Insults and Swearing In Children’s Literature

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…)
  • Good goosebumps!

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.)

NON-ENGLISH SWEARING

  • 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.

CASE STUDIES

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Tim Hawkins Handbook swears
An image shared in a social media discussion between children’s writers recently, after a writer asked (as someone often asks) for ‘safe’ swears.

Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.