Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Coarse Language in Middle Grade Fiction?

Jan Dohner is a Library Media Specialist who blogs about books for her 5th and 6th grade students at Maltby Intermediate School. She posed a fascinating topic for discussion here on Ink Spells and I'm happy to have her guest posting today. Please chime in to the conversation below!

Susan asked for guest columns and I volunteered. Actually, I was looking for some input on something that has been vexing me for several days. The folks here are good at input.

As background, I’ve been a library media specialist for a long time - too long to admit to online. Obviously I’ve been reading and buying children’s fiction for a very long time as well. After spending the past ten years in a 6th through 8th grade middle school, I’m now at a 5th and 6th grade intermediate school. I looked forward to the change; in fact, I was responsible for dividing the collection of two 6-8th grade middle schools into the current 5-6 and 7-8 buildings.

One of the reasons I liked this new configuration was my continuing dilemma with deciding what was appropriate for my students in terms of language and content. Sixth graders - well - they are really, mostly middle grade fiction readers while the older kids need some YA. Fifth-sixth will be a snap, I thought - middle grade all the way!

Well of course, nothing is a snap and I’ve discovered lots of new challenges in working with kids ages 9 to 11. But that pesky concept of “appropriate” was a bit of a surprise. Although it’s hard to pin down a definition of middle or intermediate grade fiction, I occasionally found myself perplexed with reviews that labeled books grades 5-8 or 5-7. To say nothing of the publisher’s claims of ages 8-12. In the old days, I clearly thought of these books as middle school suitable. But then I started reading with my new 5th-6th grade eye and the old dilemma rose up again.

Here’s my most recent example. In my summer weekly browsing at my local bookstore, I bought a new book (which will remain un-named here). Great cover. Mystery with an interesting setting. Boy character. And some gross-out stuff thrown in for good measure. New author. School Library Journal review was OK, not spectacular, grades 5-8. Booklist, good review, grades 5-7. I happily settled into my favorite reading chair looking forward to a new book to blog to the students over the summer. Several minutes later I nearly threw it across the room.

While the gross-out stuff was not my cup of tea, it was the language that bothered me. First 21 pages and I’d already read screwed, pissed-off, screwed-up, bastard. Really, I wasn’t counting just getting annoyed. And disappointed. I wasn’t going to be able to blog or book talk this title to my 9 and 10 year-olds.

As Susan and I recently discussed it - this isn’t profanity but it is coarse language. It’s also pretty commonplace language, I guess. Is it now so commonplace that it is acceptable in middle grade fiction? Should it be?

Maybe the bigger question is - am I now to old to be doing this job?

As Linda Richman would say on Saturday Night Live - ‘Talk among yourselves.” I’m interested - really I am.

Jan Dohner
Library Media Specialist

Thank you, Jan! I would love to hear opinions from parents, kids, readers and writers of all stripes. If you are an agent or publisher of middle grade fiction, we would love to hear your perspective as well!


  1. I'll happily join this discussion. I suppose I'm not only commenting as a writer of middle grade, but as a mother of three boys: twin 10 year olds and a 13 year old.

    I keep over the top language out of my writing for the same reason I don't accept it at home: there's always another way of saying it. True, it might be the way some kids talk, but it also makes other kids uncomfortable.

    I read adult books with language in it that I won't use, but I do find myself strangely uncomfortable if that language is over used.

    This is just one mother/writer's opinion! Thanks for the great discussion.

  2. As a writer of MG fiction and mom of three boys, I agree with Julie that coarse language is really unnecessary. Although I don't think the potential harm is as great as with inappropriate violent or sexual content.

    My boys hear coarse language, but they know better than to bring it home (and I hope they don't use it out of my hearing either). We'll even occasionally watch a (usually PG) movie and I'll say, "You know, this movie uses language I don't approve of. You know I don't want you to talk like that, right?"

    Nods all around.

    While I think kids can survive occasional bouts with coarse language unharmed, I don't want them immersed in it. And as a writer, I know there are ways around it. In fact, I enjoy playing with language and inventing new words - slang/coarse/otherwise. I would rather add flavor to a story with a new slang word than use one that is coarse in everyday language.

    Thanks to Jan for bringing up such a fascinating topic.

  3. This is a fascinating topic. Thanks to Jan and Susan.

    Jan, I don't think it's a matter of your age so much as standing up for good taste in an increasingly coarse world. I teach 4th grade and I'm often appalled at what my students think of as normal. I'm also surprised at the books they're allowed to read (really, Twilight Saga in 4th grade?) or watch (The Bachelorette, Jon & Kate, Real Housewives?).

    I had a really interesting discussion with my class about a similar topic one day. The NY Times had an article about 3 years back about Junie B. Jones and whether the books should be banned because Junie spoke and behaved "like a real kid".

    A surprising number of my students felt that the books should be written with correct language so children could learn to speak correctly. They weren't particularly bothered or impressed by Junie's language, but her behavior was a much hotter topic. Many didn't like when she acted in a mean way.

    We continued the discussion with a question about whether or not authors have a responsibility to avoid bad language or bad lessons. Many of the children wanted the authors to take the high road - just do it in an entertaining fashion.

  4. @MaryC Leave it to the kids to put it simply! I love that they are seeking out correct language and good lessons.

  5. I'm not used to kids *not* speaking coarsely. A lot of them around me say things like that all the time, and they're only 12. But I do think there is a limit to how often it should be used, both in real life and in books, for kids that age. I don't think they're going to say it all the time, especially around adults, but there are plenty who do talk that way on a regular basis.

  6. I'm a father of two boys (8 and 6), and I've written two hope-to-be-published MG novels.

    In my first book, the protagonist has a talent that most people would be more apt to call an affliction: he farts. A lot. And with great force. However, the story is about him finding the right time and right place to use his talent, and while much wind is broken, it's not done to be gross. There are plot consequences for just about every blast. My kids laughed at the story, but realize that there's a time and a place for everything.

    My other novel has two instances of coarse language, a "jackass" and a "damn." I think both are appropriate given the characters and context. The jackass is in reference to a character, but a boy is leading a cart with a mule so it is a double entendre. The damn comes at one of the emotional climaxes of the book and I think the emphasis is needed.

    My older son learned the f-bomb at school in first grade. He doesn't like to hear it and never uses it (to my knowledge). I don't think he would enjoy a book that had too much "plain speak."

  7. This is so interesting that I read this today; this morning my 4 year old was listening to Huck Finn on CD, and I was reminded of all of the language we were warned about in middle school. ("negro, master", etc.)

    I think classic lit must remain intact to preserve the integrity of the writings, but where do we draw the line at current publishings? Are we then putting those authors at risk of losing their status one day as a classic writer? (Twilight and Gossip Girls removed, of course. Ugh.)

  8. As an "older" writer and a grandmother who grew up in a more "gentle" time--that is, when the movies "faded out" at a love scene, and "faded back in" when it was over--I'm still with the belief that a book or movie doesn't need too much "plain speak," as Rick Daley calls it. The world today is a world where all the old "fences" have been knocked down. I feel like this isn't my world. It is an "increasingly coarse world." I applaud those of you above who dialogue with your children about the books they read and what they think and feel about it all.

  9. I do think that using too much "plain speak" has the affect of diluting it and taking away from its power when the author and his character really need it. I am certainly not opposed to the right word in the right place like those Rick describes in his own novel.

    Let Sleeping Freshman Lie by David Lubar, is a novel for slightly older kids but it is a good example of this. I've read it aloud to several 8th grade classes. Quite a way into the story and character development, someone puts a sign on a girl's locker that reads "bitch." By the time this moment comes in the novel, my students are already so invested in this character that they gasp in horror and sympathy that someone did this to her. They feel really bad for her. And they celebrate how another character comes to her defense and tears down the sign. It is a powerful word at that moment. If the author had used it several times before, its power would certainly be diminished.

    Like Susan, I like made-up words for slang or coarse language in fantasy or science fiction. Not only is it creative but I think it allows kids to make up their own meanings - ones they are comfortable with.

    I'm still debating this question though - do we draw a line somewhere and say this is middle grade fiction - and if we do, where do we draw it?

  10. Thanks everyone for your great comments! I posed this question over at Nathan Bransford's blog, and there's an interesting discussion going there as well.

  11. Susan, I'd plan to talk to you about your book and then I got a comment saying you're doing a blog tour. Can you send me a message on yalitchat?

  12. Hello - I came by from the lovely KarenG's blog. Really interesting topic. I remember given a book to read at school when I was aged 10 called The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler (fab book!) and it had something like 'pissed off' in it - we all had to read an extract in class and I was awfully embarrassed at reading that bit out as I thought the teacher would hate me! But at the same time I liked the book as it had a 'rude' word in it, and it made me giggle. I think I later bought the book as well, at least it is still on my book-shelves somewhere.

  13. @Jayne Thanks for weighing in with the kid's-eye view! :)

  14. Thanks everyone for the comments, especially Jan. I hope you don't mind if I quote you in my lesson. I don't want my students' "censor buttons" to be set to high alert so much that they Liquid Paper out the word "blood" in a novel (which someone indeed did to my copy of Pig Boy). Yet, I don't want them to consider f-words and s-words to be part of acceptable everyday conversation. If it's a read-aloud, you can choose whether or not to say it, knowing how your class will handle it. (Hey, and no bashing Twilight - it's turned a lot of my non-readers into reading machines when given to the "appropriate age" - but that's another argument for another time.)


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers