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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Wash Your Eyes Out

The most recent oh-no-ing about young adult books is that a professor did a study and — are you sitting down? — contemporary young adult books featuring teenage main characters sometimes have those teens swearing.

No, really.

I know it’s a bit hard to imagine that a book would reflect how teens speak; or that teens would curse to show frustration, or anger, or independence. Or that teens in difficult situations would curse to express themselves.

We know this is true thanks to the study A Helluva Read, available to read here.

I’ll be honest. Most of the articles I’ve read about this? Have been reacting to the related press release. I’ve seen only a handful of places talk about the actual study, rather than the spin.

YALSA’s The Hub is a good example of someone who read the study: Cursing, Not Just For Sailors Anymore by Whitney Etchison. She notes that while the study sorts out the different types of words into categories (and sorts out children’s books from teen books and older teen books) most of the reaction conflates it to make it seem all the cursing is more of the f-word level than the “crap” level and that all the books are for nine year olds. (Alas, the study does not include a list of the actual words, so whether or not “suck” is included is unknown.)

Second, Etchison observes the attention paid to women and the role of the women’s movement in real life usage: “it appears authors are moving with this trend and are portraying women to be just as crass as men, at least among younger characters“” and “”In previous years, women seemed to conform more to gender stereotypes, being kind, considerate, well mannered, and well spoken.””

Personally, I found this interesting and I’m not sure why its even in the study, let alone repeated in several instances.

One final point: the study also shows what happens when words are counted rather than read. One of the books with the highest word count is not a  novel, as described in the study, but a memoir of adolescent drug use. It also fails to look at books within any context; Tweak, the non-novel, was a bit of a “companion” to the father’s own memoir of having a son who is an addict (Beautiful Boy), so it’s possible that the readership for that book was more adults than nine year olds or teens or older teens.

I have to say at this point the study also ignores whether the words chosen matter. The Book Thief is perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ever. All the authors of this study see, or then talk about in the press, is the curses. As I said in my review, “Liesel’s foster father is Hans Huberman; and let me say, how nice it was to have a father figure who is a truly good man. Not a molester or monster or pedophile, but a good, kind man; maybe not very rich; maybe coarse; but good. Rosa, the mother, is almost more complex than Hans; someone who on the surface would be labelled as abusive, but is a caring woman who does not express it in the words we use today, but shows it again and again in her actions. And Liesel and Hans understand this about Rosa. There is no romance of childhood; no looking down at adulthood; it is also astonishing, in the way it portrays what would today be called abusive parents, as loving parents. Most modern books would equate Rosa’s roughness and hitting with no love; would equate it with hate; would say that only one type of parental love is acceptable. TBL recognizes seeing where love is, in all its many places, both pretty and rough, expected and unexpected, rather than insisting love come in only one flavor, one emotion, one thought.” So the language used has meaning and is necessary to the very heart of the book; not one word is gratuitous. Perhaps, though, it scares some people to think that saying “damn” in front of a child can mean being a good parent, if their code for good parenting is simply the opposite: I don’t say damn so I am good. Books like The Book Thief show, it’s actions and emotions more than words that matter.

But now look at what those authors have made me do! To argue each book on its merits, which gives them the illusion of respectability.

Those things about the study that made me go “huh”? Kelly Jensen at Stacked took a thorough look at the study, studying it from a research perspective. My background is computer science, law, and library science; I don’t have the skill set or educational experience Kelly has to do such an analysis. I’m grateful she did, so take a look at Profanity in YA: Research, Assumption, and Feminism.  Yes, it is a bit tl;dr, but please don’t make that mistake. Apparently, any use of “excretory words” is always wrong? “Uhg, I have to go clean the cat poop out of the kitty litter.” I get a point for that, and wind up on the list, for when the author of the story goes to radio shows to tell people just how many books use bad words.

More importantly, Kelly shows the truth about what the study said of cursing in books versus TV or games. It also shows the truth of what the study says about labelling books.

Here, though, is the money paragraph from Kelly (and please, go read her whole post): “Coyne and her associates explored how many instances of profanity appeared in adolescent literature. But their conclusions come to involve the notion that the loose lips (or fingers) of lady writers is thanks to the women’s liberation movement. Not even thinking about the fact their sources about dainty and demure women date 1975, this sort of commentary is mind-blowing and discredits everything else said in the study for me. Because men are no longer dominant and women have some equal rights, they’re mucking up books with their crass language? If women were demure and well spoken and kind, they wouldn’t be contributing to the downfall of our children? To me, the message is between the lines here that, thanks to women having the ability to do what they want to do without the guidance of men, they’re ruining the future. They’re swearing! And they’re letting their young people in fiction swear! And forbid it all, but those young people then might use a profane word here!”

I’m trying not to provide what is basically a pr campaign looking for hits with more hits, but, having read the study and Kelly’s analysis, now look at a typical press reaction based on press release and study author interview, Most Popular Teen Book Characters Use Most Profanity. Things to note: the study author calls the books used the “top 40 books aimed at teens”, rather than the New York Times bestsellers from a short period four years ago. The memoir Tweak is specifically invoked (damn you, addicts should be setting a better model about what language to use when using drugs!). And interviewed parents who say that type of language is exactly why they monitor their child’s reading are buying Percy Jackson books, books that per the study include the wrong kind of language yet the newspaper doesn’t point that contradiction out. Maybe it’s because what else do you call horse poop in a book? And Common Sense Media is recommended.

Common Sense Media is less biased than it was a few years back (you can use an old blog post of mine as a starting point to the posts and articles that discussed the bias showing up in their book reviews.) I still like to check it out to see what it says (or doesn’t say) about books I’m familiar with. How they present ratings, what those ratings are called, and how those reviews are written are much less biased than what it was a few years back. Still, there are some interesting things. My current head scratching is why the coffee drinking in Why We Broke Up gets that book as many drinking points (to show a lot) as the pot smoking does in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. I didn’t realize coffee was illegal.

Just a few more links:

School Library Journal has an article with an interesting discussion in the comments: YA Books Rife With Profanity, Study Finds.

An interesting radio broadcast at MPR includes an interview with the author of the study; also, Andrew Karre of Carolrhoda called in and did a terrific job.

My short answer for cursing in books written for teens?

Read the jacket. Teens swear. The older the teen, the more likely the book may include some type of language. Also, the older the teen, the older the intended audience. Yes, High School Musical is about 16 year olds and watched by seven year olds; that’s not how books work. A book featuring a sixteen year old? Was not written with a younger child in mind. Flip the pages, skim the book, if you don’t like what you see, put it down. Tell your kids that’s the rule in your house for books and reading when you’re not around.

Books are not a ladder; “young adult” doesn’t mean “bigger words, complex grammar, longer page count,” and is not just a “step up” on the reading ladder to adult books. Young adult books are about the teen experience, and yes, that may include things you don’t want your eleven  year old reading about. There are books written for eleven year olds. I know, they may not always be easy to find, especially for those readers who are fast readers and want thicker books. The answer is not going “up” the “ladder” to young adult books. (I promise, I’ll do a post later about finding these types of books in the children’s section!)

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Madeleine L’Engle wrote about this sort of thing. I’m pretty sure it was in her book Walking on Water. Someone counted all the swear words in a certain book. Then they were asked if they’d read the book. “Certainly not!” So — they read ONLY THE CURSE WORDS in the book. As opposed to someone who reads the story and may not even notice the curse words because the book is so good. Who has the dirty mind here?

    As someone with a statistics background, I was troubled by their sample size. They chose books that were on the NY Times best seller list twice in 2008? And they think that’s representative of the broad spectrum of YA publishing?

    I’ve been resisting reading the study, but probably should to have more specific points of contention. I have many conservative Christian friends, and I’d like to be able to articulate exactly why I will NEVER advocate warning labels on books. (I also won’t advocate grade levels, but that’s another issue altogether.)

  2. Angela Reynolds says:

    Thank you for this reasonable analysis of this study (and the great links, too!). This is the best reaction to this round of YA hooplah that I have seen!

  3. Yes yes YES to your last paragraph. I keep trying to explain that to people and it’s amazing how many just DON’T GET it.

  4. Sondy, the sample size seemed skewed to prove a point by picking a time when TWEAK was on as well as GOSSIP GIRL (given the tv show began in 2007, another title that may be ya-published and, at least then, adult-read). Despite GG, rich, beautiful girls are not usually viewed as being all that in YA books: they are usually mean or dead or both, anymore. Also, picking the “recent 2″ in teen series (that tend to have characters who age) leads to picking the older books in a series range.

    I sympathize with people who want their books to reflect their world view. I don’t think labelling is their answer; and I don’t think agreeing that their world view is the world view works, either.

    Angela, thanks so much!

    Rockinlibrarian, a friend once said to me that if kids want to drive their parents say, wait till you’re older, not, well, you’re tall enough to reach the pedals. Yet with books, people not only don’t get it; they want the books for their 11 year olds, so those books better be for their eleven year olds.

  5. I’d love to see a post not just on how to find books for the precocious reader 11 year old, but an entire post dedicated to the way that books don’t fit on a ladder. The more ammunition I have in the war against thicker-equals-better or older-equals-better the, well, the better!


  1. […] there was a blogosphere and media freakout earlier this month over a study on the number of “swears,” as my kids used to call them, […]