Monday, July 28, 2014

The Four Letter Word - One Writer's Opinion

This week, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth was pulled from the summer reading list of the Cape Henlopen, Delaware's ninth grade class. The reason cited by the school board was excessive use of foul language. The fact that the book is a LGBT coming of age story may have factored in to it as well, but that's not the issue I want to address in this post.

Cussing. Let's face it. Most of you have done it. Most of you will do it again. The first time you cussed may have been as a grade schooler. And you were either met with snickers (from your classmates), or a finger pointed to the office (from your teacher), or some form of punishment from your parent. Hopefully, in that moment, you learned something. You learned about when it was okay to let an expletive fly and when it wasn't.

Here's the truth. I love a good f-bomb. It feels kind of like power on my tongue. I wasn't raised to cuss. I never heard my mother utter a four letter word until I was in my thirties, and it shocked me. My father was a recreational sailor and donned the mantle of sailor mouth like a privilege. But only on the boat. That was his safe place. And when I crewed for him, I didn't leave cussing like his shoulder parrot. I knew those words were for the boat. And only for my father. Not for me.

Now, I'm a high school teacher. I do not cuss at work. Ever. (unless you count, "Oh Mother Biscuit Eater!") But at home, talking to good friends, yeah, I'm going to let the potty mouth fly from time to time. The thing is, I know when it's okay, and when it's not. Because I was made aware of the words, saw the impact of the words, and was guided to make smart choices.

The point of this? Cursing in books is okay. Your kids are going to learn those words in movies, out on the street, in the classroom. It might be the man who stubs his toe as he jogs past your kid playing in the front yard and let's a big one fly.

In books, curse words are used as character development. In No Place To Fall, Amber's world is gritty. She rarely cusses, but when she does it's never to her parents, it's never at school, but in self-reflective moments, or when she's talking to her best friend or her sister. It is a real part of this fictional character.

In another book I'm writing, I have a Latina girl being raised by devout, Catholic parents and she never curses. It's not okay for her. Which is right for THAT character.

I just a read a cute fantasy, Between by Megan Whitmer, where the main character, to avoid paying into her mother's swear jar, has come up with all sorts of adorable substitutes. It worked swimmingly for THAT character. But would that have worked for my back-in-the-holler Amber whose brother in law is a drug dealer? No way. Not real.

And here's the other thing, like ANY controversial issue in young adult literature, a novel is a safe place to explore the rights and wrongs of things. Just because a teenager reads an f-bomb on the page doesn't mean they're going to re-enact it on the stage of life. Their stage is no doubt very different than the fictional character they're reading about.

Trust young readers. You made it through, didn't you? Let them find their way.

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