Swearing in Young Adult Novels

Emotionally Charged- paranormal romance by Selina Fenech

“Young Adult” is my favourite genre to read, as well as what I like to write. I think of it not so much a genre as a style- normally fast paced, a bit angsty, with characters of a teenage range who are dealing with changing from a child to an adult. Young Adult spans many sub-genres, like fantasy, chick-lit, romance, sci-fi, mystery, etc, and is generally considered to be written for the ages of 12-18 (but myself and many others a lot older love reading it anyway!).

In terms of content, YA books vary greatly. Some are good, clean, wholesome, whimsical fun. Some are as dark as can be, dealing with drug use, abuse, torture, suicide, politics, sex, death, incest, you name it. While book descriptions sometimes will note “For older teens”, I’ve never seen any real content warnings. Personally, I like it this way. You can generally tell from a book cover and blurb if a book is going to be light or dark, and believe both ends of the spectrum and all greys in between have their place. I’ve never been one for censorship, nor did I grow up being censored (Thanks Mum and Dad!). I didn’t grow up desensitised to violence. I don’t swear. I didn’t have an accidental teenage pregnancy or eating disorder and I’ve never done drugs. Yet these are all the things that those who want to censor YA books say will happen if children and teens are exposed to these darker issues in their reading. Just look at THIS Wall Street Journal article, an article which sparked off a massive campaign on twitter by readers and writers of YA books defending the darkness in them (Look up #YASaves), where people shared stories of how reading about the darker parts of life in YA books helped them survive the dark moments in their own lives. I watched YASaves happen on twitter. It was so moving I spent most of the day crying and still tear up thinking about it. YA does save, and for that, I don’t think it should be censored.

YA can be dark and depraved, but I’ve never seen it be so gratuitously. It’s probably why I read it compared to Adult books, which are happy to be gratuitous with swearing, violence and sex. All have their place, but should be there for a reason, not just for shock value. In YA, good YA, nothing happens without a reason, and characters learn, grow and lessons are taught by these sometimes horrible elements.

I also believe children and teenagers will read what they want. If a parent tries to stop them, it will no doubt only make them want to read it more. Lots of teenagers admit to sneakily reading things their parents don’t want them to. Some people argue that it’s a wonderful thing that teenagers WANT to read so badly, does it matter what they are reading? Others argue that it should be a parent’s choice in how their child is raised.

All that being said, this rant is about me censoring Memory’s Wake.

You see, Memory’s Wake contained the F-word. Even up to and after it’s release. My character Memory is the type of teenager who would swear, a lot. I kept it out of the story mostly, because it wasn’t necessary, there was no reason to be spelling it out beyond saying that “Memory swore”. But at a couple of extreme moments, the words came out in Memory’s dialogue. They were there because it was true to what Memory would have said in those high emotions.

I’ve read a lot of books from major publishers in the YA genre which contain the F-word. While I was looking for traditional publishing, I figured an editor or publisher would have final say in whether the word got through, based on their own companies policies. Then I self published and just left it in. But I started thinking about it more and more. Even to the extent of almost feeling guilty about this one single four letter word amongst 80,000 other words.

The reason why? I might not care about swearing, but other people do. A word is a word to me, but to some people, the F-word is to be avoided at all costs. I don’t want to make those people angry, or dislike my book, just for one single word. If I felt the word was absolutely crucial to my story I would have left it in, but I don’t think it suffers from it’s removal. It’s not like I have Memory running around saying “Oh my goodness”, or “Gosh!” or “Leaping lizards batman!”. She still speaks and reacts true to her character, which is the most important part for me.

So, I went through and edited out the F-word from my novel. Those who bought the novel during release, well, you’ve got a collectors item now, the first, short edition which contains the controversial few letters. Some paperback stock I’m selling still has it since it was all printed before the change, and I’m working on changing the hardcover, but ebook versions are now F-word free.

It was a decision that gave me a little peace of mind, but what was right for my novel isn’t right for every novel. I still don’t believe in censorship.

What do you think?  Should books for Young Adults be censored? Should they at least have content warnings, like there are on computer games, so that parents can decide what their kids see in books? If you’re between the 12-18 age range, what’s your opinion?

8 thoughts on “Swearing in Young Adult Novels

  1. Kristina Ebert says:

    Video games and movies are a whole different thing, yes censoring is goes for those visual mind numbing stimulation. But to censor books! NO! I wasn’t really censored when I was younger, but I didn’t read a lot till I was in 8th grade and my choice of books was Danielle Steel and my mom didn’t mind at all, I think she was happy I was reading regularly. Kids are going to learn about swear words and sex one way or another. The religious and home school kids tend to be the worst because they rebel from being so suppressed by their elders. My friend use to be home schooled but she did have a class or something for social interactions and she saw kids having sex in the halls. Kids are going to learn everything no matter what and you might as well have them learn it eloquently and in an artistic and thought provoking manor.

    I wish you would have kept the swear words in, they fit her very well. But I understand the stress, no point in stressing over something so little.

    Say no to censoring!

  2. Sasha says:

    Your articles are always so interesting Selina!!

    My opinion on swearing in YA novels… Well I happen to read the genre a lot too (even though I’m nearly 25), and the odd swear word here or there doesn’t bother me too much, especially if it’s canon to the character to speak that way. I get how it would bug other people though. I guess if there was a warning on a book that it contained some strong language (like in a movie) then it would be fair to everyone.

  3. Tina says:

    I’m 15 and I’m an avid reader, of both Adult and Yound-Adult books. I have nothing wrong with swear-words. There is only one word that I particularly dislike, which I won’t mention here (my Mum always called it the C-Word, and I didn’t find out what it meant until a few years ago). If the word or action is true to the character and the situation, then it’s fine that it’s there. However, I can see why people would like things to be censored… it’s all a matter of opinion.
    I think content warnings may be a good idea, although I personally wouldn’t pay much attention to them.
    I read the Wall Street Journal article and I was either raising my eyebrow or laughing at how serious they made the situation when I don’t really think it is.

  4. kathleen duey says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. It’s a touchy and personal topic and one that every YA writer deals with one way or another–and so does every reader. I write odd YA fantasy…dark, sociological books. There is a fair amount of swearing in parts of some of the books, from some (not all) of the characters. Only two readers have written to tell me the swearing “wasn’t necessary”. I wrote back and forth with both of them trying to explain that the situations are so dark that it would sound strange if certain characters *didn’t* swear sometimes. My intent is to write characters who become real for the reader. Curse words are powerful, and when someone is scared, they can be a way to turn some of the fear into anger, into strength. So, for me, if characters really would swear in a hard situation, in my books, they do.

    I think a rating system might be useful for some parents and for some readers. But everyone should remember that YA is not written for kids, it is for young readers on the brink of adulthood. Most of them have access to the internet, to movies and games that are realistic/sometimes violent/often exaggerated portrayals of adult life. YA books will probably not be the first place they are exposed to swearing. Nor the last. It might be the place where they start to understand why it exists, what it does–and what it can’t and doesn’t do–for anyone.

  5. Valerie says:

    I’m a librarian-in-training (I graduate in December) and as both a librarian and an avid reader of YA literature myself, I say an absolute firm NO to censorship. I don’t mind an all-encompassing label on a shelf that says “This book may contain mature material. Parental guidance is suggested.” but I don’t think books should be labeled like movies and video games are.

    Even now, at the age of 35, some of the darker YA fiction gets me through the harder times in life because it reminds me that I CAN get through and I don’t have to give into the despair that comes with those times.

    I’m of the same opinion you are, Selina, if the word has meaning to the story or is in line with what the character would say at that moment, then I’m okay with it being there. I’m not a fan of gratuitous sex, violence, or language but if they are in line with the characters and the storyline and they have a place, then I don’t mind them.

    My parents attempted to censor what I read to a small degree (they were very much against fantasy books dealing with magic and/or witchcraft) but like you said, it just made me want to read it more and I would end up reading them only at school or something like that. That being said, I do think that parents should at least be aware of what their teen is reading and be available to talk about the more difficult subjects if need be.

    I can understand why you would feel the urge to censor your own book and I think an author censoring their own material is up to them. Like you’ve said before, that book is your baby and you want to present the best form of it to the world, so if you think the f-word could be taken out without it hurting the storyline, then that’s completely up to you and fine. I do NOT believe however that it would’ve been fine for a publisher to refuse to publish the book simply based on the amount of swearing it contains (hypothetically).

    For example, I was very angered by the fact that the publishers decided to take Mark Twain’s book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and censor the n-word out of the book. The n-word is very much in line with the story and should’ve been left in there. I feel like in this day and age, we treat children as if they’re stupid. I think teachers and parents could’ve just explained that while the word was used in the book, it is offensive and is not something that should be used in modern day language. Children are bright enough to understand that. There was no reason to censor out the n-word other than the publishers just didn’t want to deal with the complaints over it.

    So, if you feel more comfortable having your novel out there without the f-word in it, that’s your decision and I see nothing wrong with that form of “censorship”. But I don’t believe all YA literature should be censored.

    Okay, sorry, censorship is a bit of a hot button for me – stepping off the soapbox now.

  6. Jules says:

    I think if it is something a character would do, then swearing is okay. What I don’t like is the swearing that some people put in their books to make them “more hip” for young adults. That is just forced and sounds wrong.
    I don’t think books should be censored. It would take away a lot.

  7. Gabrielle says:

    Im 17 and I read TONS of young adult books and I don’t think they should be censored. Like you said Selina, in every YA book theres always a lesson and a reason for them doing something. And when characters are at a climatic moment and there faced with a hard decision, you kind of expect them to let out a swear word or two. I makes the characters seem more real and your able to relate to that person more. Cause I know I would say the same thing if I were in there shoes lol.

    And as for books that may be a little dark, well if the title says “Awakened” or and the cover looks errie and dark, then you know it’s not exactly about a happy little elf lol. It’s the teens desicion on wether or not they want to read it. And parents need to realize that nowadays kids in Junior High are already learning about sucide, drugs, and sex. So reading a book that contains some of that is nothing new to them to be honest. At least in books if a character does something bad like that there is usually a consequence to there actions later on in the book. That’s better than a kid doing one of those things and not realizing the consequences till it’s too late. :/

    Selina, if you think that the F word was a little to much then it’s good that you did something about it and took it out to help ease your mind 🙂 But if a reader happened to get the books that did still have the F word, then it’s no big deal. 🙂 All they have to do is skip the word or mentally bleep out the word in their mind lol ;p Anyway, I’ll stop being a bother and end my little rant right here lol. ;p
    Luv ur book Selina :] Cuss words and all! ;p

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