writer, listener

Cussing in MG: Are our heads up our asses?

on July 17, 2012

A recent #MGLitChat discussion on twitter about profanity in middle grade books got me (and my agent) put into time-out. It also got me thinking more about what “middle grade” even means, today, in terms of appropriate language. Where is the line? Who draws it? Why?

My first contribution to the chat was to admit my bias. Or maybe it’s just a perception I have: An inordinate number of middle grade writers, as kids, were the anti-cussing, rule-following teacher’s pet types. That didn’t start the shit storm I thought it might. In fact, some seemed relieved, and openly admitted being ass-kissing, egg-headed goobers as kids. Or something like that.

Some of these MG writers–the ones I’m lumping together here into this awful stereotype–are freaky smart and talented. They, along with librarians, teachers, some parents, agents and editors who want only the best for young minds, serve as the creators and gatekeepers of stories that ultimately make it to the MG set. In my opinion, this makes for plenty of books that read like classics. Beautiful books. We get lots of wholesome stories for middle-graders that warm the heart and cool the loins. I like these books (and love some of them). I want my kids to read them and like them, too, because they are challenging and thought-provoking in lots of important ways. And I am in awe of so many of these writers.

But I also think there is a population of upper middle-graders who might be inclined to read for pleasure if there were more realistic fiction available (labeled and marketed as MG) that they could connect with. Stories using authentic language. I guess these are some of the kids we call “reluctant readers” because they’re not inclined to read for pleasure. That description drives me nuts, though, because it feels a lot like drawing conclusions based on a biased test. I think “underserved readers” is more accurate (but equally silly).

My son was one of these kids, in his own way. So were a lot of the kids I met during that eye-opening year I taught fifth grade. There was the kid who fell asleep at his desk, drooling on his book during silent reading time. He was frequently up late at night, helping on his dad’s boat out of necessity. Undoubtedly, he was told to “get his ass in gear” (and probably to “hurry the fuck up”), witnessed lots of things we’d be surprised about, and was also very loved.

There was the kid who came to school with chicken blood stains all over his shirt and dried into his hair from a ritual his family performed. Kids who spent many evenings and nights alone because their parents were working hard as bartenders or were otherwise employed in the dark. There were way too many kids whose families were affected by addiction. Kids who experienced violence at home because it was perfectly culturally acceptable where their parents grew up. Kids who were sexually active in middle school. And kids fresh off the boat or plane from Cuba or Haiti, whose language struggles were just the beginning.

What I’m saying is, tweeners–even the white-bred Midwestern types–might be, very generally speaking, more street smart than some of the authors writing books for them were at the same age. I’m not suggesting we add a bunch of profanity for profanity’s sake. But their actual experiences, including the words they hear and use, are considerably more raw and real than many of us are comfortable with. We write about tough issues but we’re afraid to use language that is authentically related to those issues. Why? Is it only because we can’t sell them as MG that way? I really don’t know–I’m asking.

Writers are always talking about authenticity and about really listening to the audience we’re writing for, aren’t we? But are MG writers really doing enough of that? And if what we hear makes us uncomfortable, if it’s a lot different from what we’d hope for our own kids, is it wrong?

I don’t think we’re saving kids by completely censoring and sanitizing language in MG books. We’re excluding some of them by writing for the kids we want them to be instead of for the kids they are. I don’t know, maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe some of what’s being labeled as YA is really MG and we’re keeping it out of the hands of middle-graders who’d really benefit.


Speaking of #MGLitChat, if you write and/or love MG, check out #mglitchat on twitter every Thursday at 9:00 p.m. EST. They’ve been trending worldwide and THIS THURSDAY, July 19th, they’re giving away all the cool stuff below in celebration of the #MGLitChat 1-year anniversary!

Set of Guys Read books (THRILLER, FUNNY BUSINESS, THE SPORTS PAGE), donated by Walden Pond Press
2 query critiques from JDLA agent Linda Epstein
Signed REAL REVISION by MG author Kate Messner
SECOND SIGHT by Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein
Signed CLAWS, UK version by Rachel Grinti
3 chapter critiques from author Rachel Grinti
A bundle of MG ARCS, including…STAT: HOME COURT by Amar’e Stoudemire, GAME CHANGERS by Mike Lupica, THE HIGH SKIES ADVENTURES OF BLUE JAY THE PIRATE by Scott Nash, THE MOURNING EMPORIUM by Michelle Lovric, and MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT by W.H. Beck
TANGLEWOOD TERROR by Kurtis Scaletta,
TANGLEWOOD TERROR audio book by Kurtis Scaletta
1 chapter critique from MG author Laurel Snyder
Hand-stamped necklace by YA writer Christina Lee
1 query critique from HSG agent Josh Getzler
Artwork (print) by author/illustrator Lindsay Ward
First chapter critique by MG author Kate Milford

10 responses to “Cussing in MG: Are our heads up our asses?

  1. Emily Saso says:

    Awesomely written piece, Rhonda. And the kids’ lives that you described? Wow.
    I don’t know much about MG, but I do remember what it felt like to be a young reader always on the prowl for that one writer who just “got” me. Sounds like there will soon be some kids with an author who does. Lucky b%$#@%^.

    • Thanks, Emily! The more I think about it, it really is largely a matter of mislabeling. There’s so much great stuff out there for all kinds of kids/tastes, but the ones who need guidance (and permission) to read up, don’t always get it.

  2. I was a total goody-goody, as you know, but that doesn’t mean my friends weren’t dropping the f-bombs left and right. We need books that represent every kid’s experience to help them understand that books are about their lives too. Good post, Rhonda. I love you keep it real. And you weren’t really ever in time-out….as if you’d stay there anyway!

    • Kellie! I sorta was, too, for a few years, minus the superbrain.

      Wait, what? We weren’t in time out? COME ON! How hard do we have to try?

      And thank you for all the guidance and friendship, even though I’m the world’s worst crit partner and lunch date.

  3. You go, Rhonda. You potty-mouth, you.

  4. It’s just an act, Ruth. Fiction. Up through second or third grade I was planning to become a Catholic nun. Wait, that’s kinda profane, itself.

  5. Ms. Yingling says:

    My students can get expelled for using foul language at school, so why would I give them books that use that language? I HAVE had students come and sheepishly point out “bad” words in books. It may be an age difference– saw a mother murmuring into the head of a month-old baby in a front pack on her chest “It’s so f***ing hot in here. What the f*** are they thinking?” at the dollar store the other day. Bottom line– there are many more books than I can buy. Just one of my many criteria is language. If an author chooses to use foul language, I can choose not to buy the book, and my students can request it from the public library and they’ll bring it right to school. That way, I don’t get in trouble with parents, because that DOES happen.

  6. I totally get that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. MaryWitzl says:

    Well written. I know where I stand on this issue, and it’s right smack in both camps. I was one of those goody-goody types too–I had parents who thought that spelling out ‘d-a-m-n’ was indulging in foul language–and I’ve never really gotten the hang of swearing. But there does seem to be something wrong with presenting such a santitized, unrealistic view of the world and possibly alienating the kids whose lifestyles are so different from what they find in books. My own kids grew up without t.v., reading OUR books–wholly inappropriate stuff at times–and in retrospect, I think this gave them a better idea of what to expect in the world. I never had that. I’ve got good friends now who drop the C-word without blinking an eye. It’s taken me ages to learn not to recoil in horror. In my own writing, I prefer a light touch–just enough language to give a nod to reality; not enough to really pound it in. Old habits die hard.

  8. Thanks, Mary! You make great sense.

    And how awesome that you raised your kids with no TV but nearly limitless access to books.

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