Don’t say that!

“They all say things like that.”

“Kids hear much worse on the playground.”

“They’re going to hear the same language in the movies they watch during a Saturday-night sleepover.”

Yes to all that.  So why not, for the sake of veracity, include an occasional “bad word” in children’s fiction?

It depends, like so much else involving art.  And, like so much else, any lines drawn will be smudged, any prescribed use will be misused.  Here’s the problem:

Fiction is story-telling, and in story-telling, some things have to be left out.  Otherwise it would be life, not art.  Veracity in storytelling is the judicious art of determining what you will show, and how.  Bad language can help to identify a character’s character or signify strong feeling.  But I don’t recall any novels, juvenile or otherwise, that are about bad language.  So it’s not necessary to the plot.  Then what is it necessary for?

Until fairly recently, nothing.  Even The Catcher in the Rye, known for its groundbreaking language, lacks most of the anatomical words we know so well today.  Children’s author have traditionally had three strategies for indicating profanity where the action seems to call for it.  One is by eupemism, where a milder term is substituted for the offensive word.  Norman Mailer, no children’s author, substituted “fug” (if I remember right?) for the other f word when his publisher restricted use of the latter (back in the innocent sixties).  He made it a deliberate provocation.   S. E. Hinton used words like Shoot! and (daringly) Hell! in The Outsiders, but such obvious bait and switch looks silly now.

Another strategy is straightforward exposition: “He swore.”  Though it seems pale and limp standing by itself, it works very well in an action-packed story where all we need is a little stress on the character’s feeling.  Roland Smith uses it frequently with no loss of effectiveness.

Then there’s the nudge, a way of leaving an impression of the word without the actual word.  Here’s how I did it in a middle-grade novel: “‘Bug off,’ says Spencer.  Though he doesn’t exactly say bug.”  That formula is used one other time in the same book; any more would be too clever by half.

These days I appreciate such restraint more than not.  Profanity, vulgarity (often together) have stampeded into YA fiction and even seeped into middle-grade, with such abandon I wonder when the dam broke.  But is doesn’t answer ought.  Everybody knows we can use these words in youth literature now, but should we?  More about that soon.

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2 Responses to “Don’t say that!”

  1. Mary Nida Smith Says:

    J.B., you are so right, we don’t need to read vulgarity and profanity in books for children. Reading and enjoying books helps us escape from the bad things in life. I want to feel hope and know there are good things in life, and books can take to that world.

  2. Douglas Bond Says:

    Thanks for this helpful and well-put post

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