It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. My apologies to all eight of you. Winter is never very inspiring when it rains 7 and a half inches in a month. However, with spring here, that means I’m more likely to get excited about random stuff and want to share with you.
For example, perhaps it’s time to share about the elephant sitting at the bottom of my Amazon page. If you missed it…click the link.
That’s right. I’m going to talk about:
Profanity in middle grade books.
Allow me to first say: Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows is for 10-14 year olds. It also includes the following curse words: crap, crapola, shit, shitola, asshat, and the phrase shut your goddamn piehole. Whew. I already feel better about getting that out there. If you do not approve of these words, please do not buy this book for your child.
Honestly, I’m grateful Paul Bulger put that review up. Nothing was scarier than signing books for parents and choosing whether I should say uneasily, “Umm, it has a few bad words in it.”
I’m not going to discuss the parts of the review where Mr. Bulger hates on the morals of my book—no need to argue a difference of opinion when it comes to séances and lying and to mistrust everyone when you’re a runaway. (Though, frankly, I wonder why that part wasn’t brought up—I mean, is Spartacus actually advocating that children run away? That’s a huge question!) I also won’t say anything about the juvenile behavior in the book beyond: Yes, this is in fact a book for boys.
But I do want to focus on the question of swearing in books for older middle-grade readers. I whole-heartedly agree that this is a delicate issue and I was on the fence about it myself. Where do you draw the line between realism and appropriateness?
Note that this wasn’t just brought up on Amazon. Erik of This Kid Reviews Books dedicated half of his review to this very subject. It was also a large topic of conversation in my house, on the phone with my mom, and, of course, on Facebook. I actually had a friend of a friend message me about her 10-year-old getting in trouble for saying the SH-word at school.
Okay, okay, I could just make it cut and dry and say, “Well, the publisher approved.” Raspberries and eye-rolling to all of you. But that’s admittedly a copout. Also, I’m a long-term muller and this argument has so many angles…
The next knee-jerk reaction is that I seriously doubt this would be the first time my readers will have never heard these words (okay, asshat, perhaps, but it’s more rare). I’ve met school librarians, elementary school teachers, and parents who agree and wave off my and Mr. Bulger’s concerns.
From a writer’s perspective, the character also would have known these words from his older brother and would have used them in his head—and then, of course, they would occasionally slip out, getting him in trouble (yes, he gets in trouble for swearing at his dad—this isn’t Jersey Shore). I feel this gives the book a little authenticity: An angry thirteen year old is not going to say fudge when faced with a double-crossing brother.
In retrospect, though, I could have been more creative and glossed over the words, the way they did in A Christmas story above or in my most recent favorite, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or I could have made up words. Rather, I could have spent more time trying to make up better words. Meaning yes, I tried to make Spartacus say things like “cussburger!” They sounded every bit as contrived as they were—just look for the instance of Eli saying “Devil in a hang glider!”
What do you think? When is swearing okay? Is it a simple, cut and dry answer, i.e. No-no for Middle Grade and acceptable in Young Adult? Or…?
While writing this, I found a great essay on the subject of depravity in YA novels—a sister-subject to this blog topic. Check out Sherman Alexie’s essay Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood. And while I’m not saying Spartacus is YA or in any way comparable to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I can relate to what Alexie saying: When the message behind the book is dealing with family disfunction and accepting loss…well, perhaps a kid saying holy crapola would be a bit more relatable than a character who says fudge.
On a final note, I saw Chronicle last night and there were at least five children under the age of nine there. I was a bit disgusted with the parents, probably as Mr. Bulger was with me. So I’d like to make a recommendation that extends to both movies and books for your kids: Watch a trailer. Check the description. Or, heck: Read a review. The Mr. Bulger’s are out there and they’re on your side.