Monday, March 30, 2015

Appropriate/Inappropriate in Middle-Grade Fiction by Kell Andrews

Books for children are the ones most likely to be challenged based on content. If parents are to decide for their children which books are appropriate, that means that "inappropriate" books can and should be published so all parents have that choice.

A few days ago my 10-year-old showed me the book she was reading. She was nervous because it included a bad word.

The word was hell. The book was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead -- a book that I had read and found moving and challenging. I thought it might be difficult reading, but I had never thought it was too edgy.

So I told my daughter not to worry. Lots of books have so-called bad words in them. It doesn't make them bad books or not OK for her to read. The author was trying to show the way the world is, and sometimes people use those words. That doesn't mean that my daughter should use those words herself, but she shouldn't be afraid to read them.

A few days after my daughter and I talked about When You Reach MeClean Reader -- an application that removes proscribed words from ebooks -- created a controversy.

I reject the term "clean reading" on the face of it. Children have experiences that aren't deemed "age appropriate" in books, but that happen in their real lives. If we say the books that describe those events and experiences aren't clean, that's what we're saying about the children who live them. So it's not a term I will ever use.

Stead's book won a Newbery Award, but otherwise (and maybe even so) there are libraries and teachers that wouldn't acquire and use it with their students because the presence of that word. That is their choice -- there are millions of books out there, and every librarian, teacher, parent, and reader is free to choose among them for any reason they wish. 

The word in my daughter's book made her nervous. Some parents might think that means it's not all right for a child to read. But I'm glad she read it, and glad she came to me to talk about it. A word in a book isn't going to hurt my child. If it makes her nervous, a book gives her a safe way to deal with it. It's not the first time she's heard it, it won't be the last, and it won't be the worst. She can hear a bad word -- even say it or do something wrong -- and not be a bad person.

My speech patterns have always been PG. You could count on one hand the times in my life I have said out loud a word that couldn't be said on prime time TV. And yet sometimes my characters use much stronger language than I do, and they certainly do things I wouldn't do. In an unpublished middle grade manuscript of mine, an antagonist says something very vivid and nasty to my main character. But he is a thug and a murderer! He isn't going to sound like Mary Poppins. (This particular bit of dialogue, while something I wouldn't say, is one of the lines I'm most proud of in the book. Maybe I'm proud of it because I wouldn't say it.)

Most of the discussion around Clean Reader revolves around adult books, but adult books are not the ones that are most likely to be restricted based on content -- kids' books are. And it's fine for parents to be able to decide what's "appropriate" in a book for their child. And that means that the books that one parent finds "inappropriate" must be available so that other parents can choose, based on their own judgment.

Clean Reader is not something I would use for myself or my child, but if it allows other kids to enjoy When You Reach Me when it would otherwise be forbidden, that's not all bad. It's not all good either, but it's better than publishers, bookstores, or book clubs editing out content before publication or refusing to publish or distribute them. The original text is not affected by Clean Reader. But in middle-grade fiction, preemptive censorship happens all the time, and it impacts all readers. It reduces the quality, variety, and truth of books published for young people. It means that many children cannot read about the reality of their own lives.

When the time comes that one of my children picks up a mature work, I'm not sure yet how or if I will choose to restrict their reading materials.

But the other day, I told my daughter that she will read about all kinds of things she wouldn't do or say. She will read about things that have actually happened but shouldn't have, and about things that should never, ever happen. When she's uncomfortable with the content of a book or doesn't understand it, bring it to me, and we'll talk about it.

Or close the covers. I do it all the time. Every book is not for every reader, and I can't decide for others what is appropriate. I can only decide for my children and teach them to decide for themselves.

Appropriate Literature: Elana K Arnold on


  1. Well put, Kell. I completely agree. I am very permissive with my children's reading, in that they can read what they want--as long as they are open to having a discussion with me and their mother about it afterwards!

  2. Books are the very safest way for young minds to explore scary or uncomfortable topics. If they get too scary or uncomfortable, books can always be put down.

  3. Context is a BIG part of this, IMHO.

    I think it's importtant to put the "bad words" in context with the book an character or characters involved.

    I choose not to swear in most of my work, and admittedly, I'm more of a prude than the average person my age. But I have relaxed my views on coarse language.

    As a reader, I can handle an occaional R-rated an below verbal exchange (for YA+), X-rated is Blue Moon rare for me, and even then, certain words just rub me the wrong way.

    The "B" word is a serious no-no for me, I just feel it's cruelly deroagotory I wouldn't use it in my work, but I can tolerate it in other books, film or television if it's in character, not merely for shock value. Even though certain female animals (notably dogs) can be scientifically called this, but even then, I feel unclean saying it even in that context.

    What I try to infer in my novel "GABRIEL" is that my antagonist, Rum, is more likely to swear than Gabriel, who like me is more prudent in his words and actions. While Rum doesn't swear on screen, he is the kind of character who would, but I personally find it's a fun challenge to show the coarseness of Rum's character without actually having him swear.

    If you've ever seen "Adventure Time" the characters often use a combination of invented slang (something a previous Project Mayhem blog post touched on) and more normal words kids and teens use in unconventional way that brings the same effect as an actual swear word.

    In "BB Wolf and The Three LPs", a YA+ graphic novel I read last week, there is a fair amount of PG-13 level swearing, but the characters are mostly adults, and it's frankly nothing the average 15+ reader hasn't heard before at least ONCE, unless they grew up in a highly prudent and/or "sanitized" environment. In any case, it was in character and made sense for what the story was.

    Like Kell said above, a thug's not going to sound like "Mary Poppins" anymore than Dahl's "Matilida" would sound like a dutiful, non-indivisualitic girl.

    For writers, this is one of those issues where at least in the early drafts, give yourself permission just be raw and "call a thing a thing" as Iyanla Vanzant always says.

    Unless of course there are just words or verbal exchanges you're simply not okay with.

    Since writers should write wqhat they want to read, that's our perogative.

    Now of course there can be times our characters will say or do things we're not okay with, but it's what they would do. this can be harder to rectify because you still want to be true to your characters, but you also have the added piece of turning away not just the "gatekeepers" to your target readers, but the readers themselves!

    This is where reading books that face this can be helpful.

    Judy Blume's "Here's to You, Rachel Robinson" faces this very challenge.

    Taking the fact that Judy's a veteran author with her share of champions and detractors out of the equation, the challenge was stil the same at it's core for any author at any level, and she chose to be true to what her character would say over the conserative book clubs and schools sales she'd lose by toning back the questionable word used in context, not merely shock value.

    At least for authors who have an editor to work with (be it at their publisher, or one they've hired) you have someone to bounce this off with.

  4. Taurean, I have the same feeling about the B word in books about dogs! It shows up more in older books, but still, I always think, "Why do they have to be so mean? She seems like a perfectly nice dog!"

    Thanks for the anecdote from the great Judy Blume too!

    1. I know, Kell!

      It took me ages to realize they did mean it in th scientific sense, but yeah, even then it still feels wrong.

      A funny thing about that regarding my novel "Gabriel."

      In early drafts I called female rats "she-rats", before Gabriel learned their names, because I was trying to avoid that "B" word because apparently I learned in research regarding rats, female rats can be referred to as, well, you know...

      Thankfully I ultamitely just went with female to avoid the connotations with "she-rat." At least it was better than the "B" word in terms of overall explicitness, right? (LOL)

      I hadn't read much romance (for adults) when I first wrote "Gabriel" so I didn't realize the whole steamy implications of "she-insert animal here" and while a love story plays a part in the plot, it's not a straight romance.

      I got that "Judy Blume" extract from a webinar from Booklist's archieves about Banned Books Week A few years old, but still quite relevant.

      I also made this video for "Banned Books Week" in 2014!

  5. I don't get the big deal over the app. It only works on the ebooks the user owns, right? So why is it any different than using a pen to cross out words in a paper book, or even just skipping over parts I don't like? It's not like the app replaces the text in other peoples' ebooks.

    Sorry I can't say anything important. I'm just... so confused.

  6. I couldn't get super outraged either, Anna. I see it as you do -- I want to see "inappropriate" books published, and then readers can choose how or if to read them.

    As a writer, I do have authorial intent, but that intent ends as soon as my book is in readers' hands. Then it's their book, their reaction, their experience, their meaning.

  7. I recommend a book by Jim West called Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) that my 11-year-old daughter just finished reading. The story is about Alex, a young precocious girl, who mysteriously gets transported to a strange world where Latin and Math combine in formulas and equations with magical effects. With a cruel council leading the only safe city of its kind in this world, she will have to prove her worth to stay as well as help this city as it is the target for two evil wizards who seek to destroy the city and its ruling council. To help the city and also get back home, she will need the help of the greatest mathematician of all time, Archimedes. In a world where math is magic, Alex wishes she paid more attention in math class.

    A Goodread 5-star review said:

    "The storyline inspires a hunger for knowledge and a 'can do' attitude - a strong message of empowerment for young readers. I’m sure that this book will be interesting to read for both, boys and girls, as well as adult readers. Libellus de Numeros means 'Book of Numbers' and it's a magical textbook in the story. Math and science are wonderfully incorporated into a captivating plot: Latin and math are presented as exciting tools to make 'magic' and while Latin is often used as a language of magic the addition of math is definitely a fresh approach.

    "The main heroine Alex is a very relatable character for young people, especially girls. I love that she has her flaws and goes through struggles all too familiar to a lot of young people. Alex is an authentic female role model - a very courageous girl, who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others and who is able to learn fast how to use knowledge to her best advantage.

    "She can definitely do everything that boys can and I find this to be a very powerful message that is needed in our modern society. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to read through the pages of a well-formatted eBook. Highly recommended!"


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!