‘Appropriate’ and Other Ugly Words

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“Is this appropriate for my child to read?” the man asked, turning my book over in his hands and looking at me as if I was trying to put something over on him.

When I decided to start writing my own work, I really didn’t give too much thought to its appropriateness for children, since I was gearing it toward an adult audience. I should have guessed, I suppose, that being fantasy, people might assume it was for kids (because adults certainly don’t read that stuff, right? :D) There’s no graphic sex, the profanity is mild, and the violence is a PG-13 level. Once it came out, many of my students started showing up in the library telling me they’d read it and liked it, so the librarian at the time bought some copies for the school library. I’ve received emails from young people who read the book, which just delights me. But I still hesitate to answer the question of its suitability, because there’s just no way for me to know. As my son’s school librarian said recently, “The only person who can tell you what to read, besides you, is your mom or dad.” Everything depends on the child’s reading comprehension and maturity, which is something the parent should know better than anyone else. My parents never forbade me reading anything I chose. I remember reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land the summer I was twelve, and trying to talk to them about it after. It was uncomfortable for them, but they didn’t back away or freak out at the sensitive subject matter. I was lucky to have parents who knew what they were doing.

As a writer, I can honestly say I don’t write with one eye toward what’s appropriate or politically correct. If you try, you’ll end up second-guessing yourself right into a hole you can’t climb out of. Trust me, I tried it once. Nearly drove me crazy! I worried over every word, until my head was spinning. There’s a story to tell, and I’m going to tell it. If one of my characters is a foul-mouthed bum, I’m not going to clean up his language just to satisfy some possible objector down the line. That’s how he talks. If his socially unpleasant manner succeeds in propelling the story along, I’m right in what I’ve written.

These days there’s quite a lot of sex and violence lurking in the pages of books. I’ve been reading a number of articles in library journals lately bemoaning the profanity and sex in young adult literature. Sure, it’s there. But it’s not the cause of young people’s poor choices – it’s reflecting them. So many kids have no one paying attention, no one to talk to except peers (who are busily making lousy choices themselves.) Sometimes the only wisdom they can find is in the pages of a book. Is it appropriate for a twelve-year-old to read a book about date rape? Maybe. Could be she’s being pressured by her older boyfriend, and doesn’t know what to do. The book might be what gives her the strength to say no. Even a book that begins in ugliness can show a searching reader the way out of his dilemma, but only if the reader can get his hands on the book in the first place.

So I can’t tell you whether your child can read my book or any book. Nor is it my job to only write happy-shiny work that pretends the world is a wonderful place. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s ugly. My job is to tell the story in my head, with all the blood and anger and thrills and joy that come along with it.

Whether it’s appropriate or not.

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23 comments to ‘Appropriate’ and Other Ugly Words

  • I agree totally, Misty. You write the book that’s in your head, as you hear it, see it, feel it. That said, I recently submitted something to a market that I knew had certain restrictions on profanity. So I wrote the story as I wanted and then went back through and changed what I needed to to take the rating from PG-13 to PG. That way, I didn’t have to worry about self-editing as I wrote, but was still able to approach this market. I think that approach works better for me than, as you put it, worrying over every word.

  • Yep. Raise your children. Don’t leave it to me, the FCC or the government to do it for you. If you wanna know if something is appropriate for your child to read, read it first. That’s a big pet peeve of mine. People not taking responsibility and expecting the rest of society to change to make up for their inability to raise their own children. Ooh, yeah, I better stop now. Get back to writing my violence and smut books. 😉

  • In some cases, word choice will just change the market that will buy the story. As David mentions above, he had to change some words to fit the market. The other way is to submit just to the markets that want what you’ve written. I’ve had some short stories that languished because they were too mature for most mainstream magazines. A change of editor or focus can free up a market sometimes. Sometimes you just got to submit where the story dictates. Either way, I agree that you can’t edit this kind of stuff as you go along. That way leads to madness!

  • Emily

    I wonder, not having kids myself, if what the parents are sloppily asking when they say “is this appropriate” is “I’m not going to get any scary surprises from this, right?” It would be better if they said “I don’t want my kid reading x, y, and z. Is that in this?” and then you could answer the question.

    I had freewheeling parents when it came to my reading (and watching) lists. Consequently I read the Damnation Game by Clive Barker when I was 12, and watched Clockwork Orange on mtv at about 2:00am (I was an insomniac teenager) when i was 13. Both, I think, were a little early. I didn’t fully understand either, but some of the images stuck with me. Maybe if I’d waited just a couple more years… I don’t think my parents were bad (they were awsome) but, if I have kids, I might make slightly different choices.

    I completely agree that authors should write the books they are going to write, but I also don’t object to people asking what’s in them, and making those kinds of decisions. Hey, I’m happy to hear that 1). this guy wants his kid to read and 2). he cares what the kid is reading!

  • My parents were as tight on what I watched as they were permissive on what I read! I could read any scary book I wanted, but “Night Gallery” and “Dark Shadows” were utterly forbidden. *smile*

    It would be better if they said “I don’t want my kid reading x, y, and z. Is that in this?” and then you could answer the question.

    Exactly.

    Having been a parent and a librarian for a while, I can honestly tell you that kids will censor themselves. If they’re not ready for something, usually they’ll quit reading the book. I have great respect for a kid who brings a book back to me, and says, “It wasn’t right for me so I didn’t finish.” It’s the people who say “This book isn’t right for me, so it must be inappropriate for everybody” that make me unhappy.

    It’s been a rough week here in the library. 🙂

  • You are right Misty. It is not your job. It is the parents job. Also, I find it odd that this guy assumed you had matching ideas of appropriateness. For him, appropriate might mean no graphic sex and violence. For me, appropriate would include no hidden political or religious messages.

    On another note, I think the booksellers could do a better job of seperating children’s books from YA. My daughter is ten and when we go to Barnes and Noble, the children’s books are in the same sectioned-off area with the YA. That annoys me. One, it makes filtering what she reads that much harder. Two, I don’t want to go to the children’s section to get my YA novels.

    Another rant – There is a trend in YA that really ticks me off. The underlying message that it is okay to lie (to your parents or others)if there is a really good reason. I know that novels aren’t supposed to be moral authorities, but they do know that the target audience is children, right?

    I do think an author is responsible for the work they produce. It did come from your brain, after all. There are authors that write controversial material aimed at young people. They have to be able to own the consequences, good or bad. Yes, there may be a young girl that is being pressured by her boyfriend that is helped. But, there may also be a young girl (or boy) that reads about a character’s bad choices and feels validated in their own bad choices. That is a negative impact. It happens.

  • Well put, Misty. And I agree with April that it’s telling that people assume that what they consider “appropriate” is some kind of universal: that their values are the only real ones, so that failure to measure up to those standards makes you immoral rather than according to a different set of moral standards.

    I would add that writers can’t be held responsible for the actions of those who read and emulate bad behavior from books. The devil/author made me do it has never been a valid defense.

  • The underlying message that it is okay to lie (to your parents or others)if there is a really good reason.

    Several years ago, the commercials for Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal were based on the idea that all the tweens were infinitely smarter than the idiot adults around them. It was so disrespectful that I never purchased another box. My son loved the cereal, so I had to explain to him why we could not buy it any more, but he accepted that this was part of the values of our family.

    Same with books. If the parent feels the message isn’t right, he should not buy the book. Even better, he should talk to the child about why the message is wrong.

    But, there may also be a young girl (or boy) that reads about a character’s bad choices and feels validated in their own bad choices.

    As a librarian, I can safely say that no child has ever come to me and said, “See? This book says it’s okay for me to beat up other people.” I have, however, had children tell me about books that spoke to their own circumstances and made them feel hopeful. In my experience, the positive impacts far outweigh any negative.

  • Misty, I was reading in the adult section of the library when I was 12 because I’d read everything in the teen section already. Mom approved, with the admonition, “If you read anything that you don’t understand or that bothers you, bring it to me. We’ll talk.” I don’t remember ever taking her about anything, but I did steal the two volume American College Dictionary and keep them under my bed, along with a Thesaurus. When I moved out, years later, I took the volume with me and bought mom one for herself. I not a well educated person (no PhD or Masters), but I am well read, open minded, not afraid of any subject (even the dreaded religious subjects) and I bless my mom and the librarians for helping with that. It sounds to me (reading between the lines) that you took some flack from a parent who never noticed that every single person on the planet has his own value system, and that none of us reads minds. Parents who have their own strict rules cannot expect for others to know their private rules or be willing to follow them. But fools abound. Perhaps their parents didn’t encourage them to read when they were children and that is why they are so narrow minded. It happens. Hugs.

  • Misty – As a librarian, you have a definate insight into children’s reading habits. That I acknowledge. But, to clarify my point, let’s take an example from Twilight. Sorry, I hear the collective moan. Bella, lies to her father on a regular basis. In some instances, it is to protect him, yes. But, others times, it is so her boyfriend can be in her room at night. You can imagine that there are girls who lie to their parents to be with their boyfriends and read this and feel validated in their behavior. Another example from Twilight – Bella becomes suicidal when Edward leaves her. My argument is that Meyer could have tempered that in the rewrite, especially if she already knew it was going to go out as YA. If she did know, and she didn’t temper, then she made a poor moral choice. Of course, that is my opinion. An author of material for children is in a relationship with those children. They are speaking directly to them. There is a responsibility there. Of course, this is all just my opinion.

    AJ – Stephen King wrote one of my favorite short stories “Rage”. Here is a quote about that story from Stone Junction –

    Incidently, Rage is the only novel that King admits he wishes he never wrote. Several similar incidents have occured across the United States, and Rage has been mentioned in connection with them. Considering how sympathetic King is to his protagonist, it’s easy to see how disillusioned teens could come to identify with its themes. — Stone Junction

    Do I think that Stephen King was responsible for those attacks? No. Did those children find something in those words that validated what they felt? Yes. That story was not written for teens. But what if it had been? Is anybody here saying that you can, and should, say whatever you want in a child’s book with impunity and the only barrier would be if you could get published or not? I don’t think so.

  • Sorry Misty. I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. I thought the idea was to talk about these things from different view points. I hope your week gets better.

  • April, you’re right – that’s exactly the point. I appreciate hearing your thoughts, and I apologize if I came off snarly.

    As for Twilight, I do understand the point you’re making, and to an extent, I can agree. I’ve only read the first book, but at the time I honestly felt that it was geared toward upper high school. When it started showing up in the middle school libraries, I was shocked.

  • I don’t disagree that writing is a moral business, or that people are influenced by what they read. I’ve also never been in a situation where I feel that something I’ve written has been somehow involved in some kind of unfortunate event. But I don’t think any of those things takle away the responsibility of the individual who acts on something he or she has read. For a hundred years and more kids have regularly been reading Hamlet in grade school. Would someone be justified in citing that as justifying murderous revenge? No. I see that you are saying that Stephen King wasn’t responsible for acts resembling “Rage,” and maybe being extra careful about such writing isn’t a bad idea, but there’s a slippery slope here which has to be navigated equally carefully. Censorship is still censorship when it’s self-censorship. Of course I don’t want anyone being hurt or killed because of something I write, but readers of all ages have to exercise their own moral judgment, whatever our current “victim culture” might suggest to the contrary. This is why we value books, right? Because they are supposed to stimulate critical, independent thought. To come back to Hamlet, Art has to “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” Can books shape reality? Sure, to an extent. But their job is to show life, not to produce a sanitized version of it for fear of upsetting someone or giving some wacko a justification for some antisocial act. My 2 cents.

  • Well said, Misty. 😀 My parents never kept me from reading anything. I’d read all the children’s stuff I wanted to read by age 12 and started reading adult literature. 😀 And if I had questions, I asked them, comfortable or not. 😀

    Parents should not shelter their children. The sheltered kids I went to school with ended up unmarried with multiple children and/or on drugs. Not saying that happens to everyone but it’s certainly something to think about, IMHO.

  • AJ – good points. A note on censorship – we all censor our selves and our behavior on a daily basis. There have been times that I have wanted to tell someone what I really thought of them, but have “censored” myself. Afterward, I was glad I did. Censorship, in and of itself, is not evil. When it becomes forced censorship, that is when I have a problem. I don’t think anybody has a right to tell me what I can or cannot read.

    On the value of books – My husband is an amateur book dealer. He had my daughter help him one afternoon. Together, they looked up prices and sorted. I walked in the room and heard my husband ask my daughter what a certain book was worth. She said it wasn’t worth anything and tossed it into a pile to be throwed away. I was horrified. First of all, we don’t toss books in my house. Books should be treated with respect. I don’t want to bring up a child that thinks the value of a book is in what you can get for it on Amazon. After a discussion with my husband, we decided that she wouldn’t be involved with that part of the business. Some might think that is a drastic step, but children are impressionable.

    On Hamlet – it has been some time since I read it, but I might have a problem with it being read in grade school if revenge murder was glorified and the murderer had a happy ending.

    This is a conversation best had over beers at the pub. Pass the spicy peanuts…

  • Mikaela

    I read the Long Ships by Frank G Bengtsson when I was twelve, it was a gift from my mum. I think I read Jean Auel then, too. My mother never tried to censor my reading. And I had a library nearby, which I visited regularly. So I read a lot. Both adult and YA. My summer reading was Norman Conquer, a series from the sixties, mixed up with Nancy Drew and horse novels!

    Intrestingly enough, my siblings read a lot less than I do. I got all the book love in our family….

  • April, totally agree on all counts, esp the part about the beer 🙂

  • AJ said, For a hundred years and more kids have regularly been reading Hamlet in grade school. Would someone be justified in citing that as justifying murderous revenge?
    They made me read Romeo and Juliet. Even when I was young the idea of dying for love seemed awfully complicated and not worth the effort.

    Tyhitia, you’ll like this from Laurie Halse Anderson – “But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.”

    Mikaela, I was a member of the Nancy Drew Book of the Month club! 😀

    April, order me a cider at the pub, I’ll be there ASAP. *laughs*

  • Sarah

    Fantastic discussion, guys. Thank you. I think a theme that’s emerging in my own mind is that cautious, analytical self-censorship or parental censorship has a place, but always an extremely careful one. And usually guided reading is better than censorship. For instance, the only book I remember my parents taking away from me was Corrie ten Boom’s Autobiography about Auschwitz. Mom’s explanation was that she actually wanted me to read the book, but not while I was too young to emotionally handle the content. She was right; when I read it in my teens I was very grateful my ten year old mind had been spared the scenes of human evil in the book. And I was grateful that I had read the book eventually, because ten Boom’s story and her message were so powerful. What was bad at one moment, was perfect at a different moment. The South Park “kick a ginger day” silliness was another example. If your kid is too naive, too young or too dumb to recognize satirical mockery of irrational prejudices then they shouldn’t watch South Park, at least not without guidance. That doesn’t mean South Park should be banned, rather it means that kids should be guided in their media use.

    A few years ago I reluctantly self-censored – I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth and may not ever watch it. I’m too easily haunted by certain types of violent images, so I chose not to watch the movie when it came out. I think the writer/director is brilliant and his explanation of why he chose that particular violence seemed eminently justifiable to me. (All the violence was documented incidents from the actual war.) I had to pull off the road and cry when I heard his interview on NPR.

    My point is that all these narratives were good work, worthy of being written and read or watched. The world would be poorer without these works in them. And yet, in certain circumstances it is appropriate for certain individuals not to experience the work, either for a time or permanently. Perhaps the trick is asking not “is this work bad?” but “am I (or my kids) the right audience for this work at this moment?” Then we’d have a censorship that wasn’t based in self-righteousness or fear, but in humility.

  • Robin

    I’m LDS (Mormon–please hold the rotten tomatoes) and can attest there are few groups more firmly dedicated to squeaky-clean entertainment. Worse, I was raised in Utah, where general church direction on the subject has grown ugly heads. I have a friend who recently took such exception to a hands-off-kissing scene in a book that she literally tore the page out of the book before she let her almost-teen daughter read it. Not having any daughers myself or any kids near that age, I can’t say for sure whether I’d be comfortable with them reading it–but I suspect I would.

    My parents never censored what I read, which I am extremely grateful for. They taught me how to choose correctly, then trusted me to make correct choices–no matter what “bad” examples I saw modeled in fiction. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, I’ve never strayed from what they taught.

    When I was at BYU (yeah, I’m very Mormon), I had a playwrighting teacher who taught us that “all words are morally neutral.” I also learned that Brigham Young built the Pioneer Theatre almost as soon as he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in part so that they could show evil… and its consequences. There is a moral argument that showing bad choices is a GOOD thing–unless, perhaps, you also glorify those bad choices.

    Some fiction, of course, glorifies choices which would almost certainly be bad in the real world. Sometimes strong justifications are given, sometimes the character is simply amoral, but never are these books responsible for the actions of readers. Any reader who says differently is demonstrating one of the worst kinds of criminal thinking: deflection.

    I have three sons and I’d rather they grow up able to discern good choices from bad choices because they’ve had some reasonably safe practice by living stories where they experience the consequences of both. They’re not ready to read graphic sex scenes, but, as American kids start experimenting younger and younger, I don’t mind if they “live” the kind of heartache that can come from an unwanted pregnancy. My friend said her daughter could learn about the consequences of the manipulative kissing just as well without reading it… but how, when she’s in the dark on how and why the choice was made? How will she identify the same inclinations in herself?

    Okay, one more thing: I work with criminals every day and the way they really talk is seldom interesting enough to commit to paper. “So, f-, I was thinking that my f-ing friends were gonna f-ing be there for me, but the f-ers were, f-ing, in the mall f-ing off.” When I have to skip half the words to catch the meaning, it’s not conducive to clear communication or clear writing.

    So say I. 🙂

  • Robin, Sarah and April. Great stuff. Thanks for chiming in.

  • Very well stated, Misty. You’ve said it so well and I absolutely agree. I will be sure to refer back to this post if the topic comes up in any conversations I’m part of.