Not My Daughter, You Bitch! (Swearing in YA Lit)
So I’m jumping on this subject bandwagon pretty late. I spoke with literary agent Mary Kole about this issue at a conference in April, and apparently it was a popular topic, because she wrote a blog about it. Because so many people feel strongly about this issue, I figure I may as well use my platform and voice my opinion. This is my website, after all. What would it be without a spewing forth of Beth’s Opinions?
When I think of “bad” words in young adult literature, so many things come to mind. There’s the famous line from the last Harry Potter book (see title above) that shocked Potter fans. In this case I think the word was so shocking because the series started out as a middle-grade series, and then matured along with the characters. Who would even imagine reading the word “bitch” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Another reason for the shock factor: Rowling’s books had so little profanity in even the later books, and this says something for her skill as a writer. Voldemort didn’t need to drop an F-bomb to cement his villainy because he was so evidently evil in reputation and action. Ron used the word “bloody” on occasion, but this barely registered with American readers. Uncle Vernon said something about “effing owls” once. So the “bitch” in the final book was so unexpected. It didn’t really fit. I can see why Mrs. Weasley would be driven to use it, but if I’d written the book, I’d be super-rich and would have invested some time in finding an alternative.
I don’t have a single problem with profanity in young adult literature. I wouldn’t necessarily let f-bombs explode all over the place in my own manuscript, but they didn’t stop me from reading Lisa McMann’s Wake series. Cursing sounds pretty natural amongst the young adult set. Not all of them, mind you. (Although I admit surprise to some of the things I saw on former students’ facebook posts. Not all are as innocent as they seem. Frightening for me, as a mother.)
My own manuscript had exactly four f-words for awhile, and they didn’t bother me spaced out and spoken by college-aged characters. When I did some snipping (okay, I lopped off the first 50 pages) and had to move some conversations around, all of a sudden three of those f-words appeared in the first chapter.
Not the sort of set-up I had in mind. I don’t expect every book to have universal appeal, but I knew that three f-words in the first chapter would turn a lot of people (parents especially, who often buy the books) off. With some ideas from a critique partner I was able to change two of them. The other one is just too natural to the character speaking, I am convinced no other word will do.
And that’s when a swear word belongs in your manuscript. When it’s true to the character and no other word will do.