Every so often, the issue of swearing in YA literature raises its tedious head. And I do mean ‘tedious’. The fact that some adults are still questioning whether a few four letter words are suitable for young adults is more than a little tiresome.
I am firmly in the camp that ‘bad language’ has a place in YA literature. Now, I’m not saying that it would be right for Bella Swan to go around effing and blinding when Edward breaks up with her. It just wouldn’t suit her character. But sometimes not only is it appropriate for a character to use a profanity, it is necessary.
Recently I read two new YA books that deal with curse words in completely different ways. They were the fantastic When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan and the thrilling Half Bad by Sally Green. In the former, we meet young Dylan Mint, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. The language Dylan uses in the book is often coarse, offensive and dehumanising. But it is also playful, funny and – most importantly – emotionally truthful. The profanity is sometimes shocking but, despite this, there is not one moment when you feel that it is included for shock tactics. You are in Dylan’s mind throughout, no holes barred.
Half Bad is a very different book. It is a dark, violent, gritty tale of modern day witches. It’s a real page turner and makes you feel that there actually might be a society of witches bubbling under our own world. But I have to admit that I had one problem with the book – and this was something that manifested itself in the latter half. Not only is there no swearing but there is an explicit aversion to it. This is a book that features numerous scenes of mild torture – both physical and emotional – that includes acid burns, backroom surgegical procedures, scarring with knives and much more. Yet it constantly shies away from any four letter words. We are told on a couple of occasions that protagonist Nathan ‘threw in a few swears’ and, on the occasion where Nathan is suffereing the worst agony of his young life, we get an asterixed ‘F***!’
Like I said, I did enjoy Half Bad a lot. It is, quite simply, a great book. The world Sally Green created was believable and immersive. But the reluctance to use swear words took me out of that world. The character of Nathan was honest and open to the reader throughout which made it feel all the more untruthful that he wouldn’t drop the occasional F-bomb in our presence.
There are people who believe that there should be no swearing in YA literature. Some say that young adults are not emotionally mature enough to deal with the language. Others actually claim that it will encourage them to use four letter words – (as if they weren’t already aware of them!) All of that is hogwash. As Patrick Ness has said, children and teenagers are great self-censors. I certainly know that, as a kid, if I ever started a book I didn’t feel ready for, I put it down until a later date.
Profanity should, of course, have a context. But so should every other word and event and character in a novel. The only thing that matters is the truth of the character and the truth of that moment. Denying the character four letter words because of prudishness does nobody any good, least of all the reader.