Profanity in Books for Teens 2.0

Judging by the response to my last post about swear words in young adult fiction, and thanks to all of the wonderful issues and perspectives that my readers brought up, I wanted to tackle profanity in books 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. Swearing in books was such a post and such an issue.

profanity in books, swearing in books
Profanity in books for teens: Does the word choice fit your story and characters?

Profanity in Books: A Perceived Divide

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.”

Same Concerns, Different Methods

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, profanity in books is gratuitous and unnecessary. Still… both groups care about the exact same thing, in the end. That’s worth thinking about.

It’s Not a Black and White Issue

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 in books) 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 and it’s okay for the author to choose those words.

The other side (anti-swearing in books) 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 profanity in books, 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.

If the Choice Fits…

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.)

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult editor.

51 Replies to “Profanity in Books for Teens 2.0”

  1. I am a middle school teacher. I teach above grade level 8th graders. When teaching a book I always air on the conservative side. Mostly because I don’t know the values of my students parents. (I like my job and I want to keep it) Anything that is taught for the whole class, I play it safe, or safeish. However books I recommend for free reading I’m willing to take a risk with. I can’t teach Paper Towns, but I can recommend it to mature readers in my class.

    As for my own writing, I don’t write for my students. I write for high school students. While kids are in my classroom, I do try to keep them safe, but open their eyes to the world around them. Once they are no longer my students, I’m not worried about what they read, as long as they are reading something.

    Although I will say this, I LOVE it when we are reading aloud and there is a curse word. Kids do one of three things.
    1) They censor themselves. “go to heck.”
    2) they check with me if it’s ok to say the word and then say it really fast, “gotohell”
    3) They say it REALLY LOUD because they’re allowed to curse in class. “GO TO HELL!!!!”

    Great post Mary!

  2. These posts have been a catalyst to dig deeper for me. Thanks all!

    Here’s the thing; I’m not sure it’s really a divide between the People Who Work with kids and People who Write for Kids.

    9 out of ten librarians I know come down on the “swearing is sometimes authentic and necessary” side. (Now, administrators? That’s a different story.)

    And I know plenty of writers who don’t so much as use the word “fart” in a novel.

    Maybe it’s a divide between People Who Don’t Like Swearing and People Who Think it’s Beside the Point.

    For me, I think it just boils down to fundamental philosophy. In my case, I want to choose my own words to write and my own words to read. And I want the same for others.

    And I know there’s a whole spectrum of opinions. To each his own.

    As a mom, it’s my job to keep the dialogue going with my son. I want to know what he’s reading and I want to talk about it, swearing or no swearing. I’m sure there will be books I won’t want him to read (at least yet.) But it’s not my job (or my right) to make those decisions for others.

    P.S. Just because a book is expletive free doesn’t mean it’s G rated. Conversely, just because a book has swear words, doesn’t mean it can’t be filled with noble things.

  3. Erinn and Jenny — I love hearing from teachers and librarians. I LOVE IT. You are on the front lines and can tell exactly what’s going on with the target market. Erinn, your story about how kids read profanities in class is FANTASTIC stuff. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Thanks Mary, being on the front lines is pretty amazing. If the kids don’t make you laugh at least once a day, then you need to quit teaching.

    The problem with books isn’t the content, but the reader. Mentally there is a HUGE different from a sixth grader verses a GT 8th grader. Personally I think there should be a separate section in the middle school media center for more mature readers. Mature readers should have access to the books, while we are still “protecting” the struggling readers.

    A mature reader can handle the curse words- in fact when students are doing book reviews often they will mention, “this book might not be for everyone because it has a few mature or adult situations and has lots of adult language, but the book was great and dealt with a lot of real life issues.” to echo what you said in your last post, kids are aware of what’s right and what’s wrong. They know what they are comfortable with and they know that not everyone would be comfortable with the same thing.

    BTW Congrats again on the writer’s digest mention!

  5. Glad that I could contribute the link. I don’t write YA, but the topic is fascinating. I was definitely in a household that was censored, so I never really was “allowed” to read things that were edgier growing up (at the time, that was Judy Blume, Stephen King, etc.). I recently read AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES and I was really irritated by the use of faux F-bombs. Either commit or don’t. If you are going to say “friggin” everyone knows what you really wanted to say. . .

    Anyone else on the use of faux swear words?

    Now that we’ve conquered swearing in YA, I’d LOVE to see Mary take on the issue of poop in PBs. . . . .

  6. My kids are both teens, oh actually, ones not anymore. He’s twenty. Argh. I learned pretty early on that keeping them from swearing was fighting a losing battle. In fact, the more I told them a word was “naughty,” the more delight they got out of using it.

    Instead, I focused on teaching them the appropriate places to swear, or not to. Maybe I was unsuccessful at keeping them from being potty-mouths, but at least I avoided embarrassment at family get-togethers, and that was enough for me.

    Some of my characters swear — so far mildly– because that’s the way they speak to me in my head. If I one day get a character who needs to drop an f-bomb, then they will. It’s just another word choice to make, yet another word that has to earn the right to be there.

  7. Erin. . . I’m glad to hear you say that about more mature MG books. I’m starting to write MG and my topic isn’t as humorous as a lot of younger MG tends to be. I wondered if my MS is going to be considered too serious, too real, too heavy because of some of the issues it addresses. I don’t see too much of that on the MG shelves — more humor, adventure, magical/fantasy stuff. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  8. I think there is more than just a divide about writing for kids and working for kids. I believe there’s also a dividing line between presenting “This is truth; it happens out there” and “This is a good thing which you should also be doing.” Sometimes writers presenting things as they are just reinforces that they’re normal… Normalizing things doesn’t always mean moralizing, but it does sometimes present things that are objectional as morally okay. I think it’s a fine edge to walk. I haven’t dropped swear words in my novel, but I have plenty of other issues in it that I’m sure someone, somewhere will be offended by.

  9. I so want to turn kids to the dark side… as Team America’s Kim Jong Il opined: “It’s inevitable.” 🙂

  10. I have taught many different grades (1st, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th). My general rule with the kids was that I knew they cursed, they knew I cursed, but we couldn’t do it in class. I find that I select books based on the honesty and relevence of the subject matter, rather than on the absence of swear words. I was more concerned about how a parent would react to their 5th grader reading a book where the MC tattooed her body (Green Angel) or cut herself (Cut) than I was about the few curse words we read.

  11. I’ve read your posts, Mary, and I have to chime in here.

    Most of us who write YA are NOT young adults. The fact is, times have changed (as they always do.) When I was growing up ‘crap’ and ‘pissed off’ were considered inappropriate, gay meant happy, and my mother washed my mouth out with soap for saying the word ‘queer’ (I had no idea what it meant. I heard my brother say it and I thought it sounded cool.)

    The word ‘shit’ was a shocker. The ‘F” word was absolutely the WORST word you could say. My peers and I would gasp aloud if someone dared say it. That is simply not the case anymore.

    To teens today, the “F’ word is just another word in their vocabulary. Do I like it? No. But is it a fact? Yes. Words that shock us more mature folks and what we consider to be inappropriate just rolls right over most teens. Would a teen giggle and blush if they read an F-bomb in a book as I would have reading Fart in fourth grade? Probably not.

    This whole discussion brings to mind when Pink Floyd’s MONEY was number one (1972) and the word “bullshit” was bleeped out when it played on the radio. We would all scream BULLSHIT at the appropriate time just for fun. Did the world end? No. Were our parents shocked? Yes.

    BTW, Pink Floyd is still my favorite band and I scream BULLSHIT when it comes up in the song. Then I smile.

  12. Elan Cross says:

    Mary, I disagree with your analysis that the anti-swearing camp is completely closed-minded, all the time. I re-read all the comments from the last post, and there were only a tiny percentage of commenters who were starkly against swearing. Even the ones who would never speak or write that way themselves often said they were ok with the occasional swear in the books they read. Most people on both sides seemed to be pretty open-minded, in my opinion.
    To play devil’s advocate, the quote below was taken right from one of the comments in the last post.

    “I personally hate when writers ‘make up’ swear words to get around this issue. When I read them, my inner teen starts with the eye rolling and often puts the book down.”

    I guess this scenario would be equivalent to an ‘anti’ putting down a book when they came across a word they didn’t like.

    Hmm. Maybe there are black and white thinkers on both sides. Just sayin’ 🙂

  13. I can attest to Bane’s thus far futile attempts to turn kids to the dark side. Especially through violent video games. (Kidding!!) 🙂

    Seriously, these were two excellent posts and speak to the broader issues of content in kidlit. Precisely because there are two perspectives and their cousins the Extreme Positions (“it’s the real world dude, deal with the cr*p” and “my children will forever be swathed in bubble wrap!”), is why I think there needs to be more content advisories on books. Common Sense Media.org does a great job with this, as I try to on Ink Spells for advanced middle grade readers. My post today talks about a great site with content advisories for TeenLit.

    Go forth and read! But parents need some help guiding kids along the way.

  14. Interesting stuff! I think it all boils down to character. If you have a conservative, very religious character, most likely you aren’t going to have them swear (or if they do, it’s a surprise) and the opposite goes for the rough, drug dealer who wouldn’t be using the words ‘crap’ or ‘flippin,’ if they want to sound “real,” or get any respect from the reader, right? Isn’t it about making the characters real and come to life on the page? Teens want real characters as much as adults, they are people too. (;
    That’s just my two-cents…

  15. I agree that there is a maturity issue at hand. The good news is that most kids self-censor what they understand. If they are not ready to read about sex, many of those references go over their heads. If they don’t want to “hear” themselves “read” the swear words, they will make their own substitutions.

    As a mom, a writer and a child advocate for at risk kids, I firmly believe that kids will read what interests them, understand what they are ready to understand and only use inappropriate examples from books if they are already heading down that path.

    Seriously, reading an f-bomb, in my opinion, is far less seductive and destructive than hearing it on the radio, on the school bus or from one’s parents. Yet we don’t ban parents from their kids. We don’t stand in the picket line outside the bus garage and we don’t throw out our radios.

    Like every other opportunity thrown our way, it’s a great time for parents/educators/caregivers/mentors to discuss real life issues with kids.

    And none of this changes the fact that as writers, we need to choose every word carefully–whether or not we choose to swear in the manuscript.

    Likewise, as readers, it is our choice to read a book or not for any of a thousand reasons. Yet it is never appropriate to foist our narrow-minded resoning on anyone else. Diversity is what makes the world go round.

  16. Great post, Mary. You tackled the issue head on and went right to the center.

    I’m still not a fan of curse words. Aside from the one time I said “shit” and got hot pepper in my mouth, they were never part of my reality as a child. But some of my favorite people do curse a lot, (vicarious enjoyment?) some of my favorite books use curse words, and some of them don’t.

    I don’t foresee myself using foul language in my writing, but at the end of the day it’s the way an author handle issues, how they portray sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. that make me say yay or nay to a book. The foul language may bug me, but it’s still an afterthought. What I care about is seeing things as they really are and how they really will be. That’s truth. That’s what I’m interested in.

  17. Well, here’s the deal from my view. I’m a new mom. Of a kid who curses (I adopted, folks, keep-up with me here). The deal is, kids curse. I cursed as a kid, mostly because my mom called every other driver on the road chicken-s****. I thought of cursing as a right of passage. And it was. When I became a YA, I thought “Yippee!” and one of the things I promptly started doing was using the F-bomb and other accursed language. It is real (and I say that emphatically). I respect the people that want to protect children from it. But I have three words for them: It’s just words. If we teach kids right, they will see that these words for what they are. They’re just words. Nothing more. Now, if we writers found a way to put dark and scary monsters in books to reach out and snatch children, that would be quite a different story.

    BTW, thank you, Bongo, for sharing your feelings about Mary. Being a daddy is a tough decision, but I’m sure that you will make the right decision for you, Mary and the children. How are the chincillas?

  18. Mary – There’s an added dimension for some of us beyond the should you or shouldn’t you argument……..those of us who are People Who Work With Kids AND People Who Write For Kids have to think about this ALL the time. I live in a VERY conservative suburb of a metropolitan area and I work with young children. If ever I am lucky enough to get published, a good number of folks in my area will recognize the name on the book and my reputation in my “day job” is somewhat at risk if my content is outside of what is expected of someone who is part of the People Who Work with Kids community. Whether to write characters who would use swear words as well as explicitness in regard to the romance in my YA material……it is limiting and frustrates me constantly. But the fact is, my reputation in my community pays my bills and as we all know, most writers need their day job! It’s tough!!!!!

    So I have to say, I personally think in the end, we all have to write from the heart and if a book is well written and has great voice, there is room on the shelf for the full continuum of %@*^!^#* characters. You didn’t think I’d really say it, did you? 🙂

  19. Hi, Mary. Thought-provoking stuff!

    What may be narrow-minded reasoning to some, may to others be guiding, thoughtful parenting, and yes, even protecting precious children that we hope and pray will take the best path for their lives. For some parents, that may involve weighing the benefits of a certain book, t.v. show, movie, etc. that a child should see or read. It’s not always based on fear; it’s often based on past experience which brings a certain degree of wisdom.

    One of the best things about America is our freedom of expression. As an elementary school teacher and librarian, I have no problem with people writing whatever they want (although I don’t have to like it!). Writers need to be aware that there are parents and educators who won’t buy it or read it for different reasons. And that’s okay, too.

    As an educator, I always tried to be respectful and sensitive to parents and their convictions, even if they weren’t mine. I expect nothing less from those teaching my children.

  20. “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.”

    Like Cara, I think this is a inaccurate view of the other side. That’s not at all what I got from the posts. People can write whatever they want, just as people are free to choose to buy and read whatever they want. It doesn’t mean they’re close minded if they avoid certain words that are offensive to them or that they feel are not in the best interest of their kids. It’s simply responsible parenting. I didn’t read any post that said all books with swear words are bad and all books without them are good, and I wouldn’t necessarily avoid “all” books with swear words in them. I just don’t care for the f-word and like to avoid it when I can.

    A book doesn’t necessarily have to use swear words to be authentic or mature or realistic or true. The fact is, some people don’t like them, just like people who don’t smoke, don’t want to breathe someone else’s second hand smoke. I think in a public setting, especially a professional one, it’s important to be considerate and respectful of those who don’t care for profanity.

  21. I think it is really important to remember that just as each of us as writers walk a different journey, the same is true of the teens who will read our material.

    I was an EXTREMELY sheltered kid growing up. Reading books that included more rough around the edges characters would have probably been a really good thing for me to be honest. College dorms and workplaces are not filled only with the white upper middle class suburban Catholics from the ‘burbs that I was surrounded by and having more exposure to books that exposed me to a broader range of “characters” would probably have been a really good thing for me.

    We live in a world that includes lots of people who think differently than we do. What safer way is there to explore the world, not just the world that our parents crafted for us in regard to choosing where we would live and where we would go to school and what the rules (or lack thereof) would be, but the real world.

    Books are not like movies, tv, or video games. They can be savored slowly and thoughtfully and in the comfort of our own minds or they can be buzzed through or skipped over if they make us feel uncomfortable. The reader has a much more active role in assigning the words meaning and giving them power because we bring our own experience and values to them. Actors were not selected for us. Tone of voice and facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication are not forced upon us at all times.

    While I would never let my teenage daughter date a potty-mouthed drug dealer, I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with her reading about one.

    What safer way is there to explore the world, really?

  22. Wow, this is a first for me. I’m not so sure I totally agree with you, Mary.

    The way you describe the two camps gives me a false impression – the pro-swearing camp sounds all easy-going, while the anti-swearing camp comes across as being dogmatic and absolutist.

    I think a lot of the anti-swearing folk genuinely believe that there is just TOO much of it in YA fiction. It’s not necessarily that they want there not to be a single swear word, ever, it’s just that they suspect that writers may use swear words without the careful consideration you describe. I also think that suspicion is probably correct. This reminds me of the discussions about sex in YA and also parents being absent/sick/dying – it often feels as though it’s overdone and everywhere, like you can’t write YA fiction without abuse, death, drugs, something or other big and awful in it. I think that’s what the anti-swear people are rebelling against.

    Funny thing is, I’m pro-swearing (going by your descriptions). I just think that you’ve presented a bit of a skewed picture of the pros and antis. I am probably on the fringes of the pro-swearing group – I think swearing can and should be done in YA books, but it should be used only when no other word or way of writing the scene will do. I think saying ‘if it fits’ is too lax a rule for me. So I guess I’m pranti-swearing?!

    PS Out of interest, are there any swear words/terms that you feel are off limits for YA? I can think of one word I never want to read in YA, even adult fiction, unless the purpose is to explain why no one should use the word! (It begins with a ‘c’ and has four letters.)

  23. PPS Is flippin considered a curse/swear word? I had no idea… I’ve probably been offending people left, right and centre! Does that mean bloomin’ is also a swear word? If so, I have a foul mouth on me.

  24. Franziska

    No one says flippin’
    No one says bloomin’ unless they are British, I think.

    In fact I find it more annoying when people use words like flippin’ because now I have to take a few seconds to translate like the author’s original intent.

  25. Mary, I’ve got to say, I loved your posts this week and all the comments. Isn’t it great we can have a place full of so much diversity? Love it.

    I didn’t get a chance to chime in in the last post, but I like how you’ve pulled the issue further apart. For me, well, I’m pretty liberal, and whatever words are in my characters vocabulary are going to be the words she/he chooses, whether it’s crap, shit, hell, ass, or you know, fuckity fuck. 😉 I’m not going to fail at being true to the character just to shield kids from words they are already completely aware of. I’m a parent, I’m heading towards my teaching degree, so I can see both points of views.

    I do agree it is close-minded for someone not to buy/rent/approve a book (for her child) because of a few swear words. That, to me, would almost be like sending your kid to school with earmuffs. Pointless. Kid’ll take ’em off at school. And, for a book, they’ll find another way to read it if they really want to, and forbidden fruit is always way more wanted anyway.

    I don’t, however, agree that the People Who Work With Kids all fall under one camp of being close-minded. There are definitely some out there, but I want to believe a lot of people under this category have a more “comfort factor” issue. I could be wrong.

    Either way, have enjoyed this topic, glad you brought it up! My respect-o-meter has gone up an extra 5 points 🙂 Have a great weekend!

  26. Mary, I’ve spent the past few days (minus my computer) worrying that the intent of my comment on the last post came across wrong. I didn’t intend to get up quite so high on my soapbox – I was just trying to explain the rationale behind my own perspective on this one. Sorry if I sounded at all judgemental – that was never my intention.

    As for discounting books due to language, I wouldn’t ever condemn an entire book based on one word but I will probably not choose to promote a book that contains swearing very frequently. (That’s not to say I won’t read them myself. I read widely and across many genres because I do believe I can learn something from every writer no matter how far removed they are from my own preferences and experiences.)

    I agree with your point about all of us having the same intentions. It appears to me to boil down to two things:

    Those that choose to represent their character’s world complete with swearing wish to be given credit for authenticity and not be told they are unimaginative because of the inclusion of swearing.

    Those that choose to represent their character’s world minus swearing wish to also be given credit for authenticity and not be told they are out-of-touch or old-fashioned or fuddy-duddy in their ways.

    Like most things in this world, it comes down to plain, ol’ fashioned respect 🙂

    Happy writing, everyone – four letter words or not!!

    (Oh, and I had to laugh about the comment someone made about writing picture books as it was very true and I do write picture books. However I don’t think that precludes me from writing a good YA book sometime in the future. It just might be stocked in the local Christian bookstore instead, and I know you’re talking about trade here.)

  27. I just want to start by saying that while I’m quite conservative, I’m not one of those book banning/burning parents. I firmly believe in parents teaching their children, and then letting them govern themselves. If parents have problems with their kids reading certain books, then it should be discussed.

    That said, I certainly understand that authors write what they want to write, but on the other hand, nobody ever says “It was a good book, but I really wish the characters had been fleshed out with more swearing.” Is the swearing really necessary? I don’t think so.

    I’m 95% more likely to recommend a good book without swearing, and 95% less likely to buy a book with it. Neither my kids (two of which are teens) nor I swear -ever- nor do we enjoy reading books with swears. Yes, we hear it an awful lot “in real life” but that doesn’t mean we like it, which makes it even better when we can read without having to worry about it. We LOVE to read! (Please don’t think that I look down on those who choose to swear. Hey, who am I to judge? Besides, my dad’s a construction worker if that tells you anything. He’s awesome…just wish he’d, um, experiment with some new words sometimes, hehe.)

    There are many fabulous authors out there, and I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t write an authentic character without the swearing. I would think that losing the profanity would make it a win/win situation for authors. You’re not going to lose readers because it’s missing, but you could gain a lot more by dropping it.

  28. Wow, these posts have generated a LOT of discussion. And it’s all good discussion, too 🙂

    I thought I’d weigh in as a teenager who writes YA, just to provide that teen perspective. I will be totally, 100% honest here: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t swear. Now, this may be because I’m Australian, but words like “hell” “damn” “bloody” “shit” “bastard” etc aren’t swear words to me (also, the f-bomb doesn’t really feel like a bomb). And my friends don’t consider them swear words either. So if you take those words out of the picture, yes I do know maybe one or two people who won’t say “fuck” (But different teens swear on different levels. For instance, one of my best friends says the f-word every second sentence, another friend says f-word only when under extreme pressure).

    It IS however true, that it’s your choice whether or not to use it in your book. I do, personally. Because it wouldn’t be true to ANY of my characters’ voices to not swear. I’m not trying to be edgy (because, seriously, teenagers DO NOT consider reading the f-bomb to be an edgy experience. It’s said all the time, it doesn’t have a great impact or anything) — that’s just how my characters are, and it’s just how I write. It sounds natural IN MY WRITING.

    Additionally, I think you DO lose readers by skirting around bad language. I have friends who refuse to read certain YA books because they think the voice isn’t “real”. They’ll read a page or two in the bookstore and put it down (of course there are other readers who’ll LOVE these books. There’s room for clean stuff, too you know? That’s one of the beautiful things about YA :))

  29. Erinn, I am British, so that’s why I say those things! I mentioned flippin’ because someone else did earlier on – maybe she’s British too? Is freakin’ seen as a swear word then?

  30. Diana Murray says:

    Great post. I have to refer back to the original quote:

    “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

    That says it all. I don’t think you can make a broad generalization about the use of swear words. It’s the author’s choice, and he/she will either use a swear word wisely or not (or not at all). It goes without saying that people don’t like gratuitous swearing, because that would be bad writing.

  31. Bongo, did you know that the word ‘crap’ derives from Mr Thomas Crapper, who invented the toilet? Not really a swear word at all, just some clever chap’s name!

  32. Oops, just checked – he didn’t invent it, but did a lot of PR for the invention, by the sounds of things!

  33. And that’ll teach me for posting too quick – just read it’s nothing to do with Crapper! It’s actually got various possible origins… I’ll shut up now.

  34. Thanks for the follow-up post Mary! You make an excellent point that People Who Write For Kids have good intentions towards their YA audience and are just trying to tell the truth, not “turn them to the dark side.” In getting to know the YA lit industry, I’ve found many, many authors who truly care about their young readers and want to help them get through the difficult teen years.

    I think the disconnect comes when People Who Work For Kids and the People Who Write For Kids honestly disagree on a particular issue. In that case, even if they both have the best intentions for kids, they’re going to disagree on what message should come across to the teens. If you have two camps, both with good INTENTIONS for what to teach the kids, but with different VALUES for what to teach them, then who gets to decide which value will be taught? This is often when parents put their foot down and say “I am the parent, and I get to decide that my child will/will not read a book that promotes X, Y, and Z, even if in the author’s view it is okay to promote X Y and Z.”

    Many parents abuse this privilege and go waaayyyyy too far in trying to protect their children from the stuff of life. But not all of them. Some parents/teachers/administrators/librarians will only censor what they consider to be the most extreme, or will only censor their younger children but not the older ones, etc. In any case, at the end of the day, it is the parents’ place to provide some amount of guidance to their teens. I think there is too much criticism against parents who try to do that. Even when they mess up and are too protective, they are doing it with their teens in mind—just like authors are writing with the teens in mind. 🙂

    Rachel Heston Davis

  35. We actually had a similar thread going on verla’s blueboards awhile back about whether writers encourage bad behavior by showing drugs/sex/drinking/self-mutilation/whatever in their books. I’m going to steal Maggie Stiefvater’s response and echo “Suffice it to say I disagree with this so much it gives me an ulcer.”

    I think Stephen King says it best in the book On Writing:

    My mother, God rest her, didn’t approve of profanity or any such talk; she called it the language of the ignorant. This however, did not keep her from yelling “Oh shit!” if she burned the roast or nailed her thumb a good one while hammering a picture hook in the wall. Nor does it preclude most people, Christian as well a heathen, from saying something similar (or even stronger) when the dog barfs on the shag rug or the car slips off the jack…

    He then goes on to talk about how readers can suss out when an author puts words in a character’s mouth instead of letting him say what he wanted to say. Like King (though I haven’t read most of his stuff) I feel like writing is more of a transcription process, where I dream up characters, put them in a situation and then simply take down what they do and say. Maybe that sounds a little schizophrenic…I don’t know.

    For those of you who refuse to let your children read profane books (really, books with violence or crass behavior are okay, but swearing is going to debase them??) it saddens me to tell you that you’ll be denying them the awesome “Going Bovine,” by Libba Bray–a book that encourages learning about Don Quixote, physics, medicine, jazz, dwarfism. A book that makes readers think about life and family and what’s really important at the end of the day. As a reviewer of YA lit for the-trades.com, “Going Bovine” is the best book I’ve read in YEARS. And it is LADEN with swear words from beginning to end, because MC Cameron is a teenage boy, and guess what, 95% of teenage boys curse.

    And if you think yours don’t, and if you think they don’t hear the words when you drop them off at Toy Story 2 and they sneak into something R rated, well, you’re delusional I’m afraid.

    Great topic Mary!!!

  36. We’re all different for a reason. How boring would these posts be if everyone had the same values and opinions?

    I’ve enjoyed reading through these posts and seeing how diverse we are (though Bongo’s brief biography boggles my brain).

    I’m also pleased with how civil we can be with such a tough topic.

    Mary said, “I would argue that the People Who Write For Kids . . . 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.”

    This is what it all boils down to. Authors write from their own experiences. Some authors used profanity in their youth, others didn’t. Therefore, it is no surprise that we find this reflected in the books we find on the shelves.

    I don’t believe there is one right way to write anything. For example, if I gave a group of authors the words “truth,” “castle,” and “Bongo” they’d each write a completely different story. Though the three words would be incorporated into the story, they would not be done so in the same way. None of them would be “wrong” in their approach to the writing.

    No matter who you are, teen, parent, teacher, librarian, etc. if you don’t like something you read, put it down.

    It doesn’t make someone less of an author because they don’t want to write profanity. Nor does it make someone more of an author if they DO. It just makes us different, and that’s okay.

    It’s more than okay; it’s necessary. 🙂

  37. Sorry to be off subject, but Bongo, I’m sure you would be great at driving a minivan. Just maybe not Mary’s.

    Great glimpse into the mystery that is Bongo though. lol

  38. Hmmmm….Really, I just keep wondering if Bongo and Mary are every going to hook up?? That story was riveting, yet so incomplete. So, what’s the verdict Mary?

  39. I spend a lot of my time dealing with such issues. As a fourth grade teacher, I find that the kids deal with occasional language that pops up in books pretty well. They run to tell me about it, and I say, “Is that word new to you?” and they say, “No, my dad says it all the time.” I often send a note to parents to check for those who have strong feelings on the topic and so I can give their kid a different book- but no one has ever objected. The notes I receive are extremely supportive. Honestly, am I going to not teach Maniac Magee because of a little language? That would be criminal.

    In the YA novel I’m writing, I let the characters say what they want, drink what they want, and sleep with whomever they want. I’m around teenagers all the time, and their habits are much more adult than they’re parents might want to admit. So, can’t we make our themes and morals appropriate to their lives?

    In my adult life, I have a blog in which I use whatever language seems appropriate, but I have to write it under another name. I have to try to avoid parents or kids finding this part of my writing life because I could be fired. Surprisingly, when a parent does stumble across the blog, they totally get it and wait for a private moment to tell me they’re a fan.

    There are always going to be those who freak out over a bit of language. My teacher self wishes Spinelli had skipped the word ‘pisshole’ so I wouldn’t have to jump through hoops to teach his book. The writer in me appreciates his use of the word- it fits the scene perfectly.

    Maybe it’s just time to admit that people swear. No need to force it, not need to run from it.

  40. About this whole Bongo thing…

    I don’t know who Bongo is. He’s not, as far as I know, someone I am personally acquainted with, because a lot of people have asked me that.

    Also, I don’t currently have ANY children, so I don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.

    Finally — and this is a personal note to Bongo — I do have a “delete comment” button. In this thread, you’ve started saying unpleasant things about my blog readers. I’m all about some humor but if the insults going to be a trend, I’d rather moderate your comments or block you altogether than alienate people who are here to talk about the topic at hand.

    I know I’d never insinuate a relationship or “intimacies” with a complete stranger, especially on their website. That crosses a line that I’m not really comfortable with.

  41. It’s funny – I feel like I am in the anti-swearing camp simply because I don’t do it myself & I don’t prefer it, but the statement that most fits me is “It’s okay to have swearing in a book, if it fits” – your pro-swearing slogan.

    We all have different thresholds for what we find offensive. Some are offended by swear words. Some are offended when they see a white character on the cover of a book with a non-white protagonist. Slurs of all kinds — the very definition says that they are insulting remarks, but some are not bothered by them, even if they are in the group that is meant to be offended. Who are we to say that those who ARE offended are “wrong”? I’d agree that it’s wrong for them to impose their beliefs on others, but they are certainly entitled to feel what they feel and even express those feelings.

    I think there’s a HUGE difference between not recommending a book with swear words in it and actual censorship or banning. My oldest daughter reads far above her grade level and has for some time now. We often look for books in the teen section, but I am careful about what I recommend to her. There are just SO many choices out there – if something is a little off-color to me, chances are great that I’ll find another terrific choice that is not at all off-color. When she gets to middle school, I’ll feel more comfortable recommending some of these other books. But I have not yet run out of great books to recommend that don’t have a lot of swear words.

    That being said, if SHE were to choose a book that’s a little off-color — well, then, that’s okay with me. It would have to be really bad for me to actually take it away from her, and I’ve never had to do that.

    Maybe you think I’m being too restrictive. It’s likely your neighbor thinks I’m not being restrictive enough. In the end, I do what works for me and my daughter. Hers is the only opinion that matters.

    Thanks so much for the link to Gayle Forman, KellieD. IF I STAY is one of my very favorite books!

  42. Mary, I usually hate this, but I feel compelled to clarify —

    My “your” as in “your pro-swearing slogan” refers to Mary. But then I switch to “you” later as in “maybe you think” – and that’s a general “you” — SOMEONE is bound to think I’m too restrictive with my current policy with my children!

    This always reminds me of the importance of reading your ms in a different way — i.e. on a printout, or a different computer. Things always pop out at you that didn’t when you proofread in your original software!

  43. Erica Olson says:

    Mary – I don’t know why I’m adding to the Bongo discussion, but FYI – there was a post in the previous swearing discussion by someone named Mary who referenced her two children. I’m sure the rest of us knew it wasn’t you by the absence of the kidlit icon and the fact that you could click on her name and go to an entirely different blog. As for the post, I commented in the last discussion. Swear words are what they are. No more, no less.

    (Oh yeah, Franz – I think I not only heard that Crapper invented the toilet, but I’m pretty sure I’ve contributed to spreading the rumor. Shit.)

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. Erica Olson says:

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

  47. Kate Ternus says:

    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.

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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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