Foul Language in YA Fiction

Foul Language in YA Fiction

I recently finished reading a terrific novel that was partially told from the point of view of a teenager. The story was gripping, the characters carefully drawn and fully realized. The book kept me turning the page. But one thing struck me: the minimalist use of swear words. Or cursing. Or, as we always said back home, cussin’. A few four-letter words were peppered here and there to give the book a hint of grit, but overall the language stayed at a PG level.

I understand why this is. Despite the fact that YA novels come from a teenage point of view, young people tend to “read up,” meaning younger kids read stuff intended for an older audience. Middle schoolers read the high school targeted books, that sorta thing. And what parent or teacher or librarian of a middle school student wants their twelve year old reading vulgar language? None, and rightfully so.

But, let’s get real here. If these books are supposedly coming from the mouth of a seventeen-year-old kid, could there not justifiably be an F-bomb in every other sentence? There are arguments that say such language isn’t necessary. But that’s kind of the point. Young people talk that way completely unnecessarily!

It feels even more odd when the book tackles an adult theme, like sex. Would the average seventeen-year-old use the words penis or ejaculate when talking about such things? My guess is no.  So why do we write them that way?

Emma Newman discusses this in her post Five Rules of Young Adult Fiction. She says she’s very careful to use only mild expletives even when wanting to write a grittier version of a scene. Why not give that grittier version a try and see what you end up with? It might result in a more honest, realistic portrayal.

In Blades of Grass, I alternate the narrative between Taylor, 17, and Ben, 30. With Ben, I used foul language sparingly. He’s older, he’s wiser, he doesn’t need to resort to cussin’ for shock value like kids often do. Taylor, meanwhile, has the mouth of a drunken sailor and a big ol’ chip on his shoulder. That’s who he is and how I wrote him. Granted, having half the book come from Ben’s POV will knock this one out of the YA category by default, so perhaps I can get away with Taylor’s inappropriate language because of that. But could I if it were strictly Taylor’s story and, therefore, more in line with the YA label?

Any YA readers/writers care to chime in here? Do you feel the use of foul language is a cop out to hide a weak story? Or is it a true reflection of the way young people talk that’s often missing from the page? 

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