My daughter was an early speaker of single words. Mama. Daddy. Car. Police. Ducky. Zappa (as in Frank).
One night, she uttered her first sentence, a moment every Mom wants to preserve in her baby journal. My daughter stumbled into the kitchen, doing that clumsy-baby Frankenstein walk. Our dog Jack passed her, smacking her in the face with his big, bushy tail.
She stopped and frowned and said, F*** you, Jack.
Her father and I gasped in horror. Since this is my blog and I get the last word, let’s say she learned that word from her dad. My X drove her to day care, and 90 percent of his swearing occurred in the car. That moment reformed me, though. No more swearing.
Now, as a writer of middle-grade fiction, I struggle with authentically capturing those moments of anger and defiance that prompt a kid to curse. Parents, librarians, and teachers don’t like to skim a new novel and come across the f-bomb. And the reality is, kids tell adults what books they want to read, but adults buy the books.
In my middle-grade novel, the kids live in a rough neighborhood. Their young parents have problems. No doubt these kids hear plenty of cursing. Does that mean my book lacks authenticity if the kids don’t swear? Would the dialogue be more genuine with a few carefully placed swear words?
I struggled with this question whenever I opened my laptop. The answer came to me when I watched my favorite holiday movie, “A Christmas Story.” All I have to say is Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle! and you’ll shoot your eye out! Virtually everyone in America hears those words and remembers young Ralphie, whose story is narrated by his adult self.
In one of Ralphie’s most frustrated moments, he swears. The f-bomb!
Here’s how the writer handled it. In slow motion, Ralphie says, Fffffffff –UDGE! And the narrator adds something like, Only I didn’t say fudge. I said the big one.
Adults know exactly what he said. Kids might, too. If they don’t know the word, they get the point: It was bad, and he’s in big trouble.
A brilliant strategy. (More experienced novelists are saying Duh! right now.) In my book, when Daisy is overwhelmed and angry, she tells the reader, I yelled all the words I promised I wouldn’t say until high school.
It’s authentic to the character, intriguing to young readers, and – I think – appropriate.
Besides, writers want to produce timeless work, and using current (although non-cursing) slang dates the book. I’ve never heard a kid today say jeez Louise or shut your pie hole or sit on it! Grandma remembers it, though.
For that reason, I use popular phrases sparingly.
My daughter, now eight, told me she and her friends know most of the bad words. I asked her to tell me. So she did, and here they are:
- The s-word: Stupid.
- The h-word: Hate
- The b-word: Big meanie pants
I ask, what about the f-word? She says, what f-word? And this is proof that I’ve reformed. Mostly.
Confession: We do have a swear/rudeness jar, and it’s filled with quarters from me.