Teaching Young Adult Readers to Swear

My mum always said if we don’t put boundaries on our language, it’s difficult to put boundaries on anything. I guess, in a way, she meant that language is our first attempt at self-censoring. If we are able to speak in a polite and respectful way- even when we are faced with abuse (think road rage) it in turn manages to control the rest of our behaviour. This sounds like a sermon. It’s not. It’s about the power of language and its place in YA lit.

Language is able to bring down empires and destroy lives. All you have to do is cast your mind back to Hitler’s Germany. He created a frenzy in people through rhetoric alone. Slurs and insults are difficult to shrug off- even for the more self-assured and confident of us. “Ignore it” we say, which of course is what we should all do- but it’s difficult. Negativity seems to outlast positive comments. Marshall writes, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you- bullshit- they do hurt.” 

In Destroying Avalon language is critical. Words are powerful, as Avalon and her friends realise. The internet and mobile phone allow the quick transmission of these words, where their damaging effects then take hold. Interestingly enough Avalon comes from a home where “obscene language is a capital offence, along with murder,” and it is the result of her use of that f-word that brings the novel to its climax.

Not being as computer savvy as her has meant she has managed to hide the cyberbullying from them, but her breakdown, in front of her father, is what alerts her parents to the constant harassment she has been experiencing. Comments about this book often focus on the ‘colourful language’ (I’m thinking red and yellow and pink and blue) and it was something I knew would create strong reactions. I’m not advocating swearing, but I think we have to be real. If we want teenagers to read this book, empathise with the characters and make decisions about how they want to live their lives we have to talk to them. Not down to them.

Young adults are discerning readers. Let’s give them a bit of credit. They know that reading swearing doesn’t give them permission to swear. They know about audience and moderation, like we do. If I face a room of students I carefully chose the language that’s appropriate (not the language I might use on a Friday evening at the pub!!) And I think Destroying Avalon uses language to clearly demonstrate the power of words. That in itself is cause for lively discussion!

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