Monday, May 25, 2015

Dear MG Minded — On MG and Profanity

Dear MG Minded,

I would like to use the idiom 'shot to hell.' The question: Is the mild curse 'hell' appropriate for a MG contemporary fantasy? Thanks!

This week's question is one I've seen come up in discussions many times. And it's a tough one to answer, because both sides offer up equally good points. Since that's the case, I could just give the same advice my dad did when I came to him with a question he didn't know the answer to:

Go ask your mom.

But I won't do that to you all. Not today anyway. No, today I'm going to pitch in my own two cents on the subject. I've had this discussion with many writers, my agent, and my editor, so I've got several people who are much smarter than me to guide me. 

*clears throat, pushes up glasses, looks all professorly*

There have been many successful MG books which have shows us that mild profanity in kidlit can work. But that doesn't mean every MG book needs it. If you're faced with a word or phrase you're on the fence about in your kidlit story, there are some things you have to consider.
  1. Character
  2. Story
  3. Gatekeepers
Let's take a closer look at each one.


I guess the first thing you need to think about is whether or not the character would need to use mild profanity. If you're writing for a lower MG crowd, then I'd say no. Never. Nuh-uh. There is no need. But if you're writing a character who's thirteen, then there might be a chance he or she might. And when I say need, I'm talking about the need for authenticity. And that encompasses a lot of things like where the character's from, what time period the character lives in, what the character's family is like. That kind of stuff. However, there's a lot to be said for made-up profanity. Words that'll get the point across without stepping over that line. Again, that comes down to your characters, their age, their lives, and their experiences.


Our job as writers is to tell a compelling story. And if our compelling MG story can survive without the use of profanity, no matter how mild, then why not go that route? But sometimes, a story won't be light and fluffy. Sometimes a story is going to be heavy and dark. And sometimes the characters caught up in the situations within those types of stories are going to express themselves accordingly. However, as a writer, I edit heavily while I write my first drafts. And if there's ever a line or a word that I can take out and still keep the scene as good as I want it, I'll remove it. So that might be a good way to think about mild profanity in MG stories. If the scene can survive just fine without it, maybe it's not needed after all.


Kids buy books, sure. But I'd say the majority of books kids end up reading are ones offered up by parents, teachers, or librarians. Not to say they're the ones who are choosing what our future leaders and novelists are reading, but they're certainly helping. That being said, it's a good idea to keep in mind that many adults won't want their children or students reading a book with profanity. We're writing for our target audience, but we've got a sort of filter we have to go through before our books ever reach the their eyes. 

All right, so . . . did I answer the question? Not really. Because it's not one for me to answer. It's up to the writer. Once a kid reaches a certain age, swearing becomes a part of the exploration of identity. That identity may end up being a non-swearing one, but that developmental stage is still there. We want authentic characters. We want compelling stories. And we want our audience to read them, which means we have to make it past the gatekeepers, so to speak. 

So I'd say write your story and decide for yourself. Just keep in mind that once it's out there, it's not yours anymore. It's theirs. So make sure it's going to be one they'll want (and get) to read.

For an awesome #MGLitChat Twitter discussion on this subject, click here.

If you have a question you'd like MG Minded to answer please email

Happy writing!


Metaphysical Poetry Society said...

Very well written. My personal opinion is that if a book contains swearing, then it's not middle grade fiction, it then becomes young adult fiction.

Thanks for the informative post. :)

Ms. Yingling said...

Very nice. I'm okay with some mild profanity in mglit, but NO f-bombs. That being said, I've had 6 th graders bring me books with horror stricken looks on their faces, saying "This has a bad word in it!" I just let them turn the book in. I would also add that ALL word choices should be purposeful and not gratuitous.

Unknown said...

There are some MG books with mild profanity shelved in bookstores right now, though. But I see what you're saying. Including some of those questionable words in a story will most certainly increase the need for a more mature reader.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure what *I'd* do if I saw an f-bomb in a MG book. And I totally agree with purposeful word choices. Each paragraph, every line, each single word should be there for a very specific reason.

Chuck Robertson said...

My thought is the F-bomb does not belong in MG book. Another thought: if you're looking to sell a book, the presence of profanity will not likely increase your chances, only hurt them. It may not be worth the risk.

Unknown said...

Those are some good thoughts! Thanks for sharing, Chuck!