Is it okay to curse in MG books?

Yes! Cursing is fine. HARRY POTTER is loaded with curses. But, actually, I’m going to discuss cursing in this post… not cursing. I mean using bad words.

When I decided the topic for my next entry would be “Profanity in Middle Grade Books”, I was certain I’d find a bleep load of information. Or, at the very least, a long bleeping list of MG books overflowing with curse words.

Nope. It was actually a bleeping struggle. Turns out most MG books are pretty clean. As far as I”m concerned, that’s a good thing!

I’ve always been fascinated by curse words. It just seems strange that you can arrange a few letters one way and it’s okay, but rearrange them another way… oh, boy! For example, no one has a problem if I say or write “hits”. But take those same letters and make a different word and you’ll have the FCC coming at you like Pop-Eye after eating a can of radioactive spinach.

And sometimes cursing might not be cursing. Look at this scene:

Harvey asked his brother, “Billy? You want to play Lincoln Logs?”

Billy answered, “I can’t. I’ve got to do that dam report.”

Harvey gasped, “You just said a bad word.” Harvey ran downstairs, told his mom, and Billy was forced to eat LAVA soap (the worst tasting off all soaps).

Is Billy innocent? It depends. I mean, he did say “dam”. But that’s not really a swear word. Maybe Harvey knows that Billy’s report is about “clowns”, not “dams”. I know, I know, it’s confusing. And I’m getting off topic.

The point of this post is the use of foul language in Middle Grade books. And I think it’s fairly obvious there really is no place for cursing in MG books.

I just finished reading ARCHVILLAIN by Barry Lyga (which I enjoyed, by the way) and “poop” was as bad as it got in that book.

I think it works better to weave a story around the swear words. Like – Dad put on the wig, cursing under his breath – is all that’s needed to get the point across.

Or better yet, make up your own curse words or phrases. One of my favorite examples occurs in the movie SPY KIDS 2. The young girl spy senses trouble and says, “Oh… shitake mushrooms.” My kids giggled like crazy after that. So if you think you need to use a curse word in your middle grade writing, try to be creative.

Here’s some advice from Middle Grade Novel Guidelines: Writing for the Tween Market

Beware of strong language in your middle grade novel. You may wish to use profanities because a particular character demands it, but at this age, parents and teachers are still very protective. Teachers also beg writers not to include foul language because then they can’t read that book in class. If you must include it, be aware that it may limit the book’s marketability, both with editors and with the public.

You know the book BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson. It’s a Newberry Award Winner. But it was red flagged and challenged by several school districts for profanity. The Novel THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY by Susan Patron faced similar issues.

Here’s a quote from a librarian: If it’s a great story, I’ll allow minor swear words like “bleep” if it contributes to the character development.

I think this is good advice. But where is that list of “minor” swear words at?

Bottom line: If you want your MG book to make it into school libraries, try to keep it clean.

Brian Kell
  1. An old writing teacher of mine advised us to simply make up a curse word for that age group. Works well!

  2. A bit late but just wrote on the use of made-up cursewords – was inspired by your post here and also John Green’s use of the word “fug” in “An Abundance of Katherines” (I know it’s not MG but YA…) What are other made up words people use in books?

  3. Hi Rosanne – Great comments! You’re right about the swear word being ‘loud’ on the page. It’s like the letters are huge and highlighted and circled in red.

    I would add another category to your 3. Coarse language. That’s when a word is substituted for a swear word, but there’s no doubt what word was meant. ‘Freaking’ is one example that comes to mind.

    Thanks for a insteresting reply!

  4. Interesting conversation you’ve got going Brian. I think swearing can work in a MG book if it’s chosen carefully. The trouble is that swearing is loud on the page. Louder than it is in movies and Much louder than it is in real life. So it needs to be reserved for moments when no other word is adequate.

    I also think it’s helpful to think of profanity in terms of 3 categories.

    The disrespectful invocation of one of the names for god. This is always going to offend some people deeply. Often the substitution of gosh, dang, golly or OMG works just fine.

    Racial, gender, and ethnic slurs are another category of profanity. These words are often profoundly painful to certain readers, but they are also a very real part of the lives of ordinary MG kids. I think the trick here is to use a slur in a way that illuminates the inherent cruelty of the word without opening the wound of the reader. So I always think about who is using the slur–a character who is meant to be admirable? a character who makes his prejudices evident in other ways? It takes some balancing but it’s possible to use a slur in an appropriate way.

    And then there are obscene words which tend to call attention to themselves and draw the reader out of the story. These words also make the story difficult to read aloud in a classroom. These ones are the best candidate for a humorous substitution like shitake mushrooms.

    But then we get into trouble with pseudo swear words. Scrotum is not a vulgar word it’s an anatomically correct one used in respectful context in The Higher Power of Lucky. Jackass is not a swear word either it means either male donkey or fool. I wouldn’t use either of those books with kids younger than 8 but they are fine for MG kids and I don’t see a need to pander to the prudish in my writing.

    Sorry to go on and on here. 🙂 It’s an important topic and one worth thinking carefully about.

  5. Hi Karen – I see you’re from Ohio! Too bad. 😉

    If you can create a memorable curse word… it can really make the book catch on. I mean, think of the show ‘Happy Days’ with SIT ON IT, Or ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ with ‘UP YOUR NOSE WITH A RUBBER HOSE’. Basically those sayings were replacements for vulger words. You know?

  6. My co-author and I had fun making up some great “curses” for an adult character to use in our MG mystery manuscript. It was good to know we were aiming for laughs from the reader instead of the shock value of a more traditional curse word. And I love shitake mushrooms! I’ll have to use that one with my kids at home!