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. Particularly 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.’
‘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. Anyway, 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. What 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.
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. Everything 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. The 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. But 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.
After September the 11th, the subsequent invasion of Iraq and all the crap that went on around it, I decided to sit down and write my second novel (which ended up being the first published), set in an alternate world to explain to everyone what was going on. I soon realized two things:
1) Writing a story so you can explain things makes for a crap story.
2) I knew feck all about Islamic extremism, the Middle East or the mind-set of the people there (Was Iraq even in the Middle East? Which countries make up the Middle East?).
I knew a bit about the circumstances that had created the conflict in Northern Ireland, and had watched Western extremism with some bemusement for years, but I had to face facts: I was in no position to explain anything. And besides, I was more interested in writing a thriller than a political statement.
But I am curious by nature and I did have a lot of questions, and questions are a good way to start a story. And when you write stories, you tend to write about the stuff that’s affecting you at the time.
So I wrote a tale about old men who could use young men and women to harness the power of ghosts. Those young people could take the violence of one unjust death and use that energy as a supernatural – and suicidal – weapon to cause other deaths (I wanted something that offered more variety than bombs), martyring themselves, so that one death constantly led to another. I created a world where one culture, a kind of a mix of the Middle East and the American Old West, was fighting a guerilla war with a more advanced, domineering culture, whose technology (and world view) was about the level of 1940’s Europe or America.
Years later in the real world, and the same stuff is still happening. And there still don’t seem to be any better answers to what’s going on except maybe for people to stop killing each other long enough for them to get a taste for life again, which is basically what happened in Northern Ireland. This solution, of course, was way too lacking in drama to serve as the ending for my novel, and you have to have drama for that all-important climax.
Over the weekend, I was at the Rolling Sun Festival in Westport, where Robert Fisk spoke about the recent events in Beirut and Paris. Here was a man who actually could explain things, in an incredibly articulate and passionate way. And despite all the obscene violence he’d witnessed, he still seemed to have hope that we can some day stop creating the circumstances that create terrorism.
I wish he wrote for children and young adults – that’s surely where his message would have the greatest effect.
If you want to broach this twisty subject with young readers, The Gods and Their Machines doesn’t promise any easy resolutions, but I hope it can offer some questions.
If you spent much time in the world of publishing, you might at some point start to wonder if the people who work in children’s publishing had an inferiority complex. Or if they didn’t, they must surely be on their way to developing one.
The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the perception that writing for children is the easy option. And it is fair to say, that children’s books are, in general, shorter, use simpler language, involve simpler scenarios and simpler plots and often feature less nuanced characters than books aimed at grown-up audiences.
But the point about our stories having to be simpler to understand is true enough. There is also a lot of formulaic writing in children’s publishing. And though there’s plenty of it in non-children’s publishing too, it’s assumed to be worse in children’s books. Even the word ‘childish’ – to be like a child – is a negative term, referring to the things children like or the ways that they behave, as if they are automatically inferior to adults. Which begs the question, where did all these sophisticated adults come from and at what stage in their development did they become separate from, and superior to, their younger selves?
I don’t want to make any particular points about the quality of the different kinds of writing here, except to say, from over ten years experience of making a living as a writer of fiction, it’s harder to write well, simply and clearly, than to write in an obtuse and complicated way. After all, it’s not about the beauty of the language you use, or the complexity of the emotion you wish to convey, but whether your thoughts are received and understood by the reader. And the more complex or nuanced the idea, the more inventive you have to be to get it across in a focussed, understandable and emotionally engaging way.
It is communication and, in the end, it’s the effect on your reader that counts.
Now, there are people who might point out that older readers are more sophisticated, more informed, better educated, that they have years of literary reference, a more worldly perspective, that they have seen more, experienced more, have higher expectations and will recognize work that is unoriginal or clumsy or superficial. Which makes it more challenging to write for adults. And they’d be right about most of that stuff, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned that sets a children’s writer apart from others – at least one who wants to sell enough to make a living from it for any length of time – it is that they must have an awareness of, and curiosity about, a reader who by definition, is not like them.
So . . . writing for kids. The easy option, yeah? Let’s have a look at that.
You might be the most significant writer of the century, with a timeless story to tell, and profound lessons to teach the new generation, but if you can’t get them to turn the pages, it won’t count for anything. People have to put an effort into reading text. Unlike television, film or even audio-books, text requires active audience participation. A bit like bringing someone to hear an orchestra play . . . and handing them an instrument. One cannot read passively. It takes effort. It wears you out.
Now, imagine your reader isn’t very good at reading – that you can make no easy assumptions about their ability to decipher words or to comprehend them (which are two very different things). Imagine your reader has a short attention span, has tastes as arbitrary as any adult, has almost no terms of literary reference, they have an instinctive bullshit detector and are brutally honest with their opinions.
You’re also competing for these new, inexperienced and impressionable readers against films, television and games that offer visually spectacular and often well-written entertainment that’s increasingly easy to access, the like of which the book industry has never faced before. So you have to grab your reader’s interest from the start and hold onto it for dear life.
You’re trying to reach the same minds as the ‘grown-up’ market, you’re just trying to reach them earlier in their life, in a more raw, less developed state, when they’re every bit the individual they’ll be as an adult, they’re just less capable of meeting you halfway in the storytelling, so you have to work that little bit harder. But it does mean you’re reaching those minds at a stage when they’re more receptive and you’ve far greater potential to blow their minds with a book.
If you’re writing books for young readers, you’ll either need to be an illustrator yourself or put your trust in someone else to illustrate your story – to help tell it. So, having written your story, you then have to weave it together with a completely different art form in order for it to be complete. And no, it’s not just a matter of using pictures to decorate or act out your story. They are not just stabilizers for the bike of a weak reader. Done well, illustration should tell a side of your story that doesn’t appear in your words. So how do you write with that in mind?
Now imagine that your readers will always be growing up, so that once you’ve won them over, they will, in a matter of a few years, grow out of the books you’re writing for them, and you’ll have to win over a whole new audience. Your market is in a state of constant turnover.
Welcome to the life of a children’s writer.
As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, now try getting your head around reading levels. Reading levels are often a subject of debate in the children’s books industry. The single biggest controversy I’ve experienced in my time as an author was the attempt by some UK publishers (including one of mine) to put ‘age guidance’ on the covers of their books. This sparked off a massive dispute over whether publishers should be dictating who should or shouldn’t read what books, and raised the question of what ‘reading level’ even referred to: the difficulty level of the language and story in the books, or the nature of the subject matter.
So a few of our own publishers were trying to place limits on who should be reading our books.
Most writers – and indeed, publishers – want as many people as possible to read their books, are pretty opposed to prescriptive practises and normally scathingly intolerant of censorship. The market itself tends to regulate the subject matter in books – up until our readers hit their teens, we write for kids, but we have to sell through several filters of adults. And a reader’s own ability will quickly decide if a particular book is too difficult to read. As far as I’m concerned, any kid who wants to read a book that is below their reading level should be allowed. Nobody’s going to fall in love with reading if someone’s trying to force them. I still read young kid’s books, and I can read just fine, thanks.
But if you want to be a professional children’s writer, or even if you’re pitching to a publisher and you want to show you understand the industry, you need to have an idea what level of reader you’re writing for. The publisher might disagree about your text, or you might find that during the editing process, you want to change tack, but because children’s ability and tastes change constantly, you need to be able to refer to the different stages for practical reasons.
‘Cos then it comes to marketing and selling our masterpieces.
There are thousands of children’s books published each year in Ireland and the UK. And they’re big sellers – they account for more than a fifth of the total UK book market. If you’re familiar with the literary supplements in any of the mainstream newspapers or magazines, have a look and see what proportion of their reviews are for children’s books. Do they enjoy a fifth of the media’s literary attention? Well, no. Not even close. Most newspapers don’t even have weekly reviews of children’s books.
Like other types of writers, children’s writers are expected to be the main advertisers of their books, setting up their own online presence and doing events in festivals, libraries and schools. Take note: the ability to do school groups is one of the big advantages for a children’s writer. But while other types of writers do events too, as a kids’ writer, an interview format or doing a bit of reading and taking questions doesn’t cut it these days. You’re expected to be a full on children’s entertainer because, frankly, that’s what it takes to hold kids’ attention.
For the difficulties in running a kids’ session, see the problems above when writing for them, then imagine a horde of them is sitting in front of you, waiting expectantly, with each temporarily focussed mind on the verge of wandering in a different direction to the others. All the techniques you use in your writing to grip your reader have be brought into play here too. You have to be an oral storyteller as well as just writing that stuff down.
Despite these extra skills you have to develop, I’ve heard from a number of sources (including one festival organizer) that children’s authors are sometimes paid less for festival events. They are certainly often treated with less prestige than their grown-up-market counterparts, even if their sales and audience numbers are greater. The children’s events schedule in a festival is normally a separate part of the programme and it is invariably at the back of the brochure, after the ‘main’ events.
Some events organizers will try and get you to do events for free – that is to say, work for free, for an event they’re often charging admission to – in return for the publicity and the huge numbers of sales the event will presumably generate. I’ve posted my thoughts on this already.
And while we’re on the subject of money, despite the dizzying sums you hear in the headlines (and I’m never sure how many of them are actually true), advances for writers of children’s books tend to be pretty small and certainly smaller than those for the adult market, which is surprising, until you realize your books are sold for lower prices than non-children’s books.
And finally, to impress upon you how writing for children requires more expertise, not less, than writing for adults, let’s take a look at a parallel: teaching. To teach students in college or university, it is assumed that you’re dealing with self-motivated adults, so when hiring a lecturer, the emphasis is on their qualifications in a given subject. Teaching skills are a distant second. To teach in secondary school, you specialise in a couple of subjects, but you know you’re dealing with teenagers, so a specific qualification in teaching techniques is required. You have to have studied how to get information into young brains.
By the time you reach primary school teaching, the range of subjects has become much broader, requiring greater versatility, allowing for less of that comfortable specialization and critically, the teaching itself has become the most important element. No matter what other expertise you have, the ability to communicate ideas clearly has taken priority over the subjects themselves, because without mastering the skills of teaching, none of those subjects will get taught. And if those primary teaching techniques fail, those adults-to-be will struggle through secondary school and may never even make it to third level.
Children’s writers are not teachers, but we face a similar challenge. This is why writing for children is not only as demanding as writing for adults – we have to craft more carefully what we write to communicate our stories clearly – it is actually more important, as it comes with a greater responsibility. One that many children’s writers, publishers and others in the children’s book community take very seriously.
Because if we don’t do our job right, those kids won’t read, so they won’t grow up reading, so they won’t read all those other books people are writing for when we’re ready to pass those readers on.
And that’s why writing for children is not the easy option. But if you fancy getting into it, it is a lot of fun.
If you’ve been to any of my talks, you may already have heard me say that, for me, the definition of a ‘Young Adult’ book is something that appeals to both young and adult readers. Looking at it this way, you could say that most of our entertainment – whether it’s written down or shown on-screen – is ‘Young Adult’.
I’m not the only who thinks so. The Library Journal in the US ran a recent article discussing YA literature, and who read it. And the answer to that, it seems, is pretty much everybody. . . . . . . .
There has also been an outcry about the desolate wasteland that children’s publishing apparently threatens to become, due to the lack of interest young people today have for books. Y’know, what with their minds being poisoned by electronic entertainment devices of every kind – though Sam Leith in ‘The Observer’ takes much the same point of view as me, arguing that these are just new ways in to reading.
But surely these new kinds of media are pulling our newest batch of trainee adults away from books? I certainly would have thought so. However, according to an article on Timothy McSweeney’s site entitled ‘Young People are Reading More Than You’, it seems this isn’t the case. Thanks to the Inis blog for pointing the article out.
Conor Kostick is a good friend and the author of the excellent ‘Avatar Chronicles’. To celebrate the launch of ‘Edda’, the third book in the series, Conor’s doing a ‘blog tour’ – a series of pieces on different blogs, finishing up on mine. Today, I’m posting a video of the two of us having a chat about ‘Edda’ and some of the ideas Conor has woven into the series.
This was filmed in the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, where we both teach courses from time to time. It didn’t go quite according to plan . . .
We were both on tight work schedules and had to put this together in a bit of a rush, with the help of Donna Sorenson from the O’Brien Press. The sound’s a little fuzzy, and Conor was unexpectedly joined by his very active two-year old daughter, as his partner had a doctor’s appointment.
Conor and I talk about books and ideas and stuff on a regular basis, but trying to keep our discussion YouTube-friendly – you know; short, concise and to the point – was something of a challenge. Even when we’re not tired, a tad hassled and being distracted occasionally by a pottering toddler, we are prone to indulging in a bit of mental wandering.
Conor’s writing is always challenging, always thought-provoking and imaginative. But apart from all that brainy nonsense, when you get right down to it, ‘Edda’ is a rollicking good read, full of fights, chases and all the stuff that make up a good thriller. Hope you enjoy the chat, and hope you check out the book!