Swearing in YA Books
To curse or not to curse. That is the question.
And if you're a young adult author, the choice you make can be a big f**king deal.
(Note the written bleep. It'll be important later.)
Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenage protagonist who has an author deliberately creating heartbreak and messed up situations just for you is a minefield of woe.
In the Young Adult (YA) Books genre, we see teens murdering each other, fighting to the death, running from monsters, running away from home, drinking, having sex, taking over the world, and...cursing.
Oddly enough, the fact that teens in books curse is sometimes the most shocking part of the narrative.
I recently, and very accidentally, started a bit of a row in an author group by asking how many s**ts and f**ks were too many to have in a YA book. Authors crawled out of the woodwork to tell me how horrifying it was that I had any cursing in my book, how they'd never let their teens read my books, and how I was limiting my commercial possibilities by swearing.
There were, thankfully, some other authors who, like me, didn't think swearing was that big a deal. If it fits the world, the characters, and is marketed toward teens, just roll with what feels most right to you.
But I was shocked by the number of authors who felt that going all Hunger Games and letting people die in horrifying ways was fine, but saying s**t wasn't.
That seems really off to me. Most teens curse, yet most teens will *hopefully* never kill anyone in brutal yet inventive ways. So why are we more concerned about exposing them to words they already know than to disembowelment?
The author conversation got so interesting that I made a series of TikToks, one of which now has more than 11,000 views.
Now, I'm not saying all books that qualify as YA should have cursing. The Percy Jackson books, A Wrinkle in Time, and plenty of other great books that are sometimes considered YA are often read by a young enough crowd that, sure, cursing in those series might not be a great idea. In fact, I asterisked through the curse words in this post specifically because young kids could read this blog, especially since I now mentioned books with younger targeting (told you we'd get back to the written bleeping).
In fact, not all my series have cursing, because when I am deciding what the heart of the story I want to tell is, and figuring out how I want my characters to interact with the world, some of my stories are sweet and innocent enough that cursing just wouldn't make any sense. The Tethering, no cursing. The Chronicles of Maggie Trent, no cursing. The Tale of Bryant Adams, very little cursing. There's no point in throwing in an f-bomb just for shock value. We're all numb to it by now, and those who would be shocked will just send an angry email.
But the reality is, though more than 50% of YA readers are adults, I'm writing books that teenagers can enjoy. I'm writing about teen characters. The last thing I want to do is talk down to teens. Young people today have had to handle so much. The world they're living in is not sunshine and sodapop. It's dangerous and fast-paced and brutal.
If they can handle books filled with violence, and death, and quite often implied sex, then they can handle reading a few f**ks now and then.
With the industry moving more towards indie publishing, the choice of what to include in books is shifting more directly into the hands of the author. Each of us can decide how best to tell our stories with very few obstacles in our path. Readers have more books to choose from than ever, which is an amazing thing!
So, the next time you stumble across a lovely little curse word in your reading, I encourage you to take a moment and think about the context.
Is the cursing the most "adult" content in the book?
Does the language fit the book?
And if you were in the same situation as the protagonist, would you be cursing, too?