“Edgy” YA Fiction Part 2: Can I Curse in YA?

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Welcome to part 2 of my “Edgy” YA Fiction series. You can find part 1 here: Is Sex a Selling Point or Off Limits?

Today I want to talk about cursing (aka cussing, swearing, using bad words) in YA.

We all know that teens swear. A lot. Like constantly. So why do some people get bent out of shape when there’s cursing in YA fiction?

Certainly the teens aren’t going to be picking up new swear words. More than likely they know words adults have never even heard of. So what’s the deal with cursing? Is it natural and acceptable or off limits in YA?

To answer these questions I’m going to break down the biggest myths about cursing in YA novels and give you the truth.

Myth: Agents and Editors Automatically Reject YA Novels with Swearing.

Truth: Agents and editors are interested in books that sell. They are not going to reject you because you use a naughty word. They are much more interested in the plot, characters, and voice.

If after taking you on as a client, they feel it’s in your best interest to reduce the cussing, they’ll have you spend about fifteen minutes with the “Find and Replace” feature and you’ll be good to go.

Myth: Young Adult Novels with Cursing Don’t Sell.

Truth: In 2012, Brigham Young University did a study of 40 books on the YA bestsellers list. They found that 35 out of the 40 books contained at least one instance of swearing.

The average amount of bad words per book was 38! One of the books had nearly 500 instances of swearing. These are bestselling YA books.

Myth: Cursing in YA Will Get the Books Banned from Schools and Libraries.

Truth: According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, there were 464 instances of books being “challenged” last year (2012) by a school or library. Note that “instances” means many of these were for the same book. Also note that these instances include adult books that were deemed inappropriate for whatever reason.

Of the top ten challenged books, not a single one made the list for cursing alone. For your reading pleasure:

The Top Ten “Challenged” Books of 2012

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey.
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
    Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher.
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  5. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
  9. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence

Go through your local library and see if these books have actually been taken off the shelves. I know I’ve seen and/or checked out 5 of these books in the last 6 months. “Challenged” doesn’t equal “banned.”

And while conservative schools may remove a book from their shelves, that doesn’t mean it is removed nationwide (or that the kid won’t just be even more motivated to go out and find it elsewhere).

Conclusion

So long as you are not trying to break some kind of explicit language record, some cursing here and there (up to and beyond 38 instances) isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. But I would still use caution with which words you use. There is a big difference between 38 instances of “shit” and “damn” and 38 instances of the “F-word.”

Unfortunately, the data on which words were included in the books is not available.

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