Swear Words in YA Fiction 2.0

Judging by the response to my last post about swearing, and thanks to all of the wonderful issues and perspectives that my readers brought up, I wanted to tackle this issue again. I’m serious when I say that posts about controversial issues always force me to delve deeper into my own understanding, thanks in no small part to the feedback I receive. This was such a post and such an issue. (If you haven’t read the Gayle Forman link recommended by KellieD, about swearing in her novel, IF I STAY, check it out here…)

It seems to me that there’s a perceived divide in more conservative thinking about the People Who Work With Kids and the People Who Write For Kids. Let me explain. The People Who Work With Kids — parents, teachers, librarians, administrators, PTA boards — think of it as their sacred duty to protect kids from harm and to usher them into the real world. That’s great. There’s no more important duty. But sometimes, some groups of People Who Work With Kids are in friction with another group of people… the People Who Write For Kids. It’s usually over content in a book, whether it’s language, sex, drugs, a religious idea, or whatever.

But if you really think about it, the People Who Write For Kids aren’t very different from the People Who Work With Kids (a lot of People Who Write For Kids also happen to be People Who Work With Kids). Children’s book pioneer and genius editor Ursula Nordsrom (who edited RUNAWAY BUNNY, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and most of what we think of today as “the classics”) once said that:

“The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

I would argue that the People Who Write For Kids are doing just this when they tell their stories. They are telling the truth about their own experiences of being a kid (or their characters’ experiences) and they are doing it with the intention of giving other kid readers something to relate to, something to resonate with, something to help them prepare for their own moments of joy and tragedy as they enter the real world.

In my line of work, I have met thousands of people who write books for kids, published and not. All of the published authors I talk to want to tell kids stories that are true, authentic, that reflect the real world as the author sees it. None of these authors have bad intentions. None of them want to scandalize kids, corrupt them or turn them to “the dark side,” whatever that might be. Getting published in children’s books is hard enough for people with good intentions. I’d be very surprised if anybody managed to succeed with rotten intentions at their core. So what’s the disconnect?

It seems like People Who Work With Kids and People Who Write For Kids have the same concerns at heart (kids), but their methods disagree. For example, for some People Who Write For Kids, swearing is a daily part of life as a teenager, and therefore fits under the category of “telling the truth.” For some others, both People Who Write For Kids and People Who Work With Kids, swearing is gratuitous and unnecessary. Still… both groups care about the exact same thing, in the end. That’s worth thinking about.

Now, back to my perspective. I still stand by what I said. As a literary agent, all I care about is the manuscript and the writing. If a swear word is in character, in voice, and if it is a choice, I’m just fine with it.

The frustrating thing about this debate is that one side (pro-swearing) says: It’s okay to have swearing in a book, if it fits. That side isn’t saying that every book must absolutely have swearing in it. This side is just saying that sometimes swearing happens in YA fiction and it’s okay for the author to choose those words.

The other side (anti-swearing) says: There shall be no swearing in any of the books I buy/publish/stock/teach/show my kids/support, not ever.

I happen to disagree with people who are close-minded about swear words, but that is my opinion and I don’t expect everyone to agree all the time. I do not believe, personally, that one swear word makes a book wholly bad for that reason, nor that a person who swears is wholly bad. Nor is a book devoid of swear words wholly good for that reason, or a person who abstains from swearing wholly good. This black-and-white view on the issue makes me uncomfortable.

But it’s obviously a powerful and contentious issue for many, and one I’m REALLY glad I dove into with this blog. I realize that my last few lines of the previous post may have offended some readers. I do not apologize for my use of that particular word, but I do apologize for the offense it may have caused to some of my readers. Know that it was nothing personal. Still, that’s the word I used and it was a choice. I think it’s important to draw this distinction. If you read through my archives, you’ll see that the word has never appeared in one of my articles before, nor will it appear again unless I have very good reason to use it. (I’m looking at YOU, Bane.)

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  1. Bongo’s avatar

    Surely there should be a limit to how many Marys can contribute to one blog. There’s only one Bongo, Franz and Erica.

    Yes, I’ve decided: The Marys should definitely discuss this and one of them must change her name. I’m partial to Mustafa. But perhaps this should be put to a vote.

    Or, since Erica is all knowing, perhaps she should decide the new name. Crapper perhaps?

  2. Toni’s avatar

    Mary, your post has come in the nick of time. As someone who has worked with kids as well as written for kids, I struggled with this issue in my first published novel as well as the writing I continue to create. The MC of my MG gives her father “gator powder” so that he will fall asleep, giving her the opportunity to run away (he’s abusive and works as a gator wrestler in the Everglades). Though I thought I’d catch lots of flack for this, countless students who have read my book (it’s taught in my district) have never metioned the gator powder once when I go in to do a book talk with them! Neither do the teachers who teach the book. Instead, the kids key into my main character’s feelings of abandoment and helplessness and her ultimate victory.

  3. Toni’s avatar

    P.S.: Though I didn’t specify swearing as the bad behavior, my opinion is that if the shoe fits your character they must wear it.

  4. Erica Olson’s avatar

    Bongo – If you’re still around, I’m adding the “Erica is all-knowing” part to the bio of my query. Thanks for it.

  5. Kate Ternus’s avatar

    Sometimes, an occasional hell or damn just flies out of a character’s mouth. Call it heat of the moment, or natural to that character, there it is. Even so, to clean it up and substitute a euphemism makes it still a swear word…and, if it’s quite obviously a substitute, well, it’s an even bigger swear word since an adult has obviously tried to pain it out like grafitti on a wall.

  6. Kris Dinnison’s avatar

    I have been a person who works with kids and a person who writes for kids. I know that putting swearing (or sex, or drugs, or violence, or religion, or….) in a book may mean some people won’t buy it. But if the swearing feels more true to a character than not swearing, I leave it in.

  7. Mariah’s avatar

    I happen to be a teenager so I have a little more exposure to the real language used by teens. Especially when not being hounded by overprotective parents. I myself don’t swear to excess, but I’m the exception. Even I, who’s nicknamed “saint” in school, drop a curse word if I’m upset or wish to punctuate my point. I also suggest you stop comparing yourself to teens today. It’s a new world and generation. Curse words are losing their taboo status. It’s ridiculous to say that you can write around a word correctly. Honestly. You’re not being true to your character so why even bother to continue writing? You obviously don’t like the character you’re writing for. It messes the flow up and fractures the thought process of the reader. I, for one, am left for at least five paragraphs after that ruminating over the actual word that would authentically be there. As for you parents, I’m honestly sorry to say, but your kids are going to hear them anyway. It doesn’t matter how hard you strong arm them and monitor them. They ARE going to see it, hear it, and say it at some point. The point of growing up is being exposed to things and then learning how you want to implement that into your own life. By limiting you child’s world they aren’t going to be prepared when faced with it. My opinion is. Grow the flying monkeys up please. (see my point?) Cursing is a part of life and sure it’s going to turn off some readers, but if used correctly in most cases it will be read by without a thought. Have a little faith in your children and the way you’ve raised them or they will eventually start to resent you… So I restate my point. Grow the fuck up please…your children and readers will thank you.

  8. Deborah Taylor-French’s avatar

    Excellent topic and points to define and defend when swearing can or should appear in Kidlit. In my middle grade (9-12) novels, some characters swear. But when and what the swear words coming out depend the the exact moment, the character’s level of dis-control, anger or outrage.

    In my final draft of books I, II and III of Dog Leader Mysteries, I have my main character pick up and use some of the “Hell fire” & “Damnation” spit at her from the main antagonist. In this final revision, no one is present when she blasts the night in a rage that the bad guy has disappeared, just when she’d witnessed him getting arrested. Turns out someone made bail for him.

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