We are at a point now where ableist language is considered just that. Children’s book editors are editing it out. Yet some words, for instance ‘crazy’, are so frequent in everyday English it may seem ‘unnatural’ to leave it out.
The question arises: What to say instead?
The deeper question: Do we need mental metaphors at all? tl;dr Mostly we don’t.
A quandary for writers of middle grade fiction in particular: By about age 10, regular kids have heard all the insults out there. They may hear far more insulting language than adults do on a daily basis. (Did you get called a poo head at work today? I didn’t.)
Yet if you want to write for middle grade, realistic swearing will never find its way into the hands of your readers. (By upper YA, anything goes.)
By all accounts, Philip Pullman’s Le Belle Sauvage (released 2017) may be something of a watershed moment for children’s literature, as it contains a lot of swearing. Pullman advocates for more naturalistic rendering of child speech, and because he is a superstar, it was up to him to try and get away with it, paving the way for those coming later. He explains his ideology here.
Why is the video below so funny? Partly because what she says is unintelligible, until the the ice bucket gets dumped on her head. Then we know exactly what she’s saying!
Politics of swearing and childhood aside, what do most traditionally published and popular middle grade authors do when they need to depict swearing and insults without using the actual swearing and insults?
THEMATICALLY RELEVENT INSULTS
Newsprints by Ru Xu is a graphic novel in which birds feature heavily. The insults and swears are therefore often bird themed:
Listen here, Humpy Dumpty, you stay off the roof! (Birds… eggs… Humpty Dumpty…)
For the human characters in Newsprints, the insults draw from cultural references such as nursery rhymes/classic literature and implements of the time. This is a steampunk book, where it’s assumed the children of this Victorian-esque era are reading nursery rhymes and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.
Get back here, Bugle Brat!
Catch me if ya can, Tweedle Dums!
Still think you can fly, pal? (‘Pal’ sounds like an insult in this context because it’s ironic.)
In Pax, Sara Pennypacker includes a Haitian character whose swear word is dyableman. The child character learns it from the older mentor and starts using it himself. I can’t speak to the power of the word in Haitian Creole, but it translates as ‘damned, deuced, devilish’ — not at all powerful in translation. I’m wary of taking actual words from other languages, especially in a climate of cultural appropriation, but mainly because unless it’s your native language you don’t know the full power of the word.
Fantasy authors can create entirely new languages and therefore entirely new curse words.
YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER BY ANN DEE ELLIS (USA, 2017)
The 13-year-old main character in this novel comes across much younger than she is on the page, and this is no doubt partly down to the author’s choice of language. Olivia Hales has a favourite ‘curse word’ which is ‘dumb bum’. She uses this over and over again — it’s her thing. If the 13-year-olds in your sphere are speaking like this, you’re hanging out in different circles than I am. However, stories are not the real world. We should be prepared to accept some differences. Perhaps the author/publisher decided to youngify (bowderlize?) the voice because the target reading audience is about 10-years-old. An older character uses ‘crap’, but that’s as cussy as it gets.
When Olivia gets really angry, she doesn’t swear. She indirectly threatens violence:
“Did you know a monkey can rip your face off?”
The girl’s eyes got all big and I was like, “Oh yeah. Yours too.” I said to the other secretary.
And then to the other one, “And yours for sure.”
Bart sees me.
I want to throw a car in his face.
It’s interesting what we think it’s okay to expose middle grade readers to. Nothing worse than dumb bum? But threats of violence as used in the real world is okay, so long as they’re hyperbolic. (No fear of someone actually throwing a car in your face.)
At other times the swearing is humorous, in a much-younger-than-13 kind of way:
“I am so sorry my daughter called me a butthead piece of butt face.”
“You scared the earwax out of her is what you did.”
While certain stand-alone taboo curse words are out in this middle grade novel, dismissively sexist language passes the gates. For example, Olivia constantly refers to her father’s love interest as ‘the redhead’, objectifying a woman by metonymically referring to her as a body part. There is also ableist language, but only used indirectly, not by the viewpoint character with whom we are expected to empathise:
There was Carlene and Bonnie and stupid Jared who called me a retard.
I offer this as an argument against publishers and authors removing naturalistic swearing from middle grade fiction. If it’s okay to use sexist and ableist language as used in the real world, why not use stronger yet (counterintuitively) more neutral swear words?
LOVE SUGAR MAGIC BY ANNA MERIANO (2017)
Love Sugar Magic is an own voices novel partly designed to introduce non-Spanish speakers to Mexican culture. The following snippet of dialogue is worded in such a way that the reader learns the Spanish word for cockroach, and also thinks they’ve got new insider knowledge on a good insult:
“Come on cucaracha,” Marisol yelled. She called Leo “cockroach” whenever she wanted to be nasty without getting in trouble for using bad language.
WHEN I REACH YOU BY REBECCA STEAD (2009)
One way to get around swearing, which actually relies on the reader knowing the swear word in the first place:
And as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word “poop”.
The effect is two-fold:
The author can’t be accused of introducing readers to new language because they won’t know what the mother said unless they already know it.
The young reader feels smart and mature for knowing exactly what the mother really said.
This leads me to my next point, which is why I have a liberal attitude around kids and exposure to swearing: A lot of ‘funny swears’ are very obviously based on real swears. The following chart sounds very American to me — none of these would be used in Australia unless the speaker were making a point of sounding American. A word like ‘bull snot’ is so obviously a ‘safe’ alternative to ‘bull shit’.
But then why is the bodily excretion of snot more acceptable than the bodily excretion of shit?
Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.
Uncanny is a hi-lo short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, first published 1988.
The original ‘uncanny’ stories were by British writer May Sinclair (1863 – 1946). I read a collection of Sinclair’s uncanny short stories (1923) a few years ago and wasn’t really moved by them. This is because so many writers have emulated Sinclair’s work that hers no longer feel all that original! Sinclair was a heavy influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Now, I wager you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t heard of her.
Unfortunately, the influence of May Sinclair remains little known. Plus, her writing career was cut short with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1920s.
The Uncanny May Sinclair stories have plots like this:
Two lovers are doomed to repeat their empty affair for the rest of eternity.
A female telepath is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
The victim of a violent murder has the last laugh on his assailant.
An amateur philosopher discovers that there is more to Heaven than meets the eye.
Likewise, Jennings writes ‘circular’ stories in which stories end on the note that this weird thing will continue on forever. Characters in Paul Jennings stories are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Underdogs (victims) get the last laugh against their opponents. The stories are set in apparent utopias, where there is more to ordinary life than meets the eye.
Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ICE MAIDEN”
In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.
I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.
“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.
There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.
Unbelievable is a short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, copyrighted 1986. These are tall tales for eight-year-olds. Australia has a long history of tall tales, and Jennings very successfully adapted the techniques for a child audience. The 1980s was the decade of the irreverent male children’s author. Roald Dahl was the stand-out giant in this field, after starting out writing stories for adults. These days we have David Walliams and various other male authors. This genre of story continues to be a masculine domain, even though children’s literature is an industry full of women. This is carried over in Jennings’ stories for children. Continue reading “Unbelievable by Paul Jennings Hi-lo Short Fiction”
Unreal is a collection of 8 short stories, first published 1985. This was the book that really kicked-off Jennings’ career as a children’s author. Though it wasn’t called that at the time, these books are excellent examples of hi-lo literature.
When telling a story, the following is non-negotiable: Your character must have some kind of plan. There really are no exceptions to this rule.
There are some caveats, such as when your main character is a passive sort of character, in which case another character will make the plan which kicks them out of passivity. (Often it’s the opponent.)
But a story with no plan is not a story.
There’s a specific kind of plan which, as screenwriting guru John Truby has pointed out, audiences really go for. The scam. In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her own passion for the scam:
We hate scammers in real life, but we love to read about scamming plans in our fiction. Perhaps this is wish-fulfilment. We like to fantasise about getting our own back on the those who have wronged us.
The scam is closely related to two other storytelling terms/techniques:
Audiences love to be fooled, so make use of plans and scams to extend your plot.
The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
In really good [stories], this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.
A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.
When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.
Films that make use of the scam are varied. Some are serious films:
The Dark Knight
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Usual Suspects
But scam is even more important in comedy genres:
Beverly Hills Cop
The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end.
WILL ANY SCAM DO?
An audience accepts scams from some characters more than others, and your typical, conservative audience has little tolerance for certain kinds of scams.
In Breaking Bad, Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.’
Children tend to have a higher tolerance for scammer heroes than gatekeeper adults, many of whom believe storybook heroes need to model good behaviour.
SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical.
Almost every children’s story involves a scam scene, regardless of what we call it:
The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and all of the child sleuth grandchild books, in which groups of children outwit smalltime crooks.
Matilda — Roald Dahl absoluetely loved scams. Scams form the entire plot points of Matilda and the Twits. But every one of his books involves a scam of some kind, in which the young hero gets back at the opponent. David Walliams writes in the same tradition.
Ramona Quimby hides her report card in the freezer because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
The Wee Wishy Womanof Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives. Is this the romance equivalent of a scam? I consider it as such.
The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picture book, which shows initiative. In We Found A Hat, one tortoise fantasises about scamming his friend, but ultimately realises that this would ruin the friendship.
Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picture book went out of print.
Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive as a character because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.
But children’s authors aren’t usually encouraged to make use of ‘scams’, as such. I haven’t seen the word used. But I have heard advice to make use of ‘secrets’, the close cousin of the scam.
In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.
Children’s book editor Cheryl Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:
Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.
Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.
Other child(like) characters with secrets:
Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it
Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.
Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:
The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.
Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?
They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.
I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.
That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.
When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a taxonomy of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:
The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals–the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.
THE DANGEROUS STORYWORLD OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN
Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behavior as opposed to promoting outlaw behavior. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.