Thursday 7 February 2019

The F-Bomb and the Children's Librarian, by Dawn Finch

There are many repeated conversations in the world of children’s books, and one that rears its head over and over again is the use of the F-Bomb in children’s books. Such is the power of this word that when I have raised the discussion on social media, I have only made the mistake of using the actual word once as that resulted in me being reported for obscenity. I have used it many times in other tweets (follow me @dawnafinch if you’re into libraries and not sensitive about me getting sweary and angry from time to time), but only when I used it in conjunction with the word “children” did it result in me being reported.

This week I started the discussion again after a friend told me that their publisher said, “school librarians will never stock a book with swearing in.”
"Never"?! Well, that’s a big old myth right there!

I reached out to a bunch of my library colleagues to see if this was a case of publishers putting words into the mouths of librarians, while taking them out of the mouths of authors. The results did not surprise me as my colleagues reinforced that which I already knew.

Let’s stop something right in its tracks. Publishers – school librarians will not automatically block a book simply because it has swearing in.
There – feel better now?

Let’s look at some examples of books containing swearing that you will find in pretty much every library. Harry Potter has swearing (bloody, bastard, git…), Philip Pullman’s books have swearing, David Almond books have swearing…. I won’t list them all, frankly because I don’t want this to be used as a cross-off list by the uninformed using it to remove superb books from collections!

The thing that came across in the conversations I’ve been having is that context is everything. No one is saying that every book should be littered with swear words, but if they belong, and if they work within the text then they absolutely should be there.

I cite Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (although this is for older readers). When Christopher repeats the swear words of the adults around him, it drives home an important point. This swearing absolutely belongs here, and has remained despite a few noisy complaints.

When Anthony McGowan wrote Henry Tumour (an excellent book about a boy with a brain tumour that talks to him), his character, Hector, swears like a trooper when he finds out about the tumour – and I know I bloody well would too. This is also in context. Sadly a few complaints (a tiny number) meant that changes were made.

In 2008 Jacqueline Wilson was asked to change the word “twat” to “twit” in My Sister Jodie after just three people complained via an Asda store. When the complaint came in, Asda had already sold over 28,000 copies. I grabbed an older copy and had a read and, in my opinion, twat is perfectly within context for the character and the story.

Where does this leave the author?
The advice I would give to anyone writing specifically for primary age children is to avoid the F-bomb, and all big swears even if it’s in context. Yes, children do know all these words, but they feel wrong and naughty. Even if they use them in the playground, they don’t want to say them in front of adults, and this can stifle reading aloud. Swear words jar the flow of reading for very young children, and this means that they focus on the delicious naughtiness of the word instead of the story. It is a kind of linguistic hiccup.

If you are writing for secondary age children, obviously use the language familiar to them. That will often mean using swear words they are commonly using. I still think that the F-Bomb is a biggie, and probably best avoided until YA. Use other words in its place, but please don’t use weird replacement constructions (“forking shirt bag”) and try to find out what expletives they are actually using. JK may well have used “Bloody hell, Harry”, but when was the last time you actually heard a real working-class kid saying this? As we said before, context is everything!
YA? Anything goes – knock your forking self out!

The main point I wanted to raise here is that this is yet another reason all children deserve a school librarian. These are the true book experts who will make informed stock selection choices based on the tastes and needs of the pupils in the school. Arbitrary “it’s got swearing in it” bans or removals diminish choice, and that ultimately damages the process of reading for pleasure. Some kids (and adults of course!) will only read books with grittier content. To deny them that is to block their development as a reader.

I’ll finish with a little true story.
Some years ago I had an angry parent storm at me like a rhino, raging about swear words in a book her son had borrowed from the school library. (He was 11 and I knew the book had these words in, and had limited it to kids 11 and over.) The mother was purple with rage and screamed and shouted at me, tearing up the book and throwing it in my face. She told me I wasn’t fit to work around children, and that I should be ashamed of myself. I said nothing. She slammed her fists down on my desk and, in the end, the caretaker had to come and remove her from the library.
Afterwards some teachers came to see if I was okay and I was sitting at my desk with a huge smile on my face.
“Are you okay?” they asked. “Why are you smiling?”
“Don’t you see?” I said. “This is wonderful. George read a book!”

Dawn Finch is a children's author, librarian, and reading and library activist. She is a Trustee of CILIP and a member of Society of Author's Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee.
Her most recent book is an exploration of historical fiction for the School Library Association.
To support the campaign for Great School Libraries - please use the link to sign up, and use #GreatSchoolLibraries 


Ruth said...

A wonderful and relevant post. Thank you

Caroline Lawrence said...

Frigging wonderful! ;-)

Paul May said...

18 years ago from editor: "You do use 'bloody' one or two times and 'hell' quite a few times. I know these are terribly tame words but it would be better if we could replace with something that clearly isn't a swear word as bookclubs etc can get awfully fussed over language and it could affect a potential sale to one of these customers." Not much chance of sneaking an F-bomb into that book! Great post, thanks!

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post, Dawn. I'm currently writing a book with a main character who peppers every other sentence with swear words because that's how he talks and he doesn't even notice: they're just intensitives. Among them is the F-word which I've watered down to 'frack' simply because there's so many of them I want the reader to barely notice either. Hoping it works! :)