Monday, February 20, 2012

Middle grade manners

I am looking for feedback/input/advice here, so please take a moment to read on and give me your thoughts.

The question: when is it appropriate to use potentially objectionable language in a middle grade novel (or is it ever appropriate to do so)?


Why do I ask? Thunderstruck (my MG) is a multicultural story; one character is American Indian, another is from Mexico. The Mexican periodically throws out a Spanish word when he speaks. As one of my wonderful critique partners pointed out, the Spanish I've used for him is rather formal, therefore probably not very true-to-life. But a Mexican friend (who is helping me with this part of the manuscript) informed me that to make it true-to-life would require using a term that can also be used as an insult. Therein lies the problem.

So what's an author to do? Is it better to write something that's realistic, even if it might end up teaching some colorful language to a younger age group? Or is it better to stick to the less realistic, but unlikely to offend, language?

I know people often advise to make up your slang, but when the manuscript deals with two languages, I think that's a pretty big challenge.

What do you think?


  1. Hi Alison,
    I am so glad you are posting this. It is a tough issue, so hopefully you will get some nice feedback here. The term I suggested you use instead of amigo is traditionally an insult, but I think it has become so common with younger people, that it is generally acceptable. However, preteens and teens use even more questionable words in all languages, and that definitely poses a dilemma for writers. I don't have a answer to your question, but just wanted say I am glad you are putting it out there. Good Luck.

  2. I'm a middle grade fiction writer who comes in contact with parents of my child readers, people at book signings who discuss my books, and judging from their backgrounds, their attitudes, I know it is far safer to say that 'he cursed' rather than use the actual words.

  3. Thanks Carole. It's not even a curse word. As Valerie mentioned, I currently have him calling his friend "amigo", but that's formal and isn't actually used. But the word that's the equivalent of "dude" probably wouldn't be understood by people who don't speak Spanish and can be used as a term of insult.

    I agree with your suggestion when it comes to cursing. But that's not my particular conundrum! :)

  4. In my (limited) experience, it is better to say "he cursed" or make up your own words in a MG novel. Even though you may hear kids cursing in the halls of the local elementary school/junior high, that doesn't mean it will make it into a book. Keep in mind that the majority of those who purchase MG books are still adult gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians), and they aren't going to appreciate the "authenticity" as much a YA reader might.

    Also, I've found that making up your own slang/curse word gives you a chance to give your character some character. You can learn a lot about someone by listening to what comes out of their mouth.

    My two cents. Good luck with the writing!

  5. Alison,

    As a former teacher of 9-11 yo. kids I can tell you that you're better off using the 'amigo' and let the characters chide each other, then follow with something like"trying to keep it clean around sibs'. You get the idea. Media specialists have to deal with "book challenges" in schools every year for a variety of reasons. While the challenge is being investigated, the book in question is usually pulled off the shelves. Out of sight, out of mind. These challenges are usually brought by parents, so if a child is reading with a parent or tells a parent, achallenge can result. Also, any time a questionable word or topic appears in a book, young kids start talking about it and are more than happy to inform non-Spanish speakers what it means. I had a 4th grader once who took great delight in translating the lyrics of a popular Latino tune. I got notes from 3 parents whose children came home and told them!
    Bottom line to me: leave it in for YA, leave it out for MG. Why take the chance of potential book buyers avoiding all your books because of one part in one book? And they will.

  6. Thanks Elissa. When it comes to cursing, I do that. In fact, coming up with alternate "curse" words can be a lot of fun.

    Gail--that is SO good to know!! Wow. Thanks! That pretty much decides it for me.

  7. This kind of question is all about audience. Not all readers will be picking up your book just because they are the right age. So ask yourself...are you going for readers who come from strong Christian families? Are you going for inner city black children or Muslim children or perhaps a mixture of kids from one economic background? I think therein you will find the answer.

  8. I think you've already received some great advice here. I would just add that it also depends on the age of your audience. Are you going for upper MG or lower MG. The fact that it isn't a curse word works in your favor. I really like Gail's suggestion of using amigo and then having another character give the one who said it a hard time for being so formal. It gives you a chance to explain your reasoning and shows you know what you're doing. Good luck!

  9. I have no idea, but I would tend to err on the side of cleaner language in MG.