Tag Archives: Patrick Ness

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?

 

Nebula Reading, Part the First: One Plus Two Plus One Plus One

That post title is funny to me because I’m hungry and I’m having coffee instead of food. Whatever.

Today, with less than two weeks left of the Nebula nomination period, I am finally getting around to writing up some of the wonderful stuff I am hoping gets some Nebula love. Today I have for you ONE adult novel I pretty much totally adore PLUS TWO young adult delights (well, in at least one case “delight” is really not an appropriate choice of words, but it’s a truly wonderful book), PLUS ONE young adult novel that is officially next on my to-read, PLUS ONE thing I must do before the voting deadline (February 15th).

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Nebula Season, and the Return of the Informed Voter Project

It’s Nebula Time, and I have a vote to be informed about! That’s right, from now until February 15th, SFWA members get to cast their votes in support of their favorite SciFi and Fantasy works of 2010. Are you an SFWA member? Then get off your duff and start thinking about your ballot.

For those who don’t know, there are two rounds to the process. This first round, everybody nominates their favorites, and the six in each category (Short Story, Novella, Novelette, Novel, Screenplay, and Young Adult Novel) with the highest number of votes make it to the final ballot. Votes can be entered and even changed right up until the February 15th deadline. Then the second phase begins, where SFWA members read the finalists and cast a second round of votes.

Admittedly, I started this project way too late last time around, when my goal was simply to read all the finalists and blog about what I read (I did manage to get the reading done, but I didn’t manage to get my comments up on every category before the voting deadline). This year I am actually getting to cast a vote to help determine those finalists, and while I certainly can’t possibly read the entire field, I am going to use it as an excuse to get serious about catching up on my TBR pile, and maybe to occasionally remind anybody who cares that my book came out this year and is eligible for the Norton Award for YA lit. I would bat my eyelashes at you, but I have no makeup on and am just finishing my first cup of coffee and it wouldn’t have the effect I was looking for. I will, therefore, settle for tossing out the reminder and also pointing out that SFWA members can read the text free, along with the work of lots of other hopefuls, via the SFWA message boards. There. Self-indulgent message completed.

Books I’m really excited about reading? A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz. Sarah Beth Durst’s Enchanted Ivy. Paolo Bacigalupi’s National Book-nominated Shipbreaker, of course–although I suspect he won’t need my vote to make it to the finals, much like Megan Whelan Turner’s Conspiracy of Kings, which it’s about time I read, too. Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu, which I have to double-check the rules about (it hit the US market in 2010, which I think makes it eligible). China Mieville’s Kraken. The Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade. Ian McDonald’s Ares Express. That’s just off the top of my head. How many is that?

Books I’ve read this year that I loved? Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. Mistwood by Leah Cypess and Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. Mockingjay, the final installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, which I also probably won’t vote for because, again, it’s not going to need my vote to place (which may be a crap way of doing things, but hey, it’s my vote, so deal with it). Monsters of Men, the final installment of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, which anybody who liked The Hunger Games should start reading immediately if not sooner. Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman. Matt Kirby’s The Clockwork Three. I’m resisting the urge to get up and check my bookshelves. I read so much good stuff this year.

And then there’s the short fiction. I am so bad at actually reading short fiction. I love it when I make the effort, but I will be the first one to admit I’m bad at making the effort. So it’s time to start making the effort. I would love to hear your suggestions about short stories, novellas, and novelettes to start my reading off with.

So welcome to Nebula Season, and the Informed Voter Project! I’ll be posting comments on my reading in the coming months, and would welcome your comments and suggestions. Happy holidays, and happy reading!