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Is it okay to curse in MG books?

Uncategorized

Yes! Cursing is fine. HARRY POTTER is loaded with curses. But, actually, I’m going to discuss cursing in this post… not cursing. I mean using bad words.

When I decided the topic for my next entry would be “Profanity in Middle Grade Books”, I was certain I’d find a bleep load of information. Or, at the very least, a long bleeping list of MG books overflowing with curse words.

Nope. It was actually a bleeping struggle. Turns out most MG books are pretty clean. As far as I”m concerned, that’s a good thing!

I’ve always been fascinated by curse words. It just seems strange that you can arrange a few letters one way and it’s okay, but rearrange them another way… oh, boy! For example, no one has a problem if I say or write “hits”. But take those same letters and make a different word and you’ll have the FCC coming at you like Pop-Eye after eating a can of radioactive spinach.

And sometimes cursing might not be cursing. Look at this scene:

Harvey asked his brother, “Billy? You want to play Lincoln Logs?”

Billy answered, “I can’t. I’ve got to do that dam report.”

Harvey gasped, “You just said a bad word.” Harvey ran downstairs, told his mom, and Billy was forced to eat LAVA soap (the worst tasting off all soaps).

Is Billy innocent? It depends. I mean, he did say “dam”. But that’s not really a swear word. Maybe Harvey knows that Billy’s report is about “clowns”, not “dams”. I know, I know, it’s confusing. And I’m getting off topic.

The point of this post is the use of foul language in Middle Grade books. And I think it’s fairly obvious there really is no place for cursing in MG books.

I just finished reading ARCHVILLAIN by Barry Lyga (which I enjoyed, by the way) and “poop” was as bad as it got in that book.

I think it works better to weave a story around the swear words. Like – Dad put on the wig, cursing under his breath – is all that’s needed to get the point across.

Or better yet, make up your own curse words or phrases. One of my favorite examples occurs in the movie SPY KIDS 2. The young girl spy senses trouble and says, “Oh… shitake mushrooms.” My kids giggled like crazy after that. So if you think you need to use a curse word in your middle grade writing, try to be creative.

Here’s some advice from Middle Grade Novel Guidelines: Writing for the Tween Market http://www.suite101.com/content/middle-grade-novel-guidelines-a36689#ixzz17jPjDmCR

Beware of strong language in your middle grade novel. You may wish to use profanities because a particular character demands it, but at this age, parents and teachers are still very protective. Teachers also beg writers not to include foul language because then they can’t read that book in class. If you must include it, be aware that it may limit the book’s marketability, both with editors and with the public.

You know the book BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson. It’s a Newberry Award Winner. But it was red flagged and challenged by several school districts for profanity. The Novel THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY by Susan Patron faced similar issues.

Here’s a quote from a librarian: If it’s a great story, I’ll allow minor swear words like “bleep” if it contributes to the character development.

I think this is good advice. But where is that list of “minor” swear words at?

Bottom line: If you want your MG book to make it into school libraries, try to keep it clean.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Alyson  •  Dec 12, 2010 @5:31 pm

    I am an educator and I have to agree with you about keeping it clean in Middle Grade. Especially since there are advanced readers in first and second grade reading MG as well and if you think parents of upper Middle Grade are still protective…they are even more so with younger children. However, I thought The Higher Power of Lucky was amazing as well as Paterson’s books (Great Gilly Hopkins also has profanity). I will still read them aloud but I either make a word substitution when reading aloud or depending on the age of the group I might have a classroom discussion about why it was included, etc. What I have found is when you have an honest class discussion and hold them accountable for what is used in a book vs. what is acceptable at school in general, students want to be seen as responsible and honor the book/request.

    Regardless it is critical to know your students and families. Thanks for a great post.

  2. brian_ohio  •  Dec 12, 2010 @5:37 pm

    Thanks for the nice comment, Alyson. Since I’m not a teacher, it never occurred to me how much trouble a curse word could cause when read aloud.

    I think both of your solutions have merit, but lets hope you rarely have to use them.

  3. Sayantani DasGupta  •  Dec 12, 2010 @6:37 pm

    As a mom of a big reader 8yo who is often reading above his grade level let me say THANK YOU — it’s hard enough to find content that’s appropriate without curse words making things even more complicated. And I for one think “shitake mushrooms” is hilarious – I love those made up curses! (wonder if there’s a list of some good ones from recent books? Maybe we should try to compile one here at Mixed Up Files…)

  4. Joy Corcoran  •  Dec 12, 2010 @6:45 pm

    Don’t forget the Fantastic Mr. Fox’s solution which was to say the word cuss instead of actually cussing. What the cuss? It was charming and funny.

  5. Amy Fellner Dominy  •  Dec 12, 2010 @10:15 pm

    I read this post with interest. My first book, OyMG, comes out next year and hurdles the fine line between MG and YA. When it seemed as if my book might be marketed more toward middle grade, my editor was careful to have me remove any questionable words — including the word “crap.” I hadn’t realized that would be offensive for 5th or 6th graders, but I was impressed about how careful the publisher wanted to be. As it turned out, my book shifted a bit to a slightly older audience — 7th grade and up — and the “crap” went back in. :-)
    Thanks for a great post!

  6. Amie Borst  •  Dec 12, 2010 @11:26 pm

    great post brian! i agree – there really shouldn’t be cussing in MG books. these children get plenty of that, sooner than parents would like. i’m all for giving them good books without the worry of bad words!

  7. brian_ohio  •  Dec 13, 2010 @7:21 am

    Sanyantani – Made up curses can be hysterical, and the point gets across as well. Maybe, for my next post, we’ll just have everyone submit their favorite made up curse. ;-)

    Joy – I see why the Fantastic Mr. Fox is fantastic. Using ‘cuss’ is a great idea.

    Amy – Who knew ‘crap’ was the benchmark between young MG and old MG. That’s interesting though. I would think most authors want their books read by the masses. And if one curse word was going to decide if that was going to happen… OUT-N-ZEE with the curse word. Keep us posted when your book comes out, we’ll be sure to add it to our New Releases list.

    Amie – I agree. And if you put a curse word in the book, those four letters get all the attention instead of the plot or characters.

  8. Shoshana  •  Dec 13, 2010 @7:45 am

    That’s a good point about taking creative approaches. I couldn’t bring myself to have a fifth-grade character say “I stink at…”, but “I suck at…” didn’t seem to be an option either. Letting kids be more flexible with language might’ve been a better solution.

  9. Kurtis  •  Dec 13, 2010 @10:14 am

    The Higher Power of Lucky did not have profanity in it. It had an anatomical word used in an appropriate context.

  10. sheelachari  •  Dec 13, 2010 @10:43 am

    I’m someone who has “crap” in my book, and I’m thinking of taking it out. I didn’t think so much of it at the time, but since then, I’ve noticed that some librarians/teachers/parents are quite sensitive to the issue. And so, I’d rather not have that word to trip anyone.

    Personally, I’m less bothered by these words. I wouldn’t have a problem having my child read books with mild swearing in them. But certainly, I can understand parents who might. Just recently I was talking with a librarian about Lane Smith’s recent picture book, IT’S A BOOK. It features a a donkey and an ape. Of course in the book, the donkey isn’t referred to as a donkey but something else, a word that is technically correct but commonly a swear word (jack***). There was quite an uproar over the word. The librarian was disappointed that an otherwise outstanding book had been tainted by the use of this word. She said that she couldn’t give it to parents to read to their preschoolers.

    I admit though that when I read the book, I giggled like a schoolchild. The last line is funniest of all. But that probably doesn’t help anyone!

  11. brian_ohio  •  Dec 13, 2010 @11:51 am

    Shoshana… it’s really up to the author, but kids are so creative these days. You know?

    Kurtis – Thanks. I’ll fix the post. Guess I need to do better research.

    Sheela – You have ‘crap in your book. I’m usually calling my book ‘crap’. Hm. I read about IT’S A BOOK. There was a time, I think, when jack*** probably wasn’t considered a bad word.

  12. Kimberley Griffiths Little  •  Dec 13, 2010 @1:44 pm

    Great, funny post, Brian. Reading a book out loud that has a curse word really brings it out in a bigger way than when silently reading when the eye can jump quickly past it and keep focusing on the story. I also think that in straight MG – for that 8-11 year old range – books shouldn’t have any, either. I’m totally up for made-up, funny words though. :-)

    And call me a prude, but even when anatomically correct body parts are used I still question whether it REALLY NEEDS to be in there. It makes everyone giggle and question and roll eyes – and most important, they get DISTRACTED from the STORY. Why couldn’t the dog be scratching his neck or his paw? My dogs have always spent MUCH more time scratching their necksand ears than they did their, um, you know whats. Ha, ha. I didn’t breathe a word to my college age son about the hoopla when he read that book (yes, he and I still read and discuss books for all ages and he’s one of my best critiquers) and he brought it up to me that he thought it was completely unnecessary and didn’t do anything for the story.

    Okay, I’m really *not* trying to start that discussion all over again, but using my story more as an example of word choices that writers use and how it affects reading in the classroom. Or reading at home with parents.

  13. Bev  •  Dec 13, 2010 @3:31 pm

    I struggle with this constantly. I mean, golly gee willikers, you don’t want your characters to sound like they’re back in the 50′s or something;0
    You want them hip but not too hip.
    Tis a fine line.
    Great post!

  14. Joanne Johnson  •  Dec 13, 2010 @5:36 pm

    I have little to add except that I love this post and the conversation that followed. Many excellent points. I especially relate to the struggle Bev notes with trying to keep the characters sounding real. I usually try made up words. It’s a challenge.

  15. brian_ohio  •  Dec 13, 2010 @8:39 pm

    Kimberly – you’re totally right (I’m sure you hear that all the time a home), but reading some of the words will keep a kids attention for hours, the story lost. And body parts can have some really funny names too.

    Oh… and dogs don’t scratch that area, they do worse things to it. Ew!

    Bev – your comment is just swell. Haven’t heard talk like that since Hector was a pup.

    Joanne – I think I like your comment most of all. In particular the ‘I love this post’ part. ;-) Trying to keep it clean yet hip is just another challenge MG writers must face. But it’s not impossible.

  16. Karen Scott  •  Dec 14, 2010 @7:50 am

    My co-author and I had fun making up some great “curses” for an adult character to use in our MG mystery manuscript. It was good to know we were aiming for laughs from the reader instead of the shock value of a more traditional curse word. And I love shitake mushrooms! I’ll have to use that one with my kids at home!

  17. brian_ohio  •  Dec 14, 2010 @11:33 am

    Hi Karen – I see you’re from Ohio! Too bad. ;-)

    If you can create a memorable curse word… it can really make the book catch on. I mean, think of the show ‘Happy Days’ with SIT ON IT, Or ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ with ‘UP YOUR NOSE WITH A RUBBER HOSE’. Basically those sayings were replacements for vulger words. You know?

  18. Rosanne Parry  •  Dec 14, 2010 @12:49 pm

    Interesting conversation you’ve got going Brian. I think swearing can work in a MG book if it’s chosen carefully. The trouble is that swearing is loud on the page. Louder than it is in movies and Much louder than it is in real life. So it needs to be reserved for moments when no other word is adequate.

    I also think it’s helpful to think of profanity in terms of 3 categories.

    The disrespectful invocation of one of the names for god. This is always going to offend some people deeply. Often the substitution of gosh, dang, golly or OMG works just fine.

    Racial, gender, and ethnic slurs are another category of profanity. These words are often profoundly painful to certain readers, but they are also a very real part of the lives of ordinary MG kids. I think the trick here is to use a slur in a way that illuminates the inherent cruelty of the word without opening the wound of the reader. So I always think about who is using the slur–a character who is meant to be admirable? a character who makes his prejudices evident in other ways? It takes some balancing but it’s possible to use a slur in an appropriate way.

    And then there are obscene words which tend to call attention to themselves and draw the reader out of the story. These words also make the story difficult to read aloud in a classroom. These ones are the best candidate for a humorous substitution like shitake mushrooms.

    But then we get into trouble with pseudo swear words. Scrotum is not a vulgar word it’s an anatomically correct one used in respectful context in The Higher Power of Lucky. Jackass is not a swear word either it means either male donkey or fool. I wouldn’t use either of those books with kids younger than 8 but they are fine for MG kids and I don’t see a need to pander to the prudish in my writing.

    Sorry to go on and on here. :-) It’s an important topic and one worth thinking carefully about.

  19. brian_ohio  •  Dec 14, 2010 @1:36 pm

    Hi Rosanne – Great comments! You’re right about the swear word being ‘loud’ on the page. It’s like the letters are huge and highlighted and circled in red.

    I would add another category to your 3. Coarse language. That’s when a word is substituted for a swear word, but there’s no doubt what word was meant. ‘Freaking’ is one example that comes to mind.

    Thanks for a insteresting reply!

  20. Sayantani DasGupta  •  Jan 4, 2011 @9:23 am

    A bit late but just wrote on the use of made-up cursewords – was inspired by your post here and also John Green’s use of the word “fug” in “An Abundance of Katherines” (I know it’s not MG but YA…) What are other made up words people use in books? http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2011/01/zounds-fie-by-shivas-trident-making-up.html

  21. Catherine Stine  •  Jan 13, 2011 @2:42 pm

    An old writing teacher of mine advised us to simply make up a curse word for that age group. Works well!