Aside from a single positive but brief review in Kirkus Reviews (2006) that labeled the novel “a small gem,” The Higher Power of Lucky received little critical or popular attention when it was first published in 2006. However, soon after the novel won the Newbery Medal, which drew the attention of school librarians, it became the object of considerable controversy. This began when a number of school librarians mentioned in online library forums that they had objections to the book’s language—specifically the use of the word scrotum on the book’s first and next-to-last pages—and might not carry it on their shelves. This led to considerable (and distorted) public discussion focusing on the book’s language, culminating in a full-page ad in The New York Times sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees defending the book. The controversy garnered so much attention that it was one of Library Journal’s top-ten stories for 2007. Since the controversy, the novel has become a kind of lightning rod for discussions of censorship, what children’s literature is for, and what makes children's literature good. Much of this discussion takes the form of letters to the editor staking out specific points rather than reviewing or discussing the novel in detail.
Reviews of the book that got past “the scrotum skirmish” (“Top 10,” 2007) have lavished praise on many aspects of The Higher Power of Lucky. Reviewers emphasize how well Patron evokes her characters (including their social class), her deft use of language, and the fact that, like Lucky, characters in other of Patron’s books are interested in and skilled at telling stories. The novel’s intense sense of place has been praised by several reviewers, with Elissa Gershowitz (2007) mentioning how the novel’s structure, with its many short chapters, is especially fitting for capturing the cycles of life in Hard Pan. Gershowitz also singles out Patron’s “meticulously crafted sentences,” and Francisca Goldsmith (2006) praises Patron’s tight plotting.