Talking to Students about “Bad” Language in Books

Q: I’m not sure how to respond when students point out swear words in books. I’m not sure myself why authors put some words in children’s novels. I struggle with what to say when this happens in my elementary library, because I struggle with it myself. (Sometimes the kids will point out pictures too—maybe a character with a lot of cleavage, for example.)

If a child or a group of children are showing you particular words or images from books, it essentially means that they had a reaction to the word/image and are seeking your response. Hurray!

Be glad that the children feel comfortable approaching you. That means they think you’re a safe person to ask.

Start by taking their question or concern seriously. Acknowledge what they are showing you or asking about, but also invite them to think more about it. You might say something like, “Wow, that’s interesting. What do you think about that?” or “I wonder why the author or illustrator included that? What do you think? What is the rest of the book like?”

You might get some valid responses to these questions, or you might just get some blank faces. But you are providing the opportunity for them to think critically about what they’ve read or seen. You can even say, “Sometimes I’m surprised by things I see/read in a book, too. I don’t always like everything, so I have to think about why the author thought it was important to include.”

You can also use this as an opportunity with students — just as you would with adults –to talk about the materials in the library. You might say, “When we choose books for the library we look at what other librarians and teachers have said about them so we know if they are recommended for kids in elementary school. But there are a lot of kids in this school at many different ages. And they have a lot of different tastes and interests! There are picture books and novels and books of information on many subjects. There are books here some of you will think are boring, but other kids will find those same books exciting. And sometimes a book may have a word or a picture that surprises or bothers one person, but the same word or picture may not surprise someone else. Everyone’s likes and dislikes are different. We try to make sure everyone coming into the library will find things they like, even if they don’t like everything they find.”

You can add, “And remember the library is a place for you to choose what you want to read. If you don’t like a book for any reason, bring it back and try something else—we’ll help you find another choice if you want. You don’t have to explain why you don’t like the book–unless you want to talk about it.

“I think it’s great you are asking about these words—you should always know you can come to me or a teacher or your parents if something in a book is troubling or surprising or confusing. Sometimes I need to talk about what I read, too!”

Obviously you will adjust how long you make your explanation based on how engaged they are, but treat them with respect and assume they will have the maturity to understand–we bet they will appreciate it!

Regarding the second part of your question—why do authors include swear words in books: the answer is probably different for every author or illustrator, but in a broad way we would guess it has to do with their concept of the integrity of the work and their vision for it.

You are certainly not alone in struggling with this, and it’s terrific you are asking the question and thinking about it. Talking about things that make us uncomfortable regarding collection development and other library issues is so important. When we can share our anxiety or concerns with colleagues we can hopefully–ultimately–not only gain insights but also feel more supported–and maybe courageous–in our decision-making.

The truth is you won’t personally like—or perhaps even be totally comfortable with—everything you purchase for the library. But it’s important that you feel you can professionally defend what you have selected. And that means–at the least– being able to point to reviews and other resources that support having it in a collection that includes students of the age being served in the school where you work.

(Thanks to Tessa Michaelson Schmidt for contributing to this response.)

August, 2011