Language, maturity, and awards

Michael L. Printz Award.At Midwest Writers Workshop last year, I got into a conversation with several authors about language and awards lists in YA fiction. One author shared her story of how she decided to remove the eight swear words she’d included in her book after a discussion with her editor, because she worried those words would make her ineligible for some awards lists. This got me thinking a lot about language, maturity, and awards in YA.

As a librarian, I’m very familiar with requests for “clean” reads, a term I strongly dislike, because everyone defines “clean” differently. For some it means no sex, but swearing is okay. For others, “clean” means anything beyond a couple holding hands is out. But no matter what “clean” means to the reader (or more often, the reader’s parent/guardian), it’s clear that there’s a demand for tamer books without strong language. But does having a few f-bombs or a sex scene that doesn’t fade to black mean a book isn’t well-written or worthy of recognition? In my opinion, no. Different books are right for different readers, but being more mature doesn’t detract from a book’s quality — or it’s “rightness” for a set of readers, albeit a different set than those asking for “clean” reads.

I haven’t studied local or state-level lists, but looking at the 2016 Printz Award and the BFYA (Best Fiction for Young Adults), both issued by YALSA, I’m pleased to see that mature content hasn’t kept great books from being recognized. Interestingly, I don’t recall any swearing in Printz Honor book Out of Darkness, though I would never give it to a reader looking for something “clean.” This is a brilliant book, but very mature — without giving too much away, I’ll just say that there’s racism, violence, and sexual assault. And other dark reads like Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not made the BFYA list. I read this book a while ago, and I don’t remember if it has any swearing, but there is other language that some readers could find offensive (such as the characters’ constant disclaimer, “No homo.”)

As a writer, I set out to tell my story as best I can, regardless of language or maturity. I don’t write things for the sake of writing them, but if a situation warrants a swear word, and my character is the kind of person who would swear in that situation, then I’ll have that character swear. I imagine this means I’ll have some tough conversations and soul searching when I start working with an editor. But seeing more mature content in some of the big award winners gives me hope that I can find a way to stay true to my story and still have a shot at those awards.

What are your thoughts on content and awards? Do you censor yourself in hopes that you’ll reach a wider audience?

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