The shocking final word — I declare a contest.

Some librarian got her knickers in a twist about the word “scrotum” appearing in the latest Newbery award-winning children’s novel:

“The Higher Power of Lucky” is the story of a 10-year-old girl in rural California and her quest for “Higher Power.” The opening chapter includes a passage about a man “who 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.”

Librarians have been debating whether “scrotum” was an appropriate word for young readers, especially from a book with the Newbery seal.

Librarians Debate Award-Winning Novel

What’s funny is that people were not shocked by the appearance, in a children’s book, of a passage about a man drinking half a gallon of rum while listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his Cadillac. Instead, they are shocked by the very last word.

So I propose a challenge. Try writing a really shocking sentence that could appear in a children’s book, and cap it off with an ordinary English word, but do it in such a way that ignorant people will get outraged about the final word and completely ignore the sentence preceding it.

Some examples to get you started:

“My kid sister Veronica used to hang out by the train tracks, letting the hoboes feel her up in exchange for swigs of whiskey from their canteens, but stopped after one of them died of angina.”

“I spent the morning of my junior high school graduation binging on Ho-Hos and puking them back up by sticking my finger down my throat and tickling my uvula.”

“My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Festerhazen, was a drunk, couldn’t spell, taught Creationism in class, and when it came to giving out grades, he was really niggardly.”

I’m sure you can do better. In fact, let’s make this a contest. Post your examples in the comments here. I’ll give a copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator — a rollicking, entertaining, flawed, and quite politically incorrect sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — to the best entry posted here before midnight on February 28, 2007. As a bonus: If you are a writer and get a similarly offensive sentence into a published children’s book, send me a copy and I’ll buy you a half gallon of fine rum plus a Johnny Cash CD.

The shocking final word — I declare a contest.


Clara came home from the library yesterday with a copy of The Brain, by Seymour Simon. Last night she and I sat on the couch as she flipped through the book, showing me what the brain looks like dissected, in MRI, in models. I pointed out different parts of the brain. Karen quizzed her on the cerebrum and the cerebellum.

Then Clara stopped on one page and just started reading. She read a sentence and a half almost entirely by herself, then finished the second sentence with only a little prompting from me (on words like “nerve,” “impulse,” and “response”). This is as much as I’ve ever seen her read at one go, and I was amazed and impressed.

Then she stopped. “Daddy, can I taste a brain some day?”

No, honey, I hope not.

“Zombies eat brains.”

Why yes, yes they do.

“BRAAAAAINS!” she moaned, coming at me like a zombie. She put her hand on my head. “My hand is an octopus! It’s eating your brain!”

Uh oh! Now I’m a zombie! Let’s get Mommy!

“BRAAAAAINS!” we both moaned as we lurched over to KJ to eat her brain.

Then I chased Clara upstairs to get into her jammies, moaning “Braaaaains!” the whole way.

Where do kids get this stuff, I wonder?


The Earth Prize.

Richard Branson has set up a $25 million prize for the first person who can come up with a workable way of removing a billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year.

It’s a clever idea, offering a big prize as an incentive to spur innovative research. Big purses like this (or the X-Prize, which offered $10 million for the first private suborbital space flight) attract a much wider range of innovators than most R&D projects do, for the simple fact that the barrier to entry is lower. To get a $500K DARPA research grant requires serious credentials and a solid academic or industrial R&D track record. But if you’ve got a great idea for how to build a new kind of rocket, the only barriers are your own abilities and resources.

What’s more, it probably costs Branson far less than $25 million to set up this prize. He’ll probably have put up a nominal amount, with the balance to be covered by an insurance policy from an underwriter who is betting that no one will be able to solve the challenge by the deadline. So there’s another incentive for the winner: You’ll be taking money from a rich bastard and an insurance company that bet against humanity’s ability to solve global warming.

Branson’s prize will probably attract all kinds of wild-eyed inventors and innovators, some of whom may actually have interesting ideas. And it will undoubtedly also draw heavyweight competitors who might even spend more than they’re likely to make from the prize, just for the prestige of having won it — and because an innovation like that could be very, very valuable economically. If you’ve got a system for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, you could make far more than Branson’s $25M by selling it to governments or to companies that want to (or need to, depending on government regulations) reduce their carbon emissions.

Incidentally, my personal favorite solution to global warming — nuclear winter — is not going to qualify, because although it would offset the warming, it doesn’t do anything about CO2. Alas. Neither would the proposal to put up giant orbiting space mirrors in order to block out some of the sun’s light. To win Branson’s prize, you actually have to remove some of the CO2 that his jets belch into the air.

The deadline for entries is 2010, although it could be extended to 2012 if no one comes up with a solution by then. So put on your thinking caps, people!

The Earth Prize.