Monthly Archives: March 2012

To #%&* or Not to #%&*: profanity in middle grade fiction

The expectations for the use profanity in children’s fiction are pretty clear. It’s commonplace in YA novels and completely absent in picture books and easy readers. But middle grade fiction takes the middle ground. Is swearing okay in a middle grade book? Well, it’s complicated. The issue is balancing authenticity with respect for your audience. Everybody encounters profanity; it is a language intensifier and can be useful in conveying the weight and reality of your characters situation. And yet it is the nature of profanity to offend, so any use will have consequences in how the book as a whole is received. As a practical matter MG books with profanity tend to be shelved with YA no matter how young the character is. This is not necessarily a problem, To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s 9 year old protagonist Scout have been doing just fine in the YA section of the library for the last five decades. Even so any use of profanity should be carefully considered. When I’m confronted with an opportunity to use a swear word in my novels, here are five choices I consider.
1. Omit
Every time I use profanity I rewrite the scene with out it, let it sit for a day or two and read the result out loud. I have been surprised by how often the scene was stronger without the swear word. Sometimes profanity is just a habit of the author and not integral to the character’s worldview or the movement of the plot.
2. Reduce
My editor once told me that swearing is loud on the page in a way that it is not in real life. I think of it as the equivalent of yelling or texting in all caps. As the mom of many I can tell you yelling is most effective when used sparingly—usually when lives are at stake. I think the last time I actually yelled at home was when someone’s sleeve caught on fire while roasting a marshmallow. Because swearing functions as an intensifier, it’s power is diluted by overuse. If I am working with a character who would naturally swear a lot, I’ll run a word search and see if I can limit the swearing to places where it will have the most impact.
3. Evade
Sometimes  you can duck the issue when the swearing is done by a non-viewpoint character. When I was working on Second Fiddle I knew that the moment that the girls discovered that they were all alone in Paris with no money, no passports and no return train tickets, any normal eighth grader would swear. But my main character wasn’t really the swearing type. Instead, I had her report that her friend said every swear she knew in English and then moved on to exhaust her supply of swear words in French and German. This preserved the authenticity of the scene without getting into a specific swear word.

 

4. Substitute
Here is one of the more entertaining devices of MG fiction. Most kids get in trouble for swearing, and yet they have the same need for the occasional language intensifier as everyone else. So kids are great at making up substitutes. It’s the drat, darn, and golly solution, and it has great comic potential. I was recently on a grade school play ground where a shouting match arose over a basketball game and the third graders involved avoided detention by calling each other the names of various icky vegetables—Asparagus Head and Eggplant Face were bandied about with alacrity. The advantage to a curse word substitution is that it can also serve to convey information about the character and setting and lighten the mood of an otherwise tense situation.
5. Commit
There are circumstances in which the first four choices are wrong for the voice of the character or the gravity of the situation. And in those cases swearing maybe appropriate. Freedom of Speech means nothing if we never use it, and if you have used profane speech appropriately in your book you will find both people who passionately attack any use of profanity and those who just as passionately defend your right to tell the story as you must, free of censure. I opted to use swearing to a very limited extent in Heart of a Shepherd, having considered and discarded the above considerations, and it has done no harm whatsoever to the book. A few libraries don’t shelve it in k-4 schools. I really have no argument with that. Most teachers who read it aloud chose to skip or modify the swear word in the classroom. No argument there either. On the other hand, many teachers and parents have told me that because they weren’t expecting profanity in a middle grade book, it gave them a good opportunity to discuss where profanity is socially acceptable and not, and what it was about that particular scene that made a character swear when he ordinarily wouldn’t. That’s a conversation worth having.

In the end I find it helpful to imagine myself sitting down to eat a meal with my reader. If my reader is 7 and the tone of my story is traditional and in the mood of a holiday dinner eaten with extended family, then I’d not use coarse language of any kind. If I was eating a picnic lunch with 10 year olds and parents were not hovering in earshot, I would probably use a substitute word or an evasion. With 14 year olds at the food court in the mall, I might use a profane word if it were appropriate to the conversation at hand, but I’d still use it sparingly because eighth graders are not adults, and the mall is not a high school locker room or a college dorm. There will be plenty of time for them to make the acquaintance of a broad range of swear words in young adult and adult fiction.

I’d love to hear what other people consider when making decisions about profanity, both in terms of writing and in terms of sharing books with middle grade kids as a parent or teacher or librarian. Drop us a line!

CROW – interview with author Barbara Wright

With so many books about fantastic superheroes, wimpy kids, and children trying to survive wars in dystopian worlds, parents, teachers, and librarians are looking for something different to add to their young readers’ lists. I always recommend a good historical fiction. Recently I read great reviews about a new book titled, Crow, by Barbara Wright. As it happens, Barbara lives in my town and I was able to attend a reading and book signing at our local indie bookstore, The Tattered Cover. Intrigued by the excerpt she read I had to get a copy of Crow and after I read it, I knew I wanted to put it in the hands of every kid I know.

Crow has received several starred reviews including this one from the December 12, 2011 issue of Publishers Weekly:

«Crow

Barbara Wright. Random, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-375-86928-0

Adult author Wright, in her first book for children, presents a hard-hitting and highly personal view of the Wilmington race riots of 1898
through 11-year-old narrator Moses. Though the story initially meanders, the pace builds as Wright establishes the Wilmington, N.C., setting, with its large black middle class, and Moses’s family life, which is primarily influenced by his slave-born grandmother, “Boo Nanny,” and his Howard University–educated father, an alderman and a reporter at the Wilmington Daily Record, “the only Negro daily in the South.” Wright sketches a nuanced view of racial tension and inequality from Moses’s sheltered yet optimistic perspective, such as a bike shop’s slogan contest that is only open to white children, or the farmer who fires Moses after he helps another okra picker determine his true pay. A Daily Record editorial ignites racial backlash and catalyzes a series of attacks on hard-won rights, thrusting Moses and his father into the violence of the riots. This thought-provoking novel and its memorable cast offer an unflinching and fresh take on race relations, injustice, and a fascinating, little-known chapter of history. Ages 8–12. (Jan.)

After reading the book, I got in touch with Barbara and asked if I could interview her for The Mixed-Up Files blog. I was thrilled when she agreed to meet me again at our lovely Tattered Cover for coffee and questions. Here’s how our conversation went:

Without being didactic, the story is a great lesson in strength, courage, and hope. Barbara, given that you and Moses are very different, how were able to get inside his head, hear his thoughts, and tell his story?

Moses as a character was a real challenge.  First, he’s a boy and interested in all kinds of things I am not—trains, fire trucks, schooners, building things.   I wanted to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be a boy in a Southern port city at the turn of the century.  When possible, I tried to stay local.  There were black firemen in Wilmington, so it made sense that Moses would be proud and look up to them. The African-American conjoined twins Millie-Christine are based on historical figures who were born in the county next to Wilmington.  Blackbeard, the pirate, plied his trade in the waters off the coast of the Outer Banks, just north of Wilmington.

Since Moses is from a different time period, I had to be careful with the historical details.  I couldn’t say, “He zipped up his jacket,” because zippers didn’t exist.  I couldn’t say “He slammed the screen door,” because screens were not widely used then.

The hardest aspect of Moses’s character was race.  I wrote the novel to discover how the concept of prejudice filtered into the mind of a bright, curious boy who was raised to believe he was the equal of any man. To do this, I had to get deeply inside his skin, and at times, the plot took turns that surprised me.  At one point, Moses witnesses something really degrading and horrible and he thinks that he’s responsible when in fact he has nothing to do with it.  This scene broke my heart, but I felt absolutely sure he would feel this way.

As amazing as Moses is, I have to admit, my favorite character is the wonderfully wise Boo Nanny. My own copy of Crow has many pages tagged with what I call Boo Nanny-isms. My favorite is where she’s looking for shells on the beach with Moses and he asks her how she knows so much about the ocean, and she says: “I’ve got my own two eyes. All you gots to do is look. Now, your daddy could talk a possum out of a tree, but sometimes he can’t see what’s dead straight in front of his nose if it ain’t in a book. Knowing’s first and foremost ’bout seeing what’s in front of you.” Was there something in your own life that inspired you to create Boo Nanny?

I probably identified more with Boo Nanny than any other character.  We’re both grandmothers with inquisitive grandchildren.  I love Boo Nanny’s folk remedies, her deep intelligence and wisdom that comes, not from book learning, but from character and the unspeakable horrors that she has endured in slavery.  I came up with her name because she loves ghost stories.  It wasn’t until a month after Crowwas published that I realized that my high school nickname, still used by friends from that era, is Boo.  Perhaps my subconscious was at work.

I wanted to create a complicated family.  Moses’s father is a community leader and college graduate while Boo Nanny cannot read or write.  Moses loves them both but has to learn to navigate between two very different viewpoints.

In order to make the story completely accurate, I know you spent years researching the 1898 events that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina. Tell us where and how you found your information.

A key source for me was We Have Taken A City, written by H. Leon Prather, Sr..  This historical account of the riot was published in 1984 and did not receive the attention it deserved.  It was not until 2006, when the NC Legislature financed the voluminous Riot Report that people began to take notice of the long-forgotten incident.

As part of the research, I went to museums and looked at old photos.  I also read the oral histories of former slaves in the Library of Congress, which were recorded and transcribed as part of the Depression-era WPA.   An original late-19th Century diary written in long hand by a white boy in a nearby town was particularly useful.  Thank goodness his handwriting was easy to read.  This is where I picked up Moses’s fascination with bicycles.

On one of my frequent trips to Wilmington, I read the historical markers that are placed along the docks for tourists.  It was here that I learned about the tunnels under Wilmington that figure in an important plot point in the novel.

What led you to the decision to become a writer?

After graduating from college, I went to Seoul, Korea to teach English to Koreans at a private language school.  At the time, Korea was a third world country, and few Americans lived there, outside of the military base.  I started writing on Korean culture for a hotel magazine.  When the editor left, I took over, and had a whole magazine to fill each month.  I started writing, and never stopped.

After Korea, I made a trip around the world, going to Southeast Asia, and then Nepal, where I met up with a group of 10 people who traveled overland in a converted army truck with roll-up canvas sides.  We blazed trails across Afghanistan and Iran and camped out in the desert.  I kept a diary, which I have held on to only as a reminder of how truly bad writing can be.

When I returned, I got a job as a fact checker for Esquire Magazine in New York, where I was exposed to some of the best writing in the country.

Most people don’t know this, but the top magazines have someone verify every fact that is printed in the publication.  Sometimes the facts are hidden.  My worst mistake came when I had to check a shopping column for men.  I verified the features of a Swiss Army knife:  Two knife blades? Check. Scissors? Check.  Corkscrew? Check.  “A fish scaler to scale freshly caught trout?”  Check. What was my mistake? Trout have no scales!  Who knew?

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how a teacher would be able to use Crow in a classroom? Will you be doing classroom visits in person and by way of skype?

Crow offers all kinds of possibilities for teachers to combine language arts with social studies lessons on slavery, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.  I believe that students, by getting to know Moses and his family intimately, will be able to relate on a deeper level to what happened at this time in history.

The Random House Educator’s Guide for Crow is linked through my website and offers innovative activities and ideas for middle school teachers on how to use Crow to get students talking about hypocrisy, racism, inequality and character.

The website also provides links to lesson plans on the Wilmington Race Riot and Jim Crow era, as well as two short videos that provide historical context for Crow, a power point presentation on the Race Riot, and additional resources.

I have classroom visits lined up in North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri and New Mexico.  So far, I haven’t explored the possibility of Skype, but that’s an excellent idea.  I’ll look into it.

Wow, you’ve made it easy to access great information in the classroom!

Finally, a question that always interests us MG lovers here, what were some of your favorite middle-grade books when you were a child?

I will never love a book as much as I love Little Women.  I read it when I was ten or eleven, an impressionable time.  I longed to become Jo, the writer, and marry the warm-hearted Professor Baer, and I pretty much did.  I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries, thrilled to have a clever, spunky role model.  I adored To Kill a Mockingbird. No amount of re-reading diminishes its impact.

Thank you so much for joining me and for answering so many questions for our Mixed-Up Files readers!

Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage and Mary Vittles, Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), released 2014.

 

And The Skype Winner Is… Could It Be You?

The Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour Bus rolls on. Will it pull into your library or school with a visit from Erica Perl? Read on to find out…

But first– who’s that in the bus this week? It’s Kimberley Griffiths Little!

Welcome Kimberley! I loved your book The Healing Spell and your wonderful Circle of Secrets, also set in Louisiana. Please tell us about you and your books.

I’m a fanatic reader, writer, on location researcher, wife, mom, and homeschooler. And now I can say I’m an award-winning author, too! It only took about 20 years! (I’ve been busy reading, researching, writing and Mommy-ing, ha, ha!)

The most fun way to find out about my books is to watch my book trailers, which turned out pretty amazing – with a lot of help from my friends at Nua Music. I love unusual settings and characters and it was a challenge and a joy to incorporate those into the book trailers as well as the plot twists. (I’m a sucker for plot twists and surprise endings.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiTQhFXi0uo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5k4VaODgUuA

What do you like best about writing for middle grade readers?

I was a painfully shy kid and could barely answer a question in class so books were truly my best friends. I determined when I was about 9-10 years old that I wanted to be a writer, too, and try to create that same “magic” I felt when I read.

What was your favorite book when you were 8-12?

Well, you know this is a hard question for a huge kid-reader like me, so I’ll narrow it down to three!

NANCY DREW (of course!)
THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE by Elizabeth Goudge
HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh


What makes your school visits special?

I love talking to kids about books and I’m like a kid showing off my baby gators 

?

No!

Plush – not real! and research pictures and lots of “Show and Tell”,  plus seeing kids excited about books and reading. I can’t do this on Skype, but I also have a great hands-on writing workshop that has been wonderfully successful. I call it “The Creative Diary” and we talk about our brains and Imagination and I lead the students through some Imagination exercises. At the end of an hour students have written two short stories. Read more about it at my Author Visit Page on my website: http://www.kimberleygriffithslittle.com/author-visit-page/

 And, ya know, I’m on Facebook a lot and teachers can friend me there. And kids. And they manage to find my books on Goodreads, too, which always amazes me. :-)

That sounds super! Readers would you like Kimberley to visit your classroom, book club or any other group of enthusiastic middle-grade readers? You came to the right place!!

Leave a comment here for your chance to win. Pass it along on Facebook or Twitter for more chances– just be sure to come back and leave a comment telling us how you’ve spread the word. We’ll draw the lucky winner next Tuesday when we’ll present the next Mixed-Up Middle-Grade author for your Skyping pleasure! For all the scoop and frequently asked questions about the contest look HERE!

 But wait!!!! We have a winner to announce!
 The lucky winner who’ll be welcoming Erica Perl to visit her readers is…………………

Kristen!

Please email the please email the Mixed-Up Files at msfishby (at) fromthemixedupfiles (dot) com with your contact information! You’ll be hearing from Erica shortly! And huge congratulations!!!!!

Readers keep those entries coming and you might welcome Kimberley to your group!

Tami Lewis Brown is always in a rush… on her way to another middle-grade author visit.