a problem with my kids reading a book with the word, jackass, in it while others think that "stupid" is a bad word, So unless there is some kind of uniform standard, such as that the particular journal *always* mentions the presence of certain swear words or thorny issues, it's hard to do. But then, you're getting into a whole "counting up the swear words" mentality, which considers the parts of the book over the whole. And, as you said, the review is only so long.

    My gut reaction is that, if the language or issues are surprising in light of the age range of the book (Rachel Robinson being a reasonable example), they probably should be mentioned. If, otoh, the reviewer is already saying that a book is for high school, I wouldn't think a few swears or the presence of a controversial topic should be much of a shock.

  8. >Lyle, I love the "Something Queer" series, especially the illustrations! I thought I'd seen one of them with an edited title within the last few years (can't recall what replaced "queer"), but an internet search doesn't come up with anything.

    I'd love to see the two girls from the series as a cute teen lesbian couple solving mysteries in high school. But I don't imagine Elizabeth Levy is goin' there. Somebody else needs to write such a series (beyond Nancy Drew slash).

  9. Lyle Blake Smythers says:

    >Moira, thank you for brightening my day. When I posted I was thinking of the challenges provided by multiple meanings of words, and the power of language, but the idea of Nancy Drew slash made me scream at my keyboard. (Scream with laughter, I hasten to add).

    Those unfamiliar with this genre may be enlightened by going to

    Lyle Blake Smythers

  10. MotherReader says:

    >This type of issue is exactly where I see the strength in blog reviews, because we can and will go where reviews in professional journals may not. Whether that's to help librarian and booksellers in buying the book for their collection, or just in educating them as to the book's content for reader's advisory.

    I've been talking about "It's a Book" on for that reason. I saw the book in F&G, and then was annoyed that the book trailer – by leaving out the end – presented a book that everyone was calling "adorable." Throw in the ending of "It's a book, jackass." and we're talking about a different kind of book or target age group altogether. Yes, I understand that a book trailer is not the whole book, but this felt more like a bait n' switch. I think that's the sort of information people should have when choosing a book for a collection or personal use.

  11. Roger Sutton says:

    >Elizabeth Levy DID write a youngish YA with a gay subplot, Come Out Smiling. I had to laugh when the catalog copy said "from the author of the popular Something Queer . . . series."

    I think any review, blog- or otherwise, should mention the "jackass" that closes It's a Book (although I don't think you can hold a book trailer to the same standard). But also, MR, that blog reviews "can and will go" where professional reviews don't is not necessarily a good thing. I could start a blog (or a magazine, for that matter) that gave page numbers for every hell, damn, shit or fuck I found in a children's book and I guarantee you lots of people would find that useful. Doesn't make it the right thing to do.

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