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C.C. Hogan

Should you swear in Young Adult Fiction?

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This article includes swear words - intentionally.

I am very proud of my book The Stink. It is funny, I think, it is slightly anarchic, it has music in it, London in it and gives a really good sense of what it was like to be a sixteen years old back in the mid 1970s.  Having read it back yet again, I certainly find myself dragged back to those days when I gave a damn about everything, except parents, washing properly, being in a good mood and so on.

But it is a true reflection of the times. It includes racism, homophobia, coming out, mood swings and profanity. Oh, the main characters are atheists too, just to upset even more people.

The question is, in what genre does this book belong?

To my mind it sits in two Genre's, or at least has two target markets: Anyone who was a teenager in the 1970s and wants to wallow in nostalgia and anyone who is a teen NOW and wants to see what all the fuss is about. This means that at least part of the market is this rather confusing area called Young Adult Fiction.

Confusing? Well, to this old adult it is. To me a young adult is someone who is an older teenager or early twenties who is probably about ready to make their mark on the world, for good or ill, but according to Wikipedia, the American Library Association defines it as between twelve and eighteen. Twelve? Isn't that a bit too young? Certainly I am not sure many parents of 12 year olds would be very keen on the number of Fucks in my book.  (I mean the word. For important plot reasons there is quite intentionally no actual sex).

I come from a generation where not only were you yelled at for swearing, but parents were often in denial that their precious little kid swore at all. Well, oldies, we might not have sworn in front of you, but down the park....

The generation I come from is quite important to the argument since there are a lot of writers, reviewers, critics, educationalists and librarians who are the same age as me and many of them think it is their right and duty to dictate what the Young Adults of today behave, say, do and read.

I read this interesting article in the Telegraph on the subject that talked about a book that dealt with a teen with Tourette's syndrome. It is full of profanity. What was interesting were the comments. 

Generally, most seemed happy with profanity in young adult books, but there were a few, and one particular troll, who were very definitely NOT happy about it and saw it as the decline of civilisation at worst or distasteful and disrespectful at best - disrespectful to them, not the teens, I should add.

Ellen Brock, a freelance editor, is accepting on her blog and points out that agents and publishers do not shy away from books that include bad language or sex, though they will need it to be justified.

I certainly do not think a book MUST have swearing or MUST have sex scenes, whatever genre, and if that is so then it is a sad day for literature, but neither do I think it should shy away from it.

In my book the characters swear casually, easily, but not hugely. When the lead character has a massive argument with his brother, the air turns blue, however. I remember arguments with my own brother and blue was the least of it.

If a teen can be scared, can be distraught, can be deliriously happy or all the other teen emotions, then why can they not swear as well?  I still swear, though less as an adult, and I still do not swear in front of my mother, but I am not about to censor teens in the 21st century from doing what I did in the 20th.

Some research done by Brigham Young University in the US suggested that cooler, more popular characters in #YA fiction were more likely to swear than their less cool peers, which it is interesting since the popular characters are the ones most likely to have an influence on the reader.

On a rather less scientific note, the books that did the rounds of the playground when I was twelve or thirteen were Richard Allen's Skinhead books. Far from my favourite characters or books, they were stuffed with sex and violence and many kids loved them, mostly for the swearing and sex. Those books came out in the early seventies and though they might not have been part of an official Young Adult genre, they were certainly a part of Young Adult Culture!

So, my own opinion is that if your character swears, let them swear, but don't force them to swear. Remember your audience - in an ideal world it is those that read the book rather than the parent who buys the book, but no world is ideal. If your audience does not mind swearing, then don't worry about it.

But this is just my own take and this is an area which is new to me, so please, tell me, should characters swear in #ya books?

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North London, 1976. The longest, hottest summer on record. The water is running out and the kids hate their parents. Which bunch of idiots would think it is a good idea to start a band?

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