Cursing and sexual terms – ok in literature for young adults?

Lately, as I have been working with my editor to get my first book for young adults ready for publication, I have been thinking a lot about what is ok and isn’t ok to put in young adult literature. My new YA book is a poetry collection, and while it certainly isn’t riddled with sexual stuff or bad language, there is one poem where I use the word “damn” and one where I use the word “sperm”.

Now, I want to state up front I am not really a bad girl. I have never been one to turn to bad language, especially since I am around kids all the time and believe in setting a good example. In the poem where I used the word “damn”, I just felt that any lesser of an expression would look weak and stupid. The mood of that particular poem is serious and heartfelt, with the person speaking coming from a place of desperation. Saying “darn” just wouldn’t be honest to the depth of the feelings represented.

As for the use of the word “sperm”, it isn’t even really used in a sexual way, but more in a technical way. As in, the thing that eventually becomes a human baby is a sperm. Surely, no one could balk at that, right? But a part of me wonders. I know some parents and teachers can be so conservative and protective of their kids that they run from any sign of impropriety. Plus, many kids that aren’t even in the young adult age bracket still read young adult books. I know 10 and 11 year olds that have read “The Hunger Games”, which I’m sure is geared for an older audience.

I know this quandary of mine might seem ridiculous. After all, in a world where many young adult books are laced with the “f-bomb”, gruesome violence and descriptive sex scenes, why in the world would I worry about something like “damn” or “sperm”? I guess it’s just because I always tend to worry about what parents and teachers think. Maybe too much. Of course, it could be that I am just nervous because this is my first foray into the young adult literature world.

So what do you guys think? How much is too much in young adult literature? And how young is too young to read young adult literature?

7 thoughts on “Cursing and sexual terms – ok in literature for young adults?

  1. I’m as conservative as anyone, but an occasional, appropriate damn and sperm used in a technical way isn’t inappropriate in a YA book. I don’t think I’d use damn in a book for younger readers, though. Many YA books are full of sexual details and swearing worse than that found in XXX rated material, which I don’t think is appropriate and won’t accept. Yes, children and teens are exposed to some raunchy material in real life, on television, and in movies, but that doesn’t mean they need such material reinforced in their reading material.

    That’s my story/opinion, and I’m sticking to it. *grin*

    • Thanks Vivian, you seem to have a pretty balanced view. Like you, I have read some YA books that almost had me blushing, so I would worry about my kids reading that, particularly if they were younger teens. I’m not one for banning books because I believe in freedom of expression, but I do believe in making sure your kids are reading age-appropriate material.

  2. In my recent book, Hook Up, about teen sex and pregnancy there were two sex scenes and some swearing. If used in such a way that is appropriate to the context, characterization, and plot of the story and not dropped in just for the shock value, I think both sex and swearing are all right. At the same time my 10 year old hasn’t read the book. I haven’t forbid her, she just doesn’t want to go anywhere near a sex scene. I think kids are pretty self regulating. As far as adults – it could go either way depending on how protectionist they are.

    • Thanks for commenting Kim! And yes, I can definitely see you would need to discuss those subjects and face them honestly if you are writing about teen pregnancy…which is something that happens more often than any of us want to think about. I also agree that any content that is questionable needs to add something to the book, not just be used for shock value. Thanks so much for your input! I love hearing from fellow authors :)

  3. Hi Maranda,
    Found your blog through facebook. I’ve already commented about this there, so i’ll just repeat that:
    I think a good YA book is no different from any other types of books. if it needs explicit content to be able to tell the story, it should have them. Kids pick up a lot of stuff from TV all the time, I don’t think it does them any lifelong harm.
    loved your blog and your articles! following you now… please do visit my blog too, and if you like it, please follow!

  4. This is a very interesting and relatable post, Maranda. :) As a soon-to-be-published YA author myself, I can certainly understand the feeling of questioning the appropriateness of my material. My stance has always been that I want to write stories, poems, etc. that evoke emotion. That is my priority. As you were saying about your use of the word “damn”, I feel that if that word is needed to convey the depth of that emotion, it is appropriate to use. In my book, Risin’ Sun, I do ocasionally use words such as “damn” and even a stronger word at one point but only where I feel they were needed to enhance either the characters or the situation and convey the correct emotion. :)
    So, as long as you feel they are the right words to use, I don’t think there is a problem at all.

    ~H. D. Hunter
    hdhunter.wordpress.com

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