Discussion: Swearing in YA

So a couple of weeks back I signed on to twitter, to find the wonderful Keris Stainton, author of Della Says: OMG! (review here) saying that she was going through her book, trying to make changes suggested by her editor. These changes were to do with the swear words in her upcoming Jessie <3’s NYC. After a brief chat with Keris I couldn’t believe that her editor was asking her to change these swear words; why change “pissed” (meaning pissed off, not drunk!) to something else when it wouldn’t sound right for that character, not to me anyway!

**this discussion does contain occasional swear words, just thought I’d warn you!**

Swearing in YA is something I’ve briefly mentioned within reviews on this blog and it’s something I feel strongly about. My ONE flaw in Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins (review) was that the character didn’t swear, and that it was actually noted that she didn’t.  In this example I was really annoyed; the character Sophie said “screw them” and then in the narration actually told the reader that “screw” wasn’t the actual term used, she had used something stronger. I really didn’t like that; why bother putting the different dialogue in there? The reader knew exactly what was said and to me, Sophie’s bad attitude faltered slightly, almost as if she was actually a good girl just trying to look bad-ass.
When I am reading YA I place myself into the shoes of the narrator or main character, just as many people do. I go through what they are going through and sometimes the situation they are in deserves an “OH SHIT!!” That is why I am for swearing in YA. I know for a fact that between the ages of 16-19 every other word out of my mouth was a swear word, and although I’m not saying this should be the case in YA, I am saying that swearing shouldn’t be something that is purposely removed from a situation which it is obviously right for.
I understand that people don’t like swearing, they are perfectly within their right not to swear themselves. Also if you are a parent and you would prefer for your children not to read books with swearing in them, then that is something you need to discuss with them. I was brought up in around swearing; my dad’s favourite saying when he didn’t want to do something was “fuck that for a game of soldiers!” But that didn’t mean I was disrespectful, I knew exactly what the correct situation was for swearing and I would NEVER have sworn at either of my parents or someone with authority.
I believe that in the right context and with the right character swearing is integral to YA literature. It creates a real setting and many kids reading will relate to the book even more because of it. However a book without swearing in it can also be perfectly realistic, but only if the characters are right! If a book doesn’t have any swearing in it at all it doesn’t make it less valid. I don’t believe there is any in 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson (though there is a little in its sequel) but it was still a very good read! Like I say, it all depends on the characters, 13 LBE probably doesn’t have any swearing because it would be out of character for Ginny to swear but if the characters in, Numbers by Rachel Ward, or Rockoholic by CJ Skuse for example didn’t swear I don’t believe I would relate to them as much; they’d come across as fakes.
I like swearing in YA, I think it adds to getting to know the character; you can gauge what they are like, make them more real in your head and get closer to them by their attitude and if they swear or not! I don’t think Keris should have to take all of the swears out of her book, especially since I have read it and I can only place about two of them off the top of my head!
I believe swears should (to quote a friend when chatting about this discussion post) “absofuckinlutely” be allowed in YA. This post is my opinion, and I am very happy to read others. A lovely fellow blogger, Jo at Once Upon a Bookcase, voiced her opinion of swearing in YA earlier this week and my opinion of her has not changed just because we don’t agree, she is still pretty awesome! Also Keris has had her say here, so dont miss that!

What do you think about swearing in YA?!


  • Lyndsey

    Totally agree! I dont think swearing should be in all YA books but like you said, it depends on the context. I’m reading a fair bit of US YA contemp atm because of how real the language is!

  • Jo

    Great post, Raimy! 🙂 You know, I don’t think I could ever be a writer simply because where most people would swear, other words come to me before swear words. I’m more likely to say “crap”, “sod”, or even “sugar” – which does seem to be the word I use most. I get “mad”, I tend to “screw” things (not literally, I mean I’d say “screw it”), and I “bloody” all the time. This isn’t me censoring myself, it’s just what comes naturally to me when I speak. I very, very rarely swear, so if it wasn’t “right” for a character not to swear in a book I happen to be writing, I wouldn’t know. All of this, because it comes so naturally to me, and has done for most of my life, is probably why I think swearing in YA is not necessarily needed. So it is absolutely a personal thing with me.

    As you’ve read my post, I think you know by now I’m not completely against swearing – I’d rather it wasn’t there, but it won’t stop me reading it – and most of the books I read do contain swearing. So with that in mind, I think Hex Hall sounds a little bit ridiculous. I may not *like* the word the character was supposed to have said, but to do something like that… it just seems stupid. I’d rather read the word.

  • Cat Clarke

    Somewhat predictably, I have no problem at all with swearing in YA. Not in ALL YA – just when it feels right and real, and when anything else would feel like a bit of a cop out. Thanks for the great post!

  • Vivienne

    I didn’t even notice the swearing in Jessie. At all! I must be a hardened swearer! It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I think my kids hear far worse in the playground.

  • Sarah

    I don’t have an issue with cursing in YA… but I have to admit that since it’s a rarity, it does kind of catch me off guard sometimes. I remember thinking that while the cursing in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” was definitely appropriate to the characters and setting, I was still a little turned off by it. However, that example that you gave where the narrator actually had to explain the dialogue would’ve just irritated me, lol.

    All in all, I’m okay with cursing, and I think it’s lousy that authors change those parts of their books because editors / publishers are too worried about how it will affect sales. And even though it makes me uncomfortable sometimes (man I feel old), I don’t avoid books with cursing.

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