Novellablog: On Swearing in Middle Grade and the Need for It (or Not)

I read three things this week that made me think this might be a post worth writing. One was Patrick Ness’s post in this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, in which he had to decide whether Far Far Away or Boxers and Saints would proceed to the next round. Full disclosure: I have not read either of these books, so I can’t comment on whether I agree or disagree on the points he made as they relate to these specific titles, but something he said that resonated with me was this: “I found the book false in the most objectionable way: the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.”

Fast forward to yesterday, when I finished reading Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman. Two points of full disclosure here: I consider Aaron a friend and the book’s very much about storytelling and its consequences, so I was probably somewhat predisposed to like the book. Not surprisingly, I loved it. But I also appreciated the fact that the characters who peopled it were painfully real, and full of the flaws and bizarre contradictions and oddball tensions and perceived inadequacies and irrational behaviors that kids aged 12, 13, and 14 are knit from. It so completely brought back the constant fear and tension and uncertainty that I remember acutely from those days, even now at age 37. These kids say things and do things that make me cringe, and that’s before the actual primary (and terrifying) plot gets going. That’s just life for these kids. And it feels true. The stakes feel high before anything even happens. But I’ll tell you what: this is a book that will put some people’s backs up, if they happen to pick it up thinking something like, “Oh, this looks like a nice creepy middle-grade romp.” And by some people, I mean some adults.

I don’t actually remember whether there was any particular use of salty language in The Riverman. There must have been; if not actual swearing, then certainly there were at least occasional discussions of the sorts of untoward subjects that almost-teenaged boys talk about. But let’s go back to Patrick Ness, who definitely called out the use of “zounds” rather than something harsher in Far Far Away as pulling him out of the story. Now, again, while Far Far Away is definitely on my TBR pile, I haven’t gotten to it yet, so I have no opinions on the author’s choice of expletive; this post is not about critiquing Mr. McNeal’s choices. (I am still really, really looking forward to finally reading Far Far Away.) And this is not to argue that every book for kids or teens needs to have heavy cursing, or even cursing at all, in it. Not every book does, which should hopefully be obvious. But when I read Mr. Ness’s comments, I thought immediately of an email I’d gotten from a teacher I’d asked to read a late draft of Bluecrowne when I needed fresh eyes, in which he’d more or less called me out for not letting my protagonist be a real person in a couple moments where I’d reined her in.

On Twitter I said that he’d told me Lucy Bluecrowne didn’t swear enough, but that’s not entirely true (that was my paraphrasing for amusement value). What he did was to point out a couple instances in which I’d pulled my punches when writing Lucy’s responses to things. This is a girl, he pointed out, who would know how to swear. (And boy, is that ever true.) I’d written a couple places where the idea that she wouldn’t have reacted with at least one sharp word was kind of unbelievable. He was kind enough not to put it that way, but he was right.

The challenge, I think, is this: write real kids. It can be put that simply, but it isn’t simple at all, and of course language is just one part of the elusive formula. For many writers who also happen to be adults, it’s easy to err on the side of writing kids either as we see them through our own (not always accurate and not always relevant) memories, or as we want to believe they are. Or, worst of all, we write gentler versions of our young characters because we’re afraid we’ll put people’s backs up if we don’t. 

Some stories are gentle, and this post is irrelevant to those books. Some books are about or for younger kids, and generally this post is irrelevant to those books, too. I’m not suggesting Charlotte’s Web would’ve been improved by some saltier language, I promise you; I’m pretty sure I left the hard stuff out of Greenglass House, for instance, because it just wasn’t called for. And softer language choices are only one way in which we, as writers, sometimes pull our punches. But when writing MG it’s important to challenge ourselves to write real kids, because we’re writing for real kids. It does get tricky sometimes when writing older MG, which sometimes walks the MG/YA line as if it were a tightrope and which sometimes makes adults uncomfortable in the same way kids of that age sometimes make adults uncomfortable. But it’s a challenge worth taking up.

Thoughts for a Thursday. Discuss?



  1. Kate – I’m so glad you read THE RIVERMAN and I’m so glad that the kids in it “say things and do things that make me cringe.” That age is a cringeworthy time and to not show that is doing the kids who are in the thick of it a disservice. Too often middle grade books are expected to depict overly clever kids and ridiculously ambitious and confident kids. As if this is the ideal and acting any other way is a failure. While such characters have their place in stories, I’ve always been more curious about the darker and confusing emotions and actions. I remember seeing STAND BY ME in the movie theater when I was about 10 or 11 years old and how much of a revelation it was because it not only depicted the ways kids talked (i.e. they swore…a lot) but it told me that my parents’ generation said and felt many of the same things I did. They made mistakes. They did dangerous things. They had emotional breakdowns. This was a natural part of childhood. Did the movie encourage me to make more mistakes? I don’t think so. If anything, it made me more aware of who I was and who I yearned to be. Certainly more than stories of spunky kid-adventurers ever did. Those were fun, but they often just made me feel inadequate.

  2. Kyle. Alistair’s interactions with Kyle, and Kyle himself. Good grief. I wanted to wring their necks and hug them so much.

    Honest to God, I don’t remember a time when I was that age (and I’m just going to go ahead and say from age 10 to age 18) when I wasn’t utterly uncomfortable and completely at sea–and I was (I’m sure) one of the more together kids I knew, with one of the most supportive and functional families I knew.

    As you say, there’s a place for stories without sharp edges, but there’s also a need for tales that let kids know that nobody has it all figured out at that age. And frankly, a need for stories that remind adult readers just how tough kids have it even when things seem pretty good, and that remind us how much harder we as parents and caregivers have to work to see when they need help. Every time Alistair tried to talk to his parents and got frustrated because he couldn’t quite bring himself to say what he meant and they didn’t ask the right questions in response, I felt like I’d failed personally. The last time I remember feeling that frustrated was when I read Speak.

  3. It’s funny. A few people have criticized the book because of Alistair and Kyle’s decisions. As if the book (an its author) condoned them. It’s a puzzling reading, and the sort that leads people to believe that kids can’t think critically about such issues. Which they certainly can.

  4. Does that surprise you? 🙂 That doesn’t surprise me at all, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. There are always people (again, almost always adults) who appear to think kids read books as cut-and-dry instruction manuals. I don’t get it, but it no longer surprises me when I encounter it.

  5. But here’s the thing–I think at some point, for (many) adults, kids suddenly become alien and unknowable. Grown-ups simply don’t remember what it was like, and even if they remember their own childhood with any kind of accuracy, they often fail to notice that how things were then are not how things are now. But for about a hundred reasons adults can’t collectively admit that kids are essentially alien beings and we have no idea what they’re thinking or feeling most of the time. So the idea of trusting that these alien creatures can make sense of things, can read books critically, can experience a story on a deeper level than as the author saying “Do this, don’t do that”–that’s a big challenge to a lot of adults.

  6. Oh it doesn’t surprise me. Just worries me that such voices will be the loudest and dictate what gets read and what doesn’t. And I’m not talking about “book banning,” which I don’t see as a big problem. I’m talking about the general perception that only certain stories will and should appeal to kids. Perceptions that trickle into the minds of publishers and sales teams and book buyers, etc.

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