December 1, 2015

Mind Your Language

It was a typical evening in our home. Our fifteen-year-old boy had just finished chasing his two little sisters around the house to get them good and wound up before bedtime. I was in the middle of explaining to our five-year-old why she couldn’t sleep in the cat’s bed, when our six-and-a-half-year-old (that half is very important), asked me:

‘When you stick up your middle finger, does that mean the F-word?’

If you’ve got kids, you’ll know that tricky questions can come at you out of nowhere. I suppressed the urge to laugh, partly because I didn’t want to make a big thing of this, but also because I want my kids to feel comfortable asking me questions and swearing is a serious business which everyone should learn to do properly. Apparently, she’d brought it up because it was the subject of some serious conversation in school. She goes to a small country school, where first and second class are in one room together, meaning you can have kids of six to nine all learning together, which is a pretty big gap in development. And not every lesson is being delivered by the teacher. WT9-The PosseParticularly when the older ones have older brothers or sisters they’re learning from and then passing that knowledge on.

Swearing is a life skill, and when my girls grow up, I want to be sure they’re doing it with some fluency. As my father once solemnly told me, you have to save up your swearing for when you really need it, so it has the greatest effect. And he was a psychologist, so he knew what he was talking about. That said, I don’t feel swearing is a life skill that a six-and-a-half-year-old necessarily needs, so I didn’t try to explain that, at least when I was growing up, two fingers meant ‘Fuck Off’, while flipping the finger up at someone meant ‘Up Yours’ (a phrase that sadly seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times) and, in our area at least, we were pretty specific about the differences. This distinction is open to interpretation in various places around the world, but I settled for telling her that ‘No, it doesn’t normally mean the F-word, it means another rude word.’

‘What word?’

‘I’m not going to start teaching you how to swear yet, honey.’

I only realized after I’d said it, that I’d included the word ‘yet’. She remembers stuff like that.

‘The S-word is only a bit rude,’ our five-year-old added helpfully, as she continued to eye up the cat’s bed.

‘It is still pretty rude,’ I told her. ‘And I don’t want you using it.’

I was a bit late on this one, as she’d already used it a couple of times in the past (that I knew of), casually and in proper context. Fuck knows where they pick this shit up, but then having a little kid can be like having a walking voice recorder following you around. One that can play back key phrases when you’re all out in public. EH22-Giving OutAnyway, there was our six-and-a-half-year-old in school, having conversations about swearing and it got me thinking about books (it doesn’t take much to get me thinking about books, but sometimes it’s actually relevant).

For a writer, dialogue is a vital way of defining your character. Each one should be distinctive and so, as in real life, they should speak in distinctive ways. When your characters cannot be permitted to swear, you’re hobbled in the ways you can have your characters expressing themselves, and it means it’s harder to reflect how people speak in real life.

If you work in children’s books, this is a restraint you accept. It comes with the job.

Sometimes, though, it feels like we’re applying just a bit too much restraint. This recent discussion with my daughter was further evidence of the fact that children’s books are perpetually behind the development of children when it comes to any area where parents’ inhibitions create an awkwardness and result in prohibition. We’re embarrassed to talk about it, so we ban any discussion of it. This, in turn, drives the child to seek their information on personal issues from other sources. Sources which can often be less than reliable.

Most of us teach our young kids not to swear. This is very natural, as we want them to use language appropriately and swearing can be unpleasant, disrespectful and, at times, very hurtful. We want to teach them to speak properly, to communicate well, before they venture into the murky world of foul language. If you write children’s books, this is one of the thorniest areas to navigate – the restraints are tight enough in Ireland and the UK, but look towards the US market and you have to cut back even further.

I write for different age groups and with different publishers, and standards vary slightly from company to company, even from editor to editor, but it is largely decided by what is considered acceptable in schools. And schools can tolerate very little in the way of bad language. For books aimed at primary school level, you’d be lucky to get away with terms like: ‘bloody’, ‘flippin”, ‘crap’, ‘damn’ or even the mildest blasphemy. WT12-Talking In ClassWhat can be accepted in the classroom comes down to an individual teacher’s judgement and they regard it as a practical issue; feature this language in books used in school and it’s feared the kids will start using it in class. And nobody wants kids swearing at teachers – that way lies educational armageddon. And children’s publishers want to sell into schools, ‘cos that’s a big part of their market. So the writers who work with those publishers willingly conform to those expectations.

However.

I’d be delighted if books were the biggest influence on a child’s language. As with any subject that we are reluctant to broach with our kids, like nudity and sex, for example (which I’ve already written about), when we fail to provide the necessary information, children go looking for it elsewhere. They’re going to pick up stuff from other kids around them, and from us, their parents, of course, in those moments when we fail to censor our own language, but it doesn’t stop there. Even with the best filters in the world (which we normally fail to apply), kids will pick up words on the web that would have us wincing in social anguish. Which is fair enough – I mean, hardly any of us learned our meatiest obscenities from reputable sources.

But their range of sources is infinitely wider than when most of us were young and what’s more, the stakes are far higher. Because once they get involved in social networks, they’re not just talking, they’re publishing. WT14-Twins UpsetEverything they say is accessible to a potentially huge audience and could cause much greater hurt, offence or misunderstanding. And could be permanently on display.

The range of influences on teenagers’ language, for instance, is enormous – and I think it’s making them more sophisticated as a result, both in terms of vocabulary and comprehension. They are more aware of the nuances of language, more conscious of how they use it, because they are exposed to so many people who use it well. But in terms of understanding the potential consequences of what they might say, most of them are way behind where they need to be. And given that media-savvy celebrities, politicians and other public figures are constantly being caught out and made to suffer for it, we can’t hope to train young people not to say stupid things online. I’m a forty-two-year-old professional writer, more conscious than most of the meaning of words, and I still spew more verbal shite than I’d like to admit.

Not here, obviously. These are pearls, I’m giving you here. Pearls, I tell ya.

Speech is still our primary form of expression, of communicating ideas – most of us still talk more than we read – though written words are now giving speech a run for its money, and our ever-present phones are blurring the difference between the two. The advantage of the written word used to be that we tended to think a bit more before we wrote. Now, with texts and social networks? Not so much. Those fingers can dump you in it every bit as fast as your mouth can. And those words can hang there, reaching one person after the next, long after we’ve stopped thinking about them. Unlike speech, they don’t evaporate the moment they’re created.

Which is why kids need to start learning, and learning early, the difference between expressive but relatively harmless swearwords, potentially hurtful insults and the kind of language that borders on a hate crime. And because this is often just a matter of degrees, of nuance and the character of the people who might hear or read it, it should be part of their education in communication. WT17-Jason's NightmareThe best we can hope for, is that we give them decent foundations to work from, which is what the education system tries to do.

In fiction, we should be able to go a bit further. I have had a discussion with an editor about whether an unpleasant character should utter a racist comment. She had misgivings because . . . then there’d be a racist comment in the book – and this was in a novel, with ‘Unsuitable for Younger Readers’ printed on the back. The same has happened with a homophobic comment. It was only reflective of how that teenager would speak, but I had to argue to have it in. Never mind that that is the kind of language that a child will encounter in real life. Let’s be clear about this, I wasn’t using these terms as my voice in the narration; these were uttered by characters in scenes I was depicting, scenes that I wanted to make as realistic as possible. But we had to mull over whether they could be permitted or not.

In books for children in primary school, I can’t use language that any kid will hear yelled out at a football match. I can’t use the correct anatomical terms for intimate body parts most human beings have. I recently had to take the word ‘pee’ out of a story because it was feared it would cause a disruptively riotous case of the giggles if it was read out in class. Well, no wonder, if they’re never allowed say it. And yet every school has toilets that the students are using every day. But we have to be careful about mentioning what actually happens in these tiled sanctums. In another story, I had to remove a very inoffensive reference to reindeer shit too, for the same reason. Referring to doing a poo or a pee is most definitely not swearing, but it is put in the same category of language.

Even with older readers, those who are reading novels, but don’t quite count as ‘young adults’ yet, if we want to create a situation that illustrates what’s wrong with using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, as a synonym for ‘stupid’, ‘weak’, ‘pathetic’ or ‘uncool’ – as it is so often used – it sometimes feels like we have to sell it as a social issues story, not . . . y’know . . . just a story. This justifies the reference to it in a book. To feature the derogatory uses of the word, even while making it clear why they’re unpleasant, the story almost has to be about being gay.

We could, instead, just show the effect of this kind of abuse on a character our reader has developed some empathy for, as part of a story that’s about something else entirely.  The same goes for terms that are racist, sexist, insulting to someone’s religion or bigoted and hurtful in other ways. But writers can’t differentiate between these harsh terms and comparatively harmless swearwords if we can’t use any of them in our stories.

We need to start making these distinctions as early as possible, using language that’s appropriate to the age of the child, rather than the conventions of the school system. By lumping this vast variety of terms into the same category, and banning the whole damn lot of them, we are giving up most of the influence we can have over how they’re used . . . and, a crucial point for the publishing industry, we’re making books seem less relevant to young people’s lives.

And yet it’s in books where this can be handled best. Books are quiet, private and deliberately exact in their language. They have time to be thoughtful, to offer context and can be digested at the reader’s own pace. They also have the advantage of only being accessible to a reader of the intended level or above. Reading is a natural form of filtering or certification. You can’t access the material inside if you’re not able to read it.

But by the time the kids are reading stories where we can explore these issues, they’ll have been wondering for years why nobody swears in books. And they will unconsciously attribute this absence to the suspicious relationship publishing has with the education system.

Fortunately, they don’t need books for this kind of thing, because they are busy surfing the web, as well as writing to and for each other, and they can take delight in being as colourful, expressive and offensive as they like – using terms they can learn and share across ever-expanding networks.

Language is as powerful as it is delicate. It can soothe an upset child or it can convince a nation to go to war. Where swearing is concerned, I think children’s books need to take the gloves off earlier, to play and examine and explore foul language. To relish the imaginative insult and wallow in lyrical profanity. But because of the nature of the beast, it also must be dealt with in context, handled with sensitivity and tact. It can’t be a matter of just throwing more swearwords into books – the usual problems will immediately limit our audience: the books won’t get distribution because publishers will be concerned about the reaction of schools and libraries. Schools and libraries will be concerned about the reactions of parents.

It is not the professionals in the book world who need the most convincing. In my experience, the vast majority of these people are pretty open-minded, liberal types, who just want to see kids reading books. When dealing with children, the pace of change is often set by the most reactionary parent, the one who will express outrage and threaten consequences for those who have tainted the soul of their child. You can’t be seen to be leading people’s kids astray.

And much as I’d like to say ‘Ah, fuck ’em!’, it doesn’t work like that.

Publishers run on tight margins. Even if you were to say we’d only try and sell it through shops, and let each parent decide what they’ll let their kids read, that’s too big a cut in potential sales for most publishers to take.

Short of running a massive advertising campaign aimed at convincing parents to let us use more offensive language in children’s books, it’s hard to see what to do. It’s all to easy to fall back onto bland words that lack impact and sound unconvincing. WT30-Nobody's PerfectBut as writers, we can start pushing more, stretching those elastic boundaries, consciously searching out spiky terms, earthier language, entertaining insults and killer put-downs. If we can’t get some established term past the filters, find another one, a great sounding one, that does the same job. It’s the kind of thing writers do anyway. And we need to start early.

We can make bad language a topic of conversation, as well as just an embellishment, so that it’s harder to remove it in the editing process. We can use dialogue with deliberate intent; have our characters interrogate meaning – like my six-and-half-year-old is already doing in school with her friends – argue about swearwords, make jokes about them, ask questions about them, wonder why weak ones don’t work, why misplaced ones are funny, what ones you can or can’t use in front of parents or teachers. Demonstrate how a child’s language changes when there is no authority figure around, because it does. Make fun of the contortions parents go into trying not to swear in front of their children. Make us laugh at the innocent questions young kids ask about what they hear.

Pose the questions in stories that we want children to ask themselves about the language they use and how they use it. About what it means, how it sounds. About the effects it can have. This is a tricky thing to do, and it’s important and expressive and it’s fun and those are the best reasons to write anything.

In conclusion, we need to start sneaking more bad language in children’s books. Spread the word.

January 10, 2014

Not Suitable for Children

I recently read a blog post by Clara Bennathan on the effect porn is having on teenagers’ expectations of sex – especially boys’ expectations. The article is a disturbing, but not very surprising, read and raises a related and difficult issue for children’s book publishing in general . . . and boys’ attitudes in particular.

I’m not one to shy away from violence in my books, partly because it adds drama to a story, but also because it is one of many different challenges to the protagonists that help create perspective. By imagining fictional lives and worlds that are very different from our own, we can look at some of the uglier aspects of life, and make judgements about them, without having to experience them. And I know boys like violence, so that’s another incentive to have it in stories, because I want boys as well as girls to read and I especially want them to read my stories. But I think there’s a responsibility here too. The more realistic the violence in my stories, the more serious I make the consequences for the characters – something my readers are unlikely to see in the violent games they play, and often in the films they watch. It’s one of the advantages of a book. You have the time and depth of field to show consequence.

Those consequences are key – and they can be handled in books better than anywhere else, because the reader is already halfway there, investing their own imagination in the creation of the story. They have created an empathic link of their own.

But in the real world, violence is something most people avoid at all costs and it’s certainly something we hope our children don’t experience firsthand. Sex, on the other hand, is something we hope they’ll get round to once they’re old enough. And yet, as we all know, anything that might have anything to do with sex is a far more delicate subject to broach in children’s literature – much more so even than violence.

This is mostly because any discussion of sex in relation to the word ‘children’, raises the ugly head of paedophilia. Something else that threatens huge damage from the untamed jungle that is the web, and yet – like teenage access to violent porn – the attempts to combat it always seem to be struggling to catch up with the horrific reality of it.

Anyway . . . ours is a strange industry, where it is far more acceptable to show someone killing someone else in a children’s book than to show two adults fondling each other.

Which is odd when you ask yourself, which of these two activities do we want kids indulging in when they’re older?

Which do we need them to be knowledgeable about if they’re to have healthy relationships and lead happy lives? How are we to do something as fundamental as propagating our species without knowing how best to do it? And it is these earthy fundamentals that appeal to boys . . .

Well, and girls too.

Why are we so reluctant to show naked people in young children’s books? Why is it we can’t show body parts the children have themselves and see every day in family life? Writers and illustrators don’t even try most of the time, because we know what the answer will be. I once had a disagreement with an editor over a scene in an illustrated book for confident readers, where two boys have a pissing contest – something boys do from the point where they can stand up and aim (or not). Not Suitable 1-Pissing ContestBoth boys had their clothes on in the illustration, there were no willies in view and there was a girl with a suitably disgusted look on her face to provide some balance. The editor was an open-minded, very liberal and easy-going person, but her job demanded that she worry about the reactions of parents and teachers. And their expectations of what one should, or should not, see in a children’s book. She was just representing the views of the publisher, and the publisher was effectively bound by the conventions of the industry.

In the end, the scene stayed in (as did the illustration), but it left me feeling frustrated about those conventions, and what they do and do not allow.

We really need to ask ourselves when the portrayal of our bodies, and more especially our bodily fluids and where they come out, became such a distasteful subject. Surely, being able to talk openly and frankly about these things is vital for our health and well-being. Instead, discussion about our bodily parts – and what springs from them – is considered rude, disgusting and many younger children seem to be of the opinion that the anatomical terms for these things are no different from the swearwords that have been derived from them. There are even adults who think the same way.

I’ll be doing another post sometime soon on swearing.

We have made this, most important of subjects, a dirty joke, a taboo subject and in doing so, have made it almost impossible to broach with children in a reasonable and mature way before they actually start finding out about it for themselves. And what’s worse, is we’ve effectively forced them to go online, hoping to find out what the adult world refuses to tell them. These things are either dealt with as a subject of toilet humour in our entertainment, or cold biology in education or as ‘social issues’. We rarely treat them as if they’re just normal.

I can really only speak from a boy’s point of view here, but then as far as the teenage obsession with porn is concerned, boys are the real problem. Speaking as someone who, as a young man, once believed nothing in his life could ever be more important than sex, I can fully understand the mind-altering urges lads get and how they can lead them astray. I do find most porn distasteful, not because I don’t like watching sex – I absolutely do – but because of the way the porn industry treats human beings in general and women in particular. And their stories are usually rubbish, which really breaks the spell. Thankfully, my imagination was better than most of the photos or films I saw as a young man (and still is).

But back when I was a teenager, there was only so much a boy in Ireland could access. Things have changed. Now the really hardcore stuff is out there, it’s viral, it can be got for free and it’s far more extreme and abusive than anything my generation would have been likely to encounter. And what’s most troubling, is the attitude towards women and the violence that is associated with this stuff. And some boys are becoming convinced that this is normal – and are now trying to get girls to reproduce this crap and even record it for themselves.

But what has all this got to do with children’s books? I mean . . . come on, Oisin. I mean, books that aren’t aimed at teenagers. I mean, books for younger kids? Really? It’s not like we’re going to start putting adult sex scenes in those, is it?

Well, no. For the simple reason that it’d be really hard to get right and it would probably be commercial suicide.

But . . . we all know the average boy becomes fascinated with his penis long before he knows anything about sex. He has his first erection long before he knows what he’s supposed to do with it (it is, quite frankly, a bizarre experience when you become aware of it). And given that his body is all there is of him in this world, it’s only natural that it fascinates him. Not Suitable 2-Picking NoseSaliva, sweat, blood, urine, faeces, flatulence, mucus, vomit, semen – whether it disgusts you or not, this is the stuff of life. It’s what we’re made of. We are hardwired to react to each of these things in a different way, because our very survival may depend on it. The most complex part of writing – understanding and provoking emotions – starts with the basics. Biology. To get anyone reading, a writer must provide something that sparks their interest, and like the majority of us when we were young, the average boy is most interested in himself.

And the parts of himself that he is most fascinated by are the tangible, physical bits. The things he can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. The things that provoke the strongest emotions for him, are those that stimulate or threaten these parts of him, and they are the base emotions: disgust, anger, fear, satisfying a physical need, or sexual arousal. So the stories boys seek out most often are those that appeal to their base instincts – at least at the start. And the fact that these things are often considered disgusting or unsuitable or even immoral just makes stories about them funnier, more interesting and more exciting.

But it also convinces children that these things are socially unacceptable, so if they’re curious about finding out more, they’re going to have to do it in secret. That’s where the real problem lies.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, in the children’s book industry, we don’t acknowledge children’s earthy appetites enough. When we’re not ignoring the subject outright, we treat it with distaste and disgust, we don’t do enough to sate it and what little we do, we do too late. We are not honest with our children. In a sincere attempt to protect their innocence, we make them ashamed of their bodies. We leave them with too narrow a perspective and too uninformed, ill-equipped to deal with these issues when they begin exploring for themselves.

In Ireland, I believe the pledge Catholics take at their confirmation to not drink alcohol until they’re eighteen has done untold damage, because it encourages secrecy. Teenagers don’t avoid drinking, they just avoid drinking in front of adults who could promote a mature attitude to it. As a result, they plough in unprepared, they binge drink and that’s where the real damage is done.

We’ve done the same thing with our attitudes to our bodies. Long before they strike out on their own, kids have started contrasting the normal bodies they see around them – the ones they’ve been taught not to look at, not to talk about – with the bodies they see displayed in magazines on racks in every newsagent and on millions of websites.

And they start learning about sex on the web, because what little they’re being told – often in school – is factual and it’s done in a class situation where they can’t express themselves as openly as they’d like. And frankly, it’s just not entertaining enough to engage them emotionally.

Schools do their best, but by the time they start teaching this stuff, children’s attitudes to their bodies have been cemented by the awkwardness of the grown-ups they know, who are reluctant to discuss it, the frustrating lack of it in children’s entertainment, and the saturation in the wider media of images created by grown-ups who neither know nor care who’s looking at the stuff.

We have, in effect, turned over the sexual education of our children to disinterested strangers whose motives vary from the fairly harmless to the downright abhorrent.

I’m not suggesting that we need to start loading children’s books with graphic sex or try to compete with what’s on the web. I just think that the depiction of the human body in children’s books should be kept in step with children’s knowledge of their own bodies and those around them. They need to see images of ordinary, flawed human bodies and learn to appreciate them for what they are. And they need to see it in a normal context, without making it a Carry On-style joke, or a serious social issue. Children need to develop emotional maturity about nakedness and body parts in preparation for the complicated demands that will be placed on them as they become sexually mature.

The other, darker side of the issue, the treatment of women in porn, is obviously a harder one to address in children’s books – and books already promote positive attitudes between opposite genders, because it’s something the industry is very conscious of. But if we can encourage boys to read more, empathy will be the happy by-product and it’s the only thing that will convince them how awful some of the stuff that’s out there really is.

And as teenagers do become sexually mature, they need to have some idea of where to look to find easy, well thought-out and unembarrassing information on sex, on the web or elsewhere – how to do it right and have fun in the process.

But it all starts with the body and how it’s portrayed. And the earliest and best place to start, is in books.