Don’t Say That! Part Two

The Michael L. Prinz Award is given by the American Library Association to a work intended for teenagers “that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.”  Granted that “literary” and “excellence” are relative terms, and YA books have been pushing the limits for years, Tales of the Madman Underground pushes all the way over the cliff in one area: language.  I’ve never read worse.  Ever.  In fact, I’ve never read as bad.  It’s not just vulgarity (the f- word everywhere, s- word less frequent).  An occasional use of some of those words can be effective for certain purposes, and it’s naïve to think that our children will be ruined by seeing them on a page every now and then.  But the author’s use strikes me as gratuitous.  There’s no reason for spreading them like heavy-on-the-mayo on a hamburger which almost disappears in an excess of condiment.

But worse is the profanity.  I have seldom read or heard the name of Jesus dragged through such vile slop, and around the middle of the book I had to stop reading.  I might have missed a climax so shattering and affirming it redeemed all, but . . . nah.  The author has no discernable use except as some sort of shock value.  His character is contemptuous of “churchies” throughout, so it may be personal.  More likely, it’s just contemptuous.

Of course I could read worse language–in books for adults.  This is a book for teens (and actually, kids gravitate toward YA at the age of eleven or twelve).  More than that–an honored book for teens.  There’s a silver sticker on it (designating a sort of runner-up to the actual Prinz award), making it more likely to show up in junior high and high school libraries.  Heeeey, kids!

In my opinion, this is irresponsible.  I can guess at the award committee’s logic: kids these days, so much to deal with.  Busy parents, unnecessary wars, evil Republicans, religious nuttery, pressure to conform–how do we help them?  Do we try to refine their tastes a bit, elevate their sight, given them a glimpse of real nobility, something to strive for (which sounds awfully patronizing but used to be the meaning of education)?  Or do we pimp a noble soul in sneakers who talks like Tony Soprano?

The protagonist actually is a noble soul: long-suffering towards his crazy mom, hard-working, loyal, and generous.  It’s just hard to see how he got that way.  Getting that way doesn’t come easy for most of us.  We need help, we need aspirations.  The starred reviews of Madman dismiss the language, as though it were incidental.  But language is not incidental; language is what literature is made of, and literature is the art of shaping words to thoughts and emotions, educating mind and heart.  An overuse of shock words deadens sensitivity to them, and perhaps sensitivity in general.  How many times do you have to be hit in the face until you don’t feel it?

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3 Responses to “Don’t Say That! Part Two”

  1. falcontale Says:

    Thanks Janie for talking about this book. It definitely had it’s shock-value for me.

  2. Connie Akers Says:

    Another example of the Silver Sticker for Profanity award: FEED by M.T. Anderson. Set in the future, the author invents a myriad of new words for his characters’ conversations, except the F word which apparently survived unscathed. As I read FEED, I felt like I was at the mall surrounded by a gang of limited-vocabulary teens shouting at me. What started as a great premise, morphed into a exercise in self-flagellation. I was so glad when the story ended. (I made myself read the book because it was on the shelf of the library where I work.)

    Have you read Unwind by Neal Shusterman? I’d love to know your thoughts on it.
    ~Connie

  3. Don’t say that! | Says:

    […] 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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