Thoughts on Language in YA Lit

I just finished my second read of John Barnes’ hilarious, gritty novel, tales of the MADMAN underground (it was too good to read only once!).  Barnes does a brilliant job of capturing the voices, struggles, insecurities and angst of his teen characters.  He creates a time  and place in life that adults can remember wading through and that teens find themselves in every day.

One method by which Barnes authenticates his characters’ reality is through language, and here I mean profanity.  tales of the MADMAN underground is rife with swear words. At some points, Karl “weaves a tapestry of profanity” that brought tears to my eyes (from laughter).  Even while enjoying the humor and realism of Karl’s voice, I worried about being able to sell this book to our high school library/classroom teachers.  Can a book, as authentic as it is, so full of profanity, be made available to teens in the school environment?

I’m not sure. Laurie Halse Anderson, in a 2005 interview in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, hits the nail on the head:  “If I (or any other YA author) were to write truly realistic dialogue, our books would overflow with curse words and they probably would not be published, but if they were, they would never make their way into bookstores and libraries and the hands of readers because a part of the American public would be outraged that authors use such filthy, inappropriate gutter language. …   Teens…know that just as they get in trouble for dropping the ‘F-bomb’ in front of teachers, authors get nailed for it too. So we have an unspoken pact about pretend language in books. It’s another one of the confusing hypocrisies that makes being an American teenager so damn – I mean darn – hard.” (Books that Don’t Bore ‘Em, James Blasingame, 2007)

Let’s be real – kids swear. Not all kids, but most.  Adults swear too (what’s funny is that Karl’s druggie mom doesn’t – she says “ucky ucky”).  I’m not saying that every book should be full of profanity and that we should encourage profanity as a means of acceptable public discourse, but sometimes profane dialogue expresses emotions in a way nothing else can, because it’s the characters’ true voices being spoken. 

Viking took a risk publishing this book for the YA market, I think, since the threshold for acceptance is so much lower than in the adult market.  As a bookseller, I will recommend this book, despite the language, because the characters and their experiences are compelling and deserve to reach those readers who need to, and are able to, handle them.  It won’t be for everyone, and some people will certainly shy away from the book, but for those mature readers who are ready, they will be captivated by Karl and the other madmen in this book.

  • Posted by Cori

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