How Much is Too Much in YA Books

So who doesn’t swear or cuss on occasion? Right? It’s part of our current culture. Everyone does it—increasingly so and harsher as we go along. Swearing has increased in movies, television shows but especially books. When I was a teen reading Lord of the Rings or anything written by Ray Bradbury there wasn’t a single cuss word anywhere. Teens then were cussing up a storm when gathered in groups and such. 

But it wasn’t in our literature nearly to the extent it is today.

This begs the question: Is all of that cussing really necessary?

Picture of Two Girls, Sisters, with Looks of Surprise or Shock on Their Faces

Sarah Coyne, professor of family life at Brigham Young University analyzed the use of profanity in forty young adult books on the best seller list. Thirty-five of them had at least one swear word. On the average there were thirty-eight instances of cussing, with one book containing nearly five hundred uses of foul language.

Is that really necessary to become a best seller with teens? The argument is the author is reaching for authenticity and grit. But there are plenty of books with grit and reality that don’t make us feel like we need a shower to rinse off the stench after reading them. Look at The Hunger Games Series. Could a story get any grittier or more realistic? How much cussing did you hear from Katniss or Peta? During the final battle with Lord Voldemort, did Harry Potter let loose a stream of expletives?

In my humble opinion, cussing is a cheap way out of finding a creative way to express oneself. And it cheapens the book as well.

Here's something interesting Professor Coyne discovered:
The characters doing the swearing tended to be of higher social status, better looking and have more money than their non-swearing counterparts.

So what does that say to the preteens who are forming their ideas of who they are and who they will become as adults? Everyone knows kids who read, tend to do so about three to five years above their age level. I’ve seen Fourth Graders reading the Twilight series. None of MY children would ever have read something like that at age nine, but I saw it when I was teaching. And the kids who were allowed to read material years ahead of their maturational level, refused to read age-appropriate, excellent literature, thereby missing out of a whole world of good books. 

The problem with today’s young adult books is a reader doesn’t know what they’re getting into until they’re knee deep in the mire. This goes for swearing, sex and violence. Ever try to stop a teen from 'enjoying' something which contains sex, foul language or gore? Of course an allowance is made for the genre bridging the innocence of middle grade books and adult-level reading. But how much is too much? How do we protect the sanctity of innocence until a young adult is ready to become an adult if what they’re reading reveals all?
As an author of Picture Books up through Young Adult, I feel the need to protect my young readers from what they’re seeing in movies and television, hearing in the lyrics of their music and experiencing while playing their video games. Teens aren’t allowed to remain innocent and naiive anymore…and I think it’s a shame on our society.


Margaret Fieland said...

Rebecca, thanks for the thoughtful post. I'm very glad now that the main character in my forthcoming YA novel says "heck," as well as a couple of expression I made up (the book is a sci fi).

When I was a teen, my parents didn't censor my reading material, and I picked up "The World of Suzy Wong." I was a naive kid, and thus my father had to explain to me that "sleeping with" someone involved more than sharing a bed. The whole thing was over my head in a lot of ways, and it discouraged me from reading similar books. My three sons were mostly interested in fantasy: C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the like.

Donna McDine said...


I agree with you, children today grow up way too fast. I devoured the Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young and luckily my mother saved the collection and gave them to me when I had daughters. The loved them. Absolutely no cursing in them.

All the best,

Martha said...

Rebecca, I agree with you, I protect my children as much as possible while still allowing them freedom and the chance to grow up. If read the books my daughter reads and we have book club together. This way I can at least discuss with her what she has read.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I agree Rebecca. Swearing is a short cut in story-telling. So many young kids read up, that it is important to be cognizant of word choice.

Virginia S Grenier said...

I totally agree. I used to have a foul tongue, but I find my life has improved by not using that language (a lesson I learned after I was a young adult) and that I'm respected more because of it. This is what we should be teaching YA readers instead of trying to sound as they do currently. I'm not saying to give up the teen voice, but to be careful how much of it we do use. I see books as a way to teach instead of confirm a way of thinking. I think sometimes we forget this (or publishers do) and so we encourage behavior instead of teaching how to change behavior. That's what I think when I read a YA that is full of sex, drugs and foul language. There are so few books now that don't have this in them for YA readers.

T. Forehand said...

I agree with all of the above, even as an adult I really don't enjoy books filled with graphic details of sex and foul language. There is so much more with the words that create a tension or atmosphere rather than the cheap use of foul words. And although I also let the foul words fall off my tongue in real life at times, I prefer not to have my grandchildren hear or read them. I loved Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and exciting language using cool words rather than swear words. I would love to be the one who created a great series that had tension and realistic topics but showed kids another way to behave.

Kathleen Moulton said...

Rebecca, this was an excellent article. Just because the culture has gone this way doesn't mean we have to follow. People may not even be aware of how a book filled with graphic sexual details and/or foul language makes them feel. Books eliminating it need to be written. Let us set the tone!

When I was growing up in the late 60's/70's, the "f" word was unheard of. Today it is thrown around like it's nothing. I am not a prude. Nor am I self righteous. It just sounds so cheap and it, along with the rest, cheapens a book.


Anonymous said...

I don't think that cussing needs to be in teen books. Teens hear enough cussing in their life, why should they need to read it?

I also feel the same way about comedians. Why do they feel the need to be vulgar or use the F word in every sentence? I think clean comedy is much funnier.

Karen Cioffi said...

Rebecca, what an thought-provoking article. I absolutely agree that there is no need for vulgarity in YA books. As you mentioned, there were plenty of exciting and engaging books from years ago that didn't rely on foul language or sex to tell a story.

Unfortunately, the problem goes way beyond teen books. It permeates every media outlet. The children today are bombarded, from a very early age, with inappropriate words, actions, and ideas.

And, once a child is in school, you can't shelter him/her from it. What goes on and is learned in school, from kindergarten on, is astounding.

Too bad we couldn't bring back the good old days . . .

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Dear Rebecca,
Thanks for writing this article and sharing your beliefs about the use of profanity in books.
I agree with you that many times authors use these words because they didn't want to look for other ways to show the crudeness of the characters.
Celebrate you and your love of writing,
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

What Authors Need to Know to Avoid Vital Front Matter Booboos

  To WritersontheMove Blog Subscribers and Visitors: 2023 has been a celebratory year for the release of the third edition of  The Frugal Ed...