A Child's Illustrated Guide to Sex, Swearing and Violence

I bought a couple of books yesterday, both from the Young Adult section.  When I took them up to the counter to buy them, the young woman there commented that she had enjoyed reading one of them (The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness), but that it was quite violent, making it tricky for her to recommend it to kids.  Or, rather, to their parents.

This sparked a conversation, and much thought afterwards, about the trouble with books written for a younger audience, and how much should be censored.  It seems there are three main areas of concern: sex, swearing and violence.  While children are at a delicate age, many parents wish to control the amount of these adult themes that their child is exposed to.

Fair enough.  If I had a ten-year-old, I would not reach for Pulp Fiction for the Friday-night family movie.  I would not read Lady Chatterley's Lover to my six-year-old for their bedtime story.  I do believe there is an appropriate stage of life for these things.

The trouble is, when is that stage?  It's different for each child, depending on their maturity and curiosity levels.  I guess it's up to the parents to judge when the time is best.

What the bookshop woman and I agreed on, though, is that sometimes parents overdo it.  I know I'm in no position to judge, not being a parent myself, but kids self-censor.  They take in what they're ready for and ignore the rest.  I know I did.  I was watching The Blues Brothers from an early age with no idea how much swearing was in it.  I read Dracula in my teens with no appreciation for the sexual undertone, only to discover it when I re-read it in my twenties.  (Seriously - it's everywhere.)  I skipped over all the graphic fight scenes in the David Eddings books when I was twelve and not interested in people being brained with an axe.  If I wasn't ready for it, I blanked it out, and I'm sure other kids do this too.

Which is good because, thinking about it, each of these elements is in my book for early-teens.  Not explicitly.  Not on every page.  But they're there.  One character gets stabbed in a fight and dies.  Another two characters can't make it to a meeting because they're busy "sleeping".  Another character calls my protagonist a little $#!t.

That last example is a new addition into the manuscript, and I'll be interested if my editor puts a big red cross through it.  I knew it was a possibility for censorship when I wrote it, and yet I went for it anyway.  The character who uses this particular curse word is sixteen, angry and not an overly pleasant individual.  It felt right that he would say it.  Should I sacrifice this character's voice because an impressionable nine-year-old may pick up my book?

Possibly.  I will if pressed.  A few days ago I would have argued the case (and I probably still will) but the second book I bought has made me think more carefully about it.

This book, The Andy Flegg Survival Guide by Mark Pardoe, contains hardly any objectionable material, and it does so without sacrificing voice or plot.  Granted, his main protagonist is only eleven while mine is fifteen, so the content is naturally more innocent, but it's still skilfully done.  While things are constantly happening in Andy's life, the only violence so far is a school-yard tussle where nobody was seriously hurt.  Sex here is sex-education, and is about puberty, not intercourse.  Any swearing?  No.  Name-calling only, and it's an opening for the author to use stellar words like "numpty" and "nuff nuff".

Now, my dad uses the term "nuff nuff".  I've never heard it used by anyone else until now.  I picked up this book because of the cover; I bought it because it used the term "nuff nuff" on the second page.  Note to myself and any other author who reverts to unimaginative swear words: creative cussing = a sale.

The trouble is "you little numpty" doesn't exactly convey the menace my nasty sixteen-year-old is feeling.  "You little so-and-so" or "you little rascal" does not create the effect I'm after either.  The fact that the word he uses is an off-limits word is what I'm counting on to make an impact.

In fact, I hope the scene confirms to my readers that it is a swear word he's using.  It's a word to be used only in times of the highest emotion by people who are distressed enough to really mean it.  I myself don't object to swearing when it is called for.  It's when it's used lightly or casually that I don't like.  Use it like that and it loses its punch.  I can guarantee your kids know all the words already, so let's teach them how to use them appropriately.

So I'll sparingly use swearing where I think it's justified and in character, assuming my editor lets me.  Do I think I'm imaginative enough to get around not using it?  Yes I do.  Will I cut it out willingly as a moral stance against profanity?  No I won't.  There are a finite number of words in the English language, and I don't want to discount any of them.  I promise to use them carefully, though.

And the sex?  There is no sex scene to either distress or fascinate the youngsters, but my protagonist is a fifteen-year-old boy.  If he didn't think about sex at least a little bit, whether positively or negatively, he wouldn't be a fifteen-year-old boy.

As for the violence, all I can say is that the fighting in my book is necessary for the plot.  I do not portray it as a fun or noble activity, but rather as a negative occurrence used to heighten the seriousness of the protagonist's situation.  If there was no struggle, there would be no success.  I've tried, however, to keep the fight scenes punchy (ha ha) without being too graphic.  I'm not in the business of giving children nightmares.

I am in the business, though, of educating, and reading is an education.  It's where kids find out about life.  As much as I detest books that purposefully set out to dictate to children some overriding moral message, fiction is a great way for kids to explore ideas about all manner of things: sex, relationships, interaction, language, work, friends, family, good, evil.  If you want to teach your children, give them a book that deals with these issues, that shows that violence is not an answer, or sex has consequences, or friendships can be complicated.  If you hide them from these issues, they'll never know how to deal with them properly.

All in all, I think I'm going to be the kind of writer that won't automatically discount the use of any word, situation or subject.  This doesn't mean I'm going to use them all deliberately, or not keep my audience in mind.  If I start writing something akin to a George R.R. Martin novel and try to foist it off as a kid's book, I trust my editor will put me right.  I don't want kids reading my books and turning into potty-mouthed, violent sex-addicts.

But let's not underestimate the younger generation and only give them candy floss to read until they're old enough to vote.  Let's trust them to decide for themselves what they're ready for.  Like nutrients from a salad, they'll take in what they need and $#!t out the rest.