• From the Mixed-Up Files... > Learning Differences > To #%&* or Not to #%&*: profanity in middle grade fiction
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    April 11, 2014:
    Fall 2014 Children's Sneak Peek
    A peek at forthcoming middle grade books (as well as picture books and YA books) in a round-up from Publisher's Weekly. First printed in the February 22 issue, but now available online. Time to add to your to-read list. Read more ...

    April 9, 2014:
    How many Newbery winners have you read?
    You could make a traditional list of all the Newbery Medal Award-winning Children's Books you've read, but there's something so satisfying when you check them off and get a final tally on this BuzzFeed quiz. Read more ...

    March 28, 2014:
    Middle Grade fiction is hot at 2014 Bologna Children's Book Fair

    For the second year in a row, publishers are clamoring for middle-grade, reporters Publishers Weekly. "I’ve been coming [to Bologna] for 12 to 15 years, and I’ve never had as many European publishers asking for middle-grade," said Steven Chudney of the Chudney Agency. Read more ...

    February 14, 2014:
    Cybils Awards announced
    Ultra by David Carroll (Scholastic Canada) wins the Cybil for middle grade fiction; Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Disney Hyperion) wins for Speculative Fiction. Read more.

    January 27, 2014: And the Newbery Medal goes to ...
    Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for "Flora & Ulysses"; Rita Williams-Garcia won the Coretta Scott King Author award for "P.S. Be Eleven." Newbery Honor awards to authors Vince Vawter, Amy Timberlake, Kevin Henkes and Holly Black. For all the exciting ALA Youth Media Award News ... READ MORE

    November 12, 2013:
    Vote in the GoodReads semifinal round

    Readers' votes have narrowed the middle-grade semifinals down to 20 titles. Log in to your GoodReads account and vote for your favorite middle-grade (and in other categories, of course). Read more ...

    November 9, 2013:
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    Middle-grade and young adult titles selected by the editors of Publishers Weekly as their top picks of the year. Let the season of "top ten books" begin! Read more ...

    October 14, 2013:
    Middle Shelf: Cool Reads for Kids debuts January 2014

    Shelf Media Group, publisher of Shelf Unbound indie book review magazine, will launch a new free digital-only publication for middle-grade readers. The debut issue features interviews with such notable authors as Margaret Peterson Haddix and Chris Grabenstein as well as reviews, excerpts, and more. Middle Shelf will be published bi-monthly beginning in January 2014.
    Read more ...

    September 19, 2013: Writer-in-Residence program at Thurber House

    Dream of time and space to focus on your own writing project? Applications now being accepted (11/1/2013 deadline) for The Thurber House Residency in Children's Literature, a month-long retreat in the furnished third-floor apartment of Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. Read more ...

    September 18, 2013: Vermont College of Fine Arts Scholarship opportunity

    Barry Goldblatt Literary launches The Angela Johnson Scholarship, a talent-based grant for writers of color attending the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA. Up to two $5,000 grants will be awarded each year. Read more ....

    September 16, 2013:
    National Book Awards longlist for youth literature

    For the first time, the NBA is presenting lists of 10 books/authors on the longlist in each category. The 2013 young adult literature list includes five middle grade novels and five YA. Read more ...

    Sept. 13, 2013: Spring preview
    Check out Publishers Weekly roundup of upcoming children's books to be published in spring 2014. Read more...

    August 21, 2013:
    Want to be a Cybils Award Judge?

    Middle grade categories are fiction, speculative fiction, nonfiction. Applications due August 31! Read more ...

    August 19, 2013:
    S&S and BN reach a deal
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    August 6, 2013:
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    July 2, 2013:
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    March 28, 2013: Big at Bologna

     This year at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, the focus has shifted to middle-grade.  “A lot of foreign publishers are cutting back on YA and are looking for middle-grade,” said agent Laura Langlie, according to Publisher's Weekly.  Lighly illustrated or stand-alone contemporary middle-grade fiction is getting the most attention.  Read more...

     

    March 10, 2013: Marching to New Titles

    Check out these titles releasing in March...

     

    March 5, 2013: Catch the BEA Buzz

    Titles for BEA's Editor Buzz panels have been announced.  The middle-grade titles selected are:

    A Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

    Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

    The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward

    Nick and Tesla's High-Voltages Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

    The Tie Fetch by Amy Herrick

    For more Buzz books in other categories, read more...

     

    February 20, 2013: Lunching at the MG Roundtable 

    Earlier this month, MG authors Jeanne Birdsall, Rebecca Stead, and N.D. Wilson shared insight about writing for the middle grades at an informal luncheon with librarians held in conjunction with the New York Public Library's Children's Literary Salon "Middle Grade: Surviving the Onslaught."

    Read about their thoughts...

     

    February 10, 2013: New Books to Love

    Check out these new titles releasing in February...

     

    January 28, 2013: Ivan Tops List of Winners

    The American Library Association today honored the best of the best from 2012, announcing the winners of the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz awards, along with a host of other prestigious youth media awards, at their annual winter meeting in Seattle.

    The Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature went to The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Honor books were: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz; Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin; and Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage.

    The Coretta Scott King Book Award went to Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

    The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award,which honors an author for his or her long-standing contributions to children’s literature, was presented to Katherine Paterson.

    The Pura Belpre Author Award, which honors a Latino author, went to Benjamin Alire Saenz for his novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which was also named a Printz Honor book and won the Stonewall Book Award for its portrayal of the GLBT experience.

    For a complete list of winners…

     

    January 22, 2013: Biography Wins Sydney Taylor

    Louise Borden's His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, a verse biography of the Swedish humanitarian, has won the Sydney Taylor Award in the middle-grade category. The award is given annually to books of the highest literary merit that highlight the Jewish experience. Aimee Lurie, chair of the awards committee, writes, "Louise Borden's well-researched biography will, without a doubt, inspire children to perform acts of kindness and speak out against oppression."

    For more...

     

    January 17, 2013: Erdrich Wins Second O'Dell

    Louise Erdrich is recipient of the 2013 Scott O'Dell Award for her historical novel Chickadee, the fourth book in herBirchbark House series. Roger Sutton,Horn Book editor and chair of the awards committee, says of Chickadee,"The book has humor and suspense (and disarmingly simple pencil illustrations by the author), providing a picture of 1860s Anishinabe life that is never didactic or exotic and is briskly detailed with the kind of information young readers enjoy." Erdrich also won the O'Dell Award in 2006 for The Game of Silence, the second book in theBirchbark series. 

    For more...

     

    January 15, 2013: After the Call

    Past Newbery winners Jack Gantos, Clare Vanderpool, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Stead, and Laura Amy Schlitz talk about how winning the Newbery changed (or didn't change) their lives in this piece from Publishers Weekly...

     

    January 2, 2013: On the Big Screen

    One of our Mixed-up Files members may be headed to the movies! Jennifer Nielsen's fantasy adventure novel The False Prince is being adapted for Paramount Pictures by Bryan Cogman, story editor for HBO's Game of Thrones. For more...

     

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

Learning Differences

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!

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