Tag Archives: books

Swearing in YA Light Compared to Real Life

Last week, the YA world exploded with reaction to a study out of Brigham and Young University about the amount of swearing in teen novels and whether a rating system is needed. Check out the following links for more information and reactions from the American Library Association and authors Gayle Forman and Kiersten White:




I wasn’t going to respond only because others were quicker on the draw and perfectly captured the insanity of a study based on 40 books. For every book published with a swear-word in it, I’m sure there’s one that has none, but that kind of study wouldn’t get attention. Also, there’s the issue that a book can have no foul language but deal with mature content.

I decided to add something to this conversation because I work with teens daily. I’m going to focus specifically on the swearing issue. Here’s what I know from first-hand experience:

  • The idea that books with four-letter words are polluting their minds is ludicrous. My students are all reluctant readers (meaning they hate to read and often do not read) and they swear as often as ducks quack. My guess is they are being influenced by Twitter, music, Facebook, television, video games, their parents, and more than anything…their friends.
  • Students who do read (I’ve taught them, too) also swear. Shocking, I know, but true. So, they may be influenced by books, but chances are they are also influenced by Twitter, music, Facebook, television, video games, their parents, and more than anything…their friends.
  • The swearing in YA novels is child’s play compared to the swearing that goes on in a high school. I read a lot of teen literature, and I can say not a single novel I have read comes close to the profanity I hear every day. Let me be clear, students do not swear at me. They wouldn’t dare, and if they did, they’d receive a verbal reprimand and an office write-up, which is usually followed by a detention, at the least. I don’t tolerate that kind of disrespect. The swearing I’m talking about is casual, when they talk to each other in the hallways, cafeteria, and classrooms. If authors were trying to capture realistic teen-speak, about half of all dialogue would be four-letter words, the n-word, or sexual references. The reality is that YA literature is squeaky-clean compared to the way teens really talk with their friends.

Don’t believe me? I dare you to check a teen’s Twitter account, Facebook page, or text messaging. Go ahead, I dare you. If your teen doesn’t have any of these and/or is not the swearing kind, awesome! I mean that. Thank you. Being the verbal police all day in school and then doing it at home with my 5-year-old who likes the words “poopie” and “butt” lately is entirely exhausting.

I hope my efforts at home will prolong the inevitable–that “poopie” and “butt” will turn into “shit” and “ass.” Like the teens I teach, my daughter will probably think swearing is part of growing up. At 17, she’ll be able to drive herself to school and an after-school part-time job. Why, then, couldn’t she drop the F-bomb once in a while?

Of course, swearing does not equal adulthood, and I’m sure there are plenty of adults who don’t curse. Personally, I think overusing profanity is obnoxious, whether it comes from teens or adults. I don’t have a problem, however, with a well-placed F-bomb, or other four-letter word, in life or books.

What’s funny is that books are being called out when the language used in the YA novels I’ve read is mild compared to what I hear daily. If Brigham and Young researchers want to have some real fun, they should spend 40 days (to match the 40 books) walking around the hallways of an average American high school during passing times and start counting four-letter words.

My guess is, at the end of their little experiment, they’d call YA authors lightweights.

The Books My Reluctant Readers Love

At various times during the year, a “best books” list is published by someone somewhere. Those people have a lot more clout than I do, but I contend that some of the best books are being read in my classroom. Why? Because they are being read. Period.

Most of my students are self-proclaimed non-readers. They can read, but they don’t like to read. When offered the choice between a book and something else, the something else wins. Reluctant readers are often turned off by books because they are told what to read instead of being allowed to pick a book for themselves. When allowed to choose, students often select something that sounds good, but may be above or below their reading levels, which leaves them frustrated or bored.

This school year, we started by reading two novels I was sure they’d love: 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher and THE WAVE by Todd Strasser. We read these together, which was great, but I wanted my students to develop an independent reading habit. They took a reading assessment that produced their “Lexile” numbers, and these were used to help students select books. I hadn’t done this before, but it seemed like the best way to match students with books they could actually read instead of something too hard or too easy. Like Goldilocks, we were searching for books that were “just right.”

Once students and books were matched, I gave them time to read every day. And an amazing thing happened….books…got…read…in…their…entirety! That’s right: cover to cover. Pretty cool, huh? Now, my matchmaking skills didn’t work on everyone. I had some students who stopped after a few chapters and needed to try something new. I have one boy who took weeks to finish a novel and another who has yet to finish one. But, by and large, students were reading, asking for more time to read, and finishing books, at which time I made a copy of the cover and pinned it to the wall.

Here is a picture of my wall when we first started:







Here is a more recent picture:







This is what we call progress. (I stop to wipe a teacher tear of joy.)

So, here is a list of best YA books based on the criteria that they were read and loved by students who would normally prefer not to read. I look forward to adding to the list later this year.

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

The Wave by Todd Strasser

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

Full Tilt by Neal Shusterman

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman

Skeleton Creek: The Crossbones by Patrick Carman

Skeleton Creek: The Raven by Patrick Carman

Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Haters by Alisa Valdes

Perfect by Ellen Hopkins

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles

Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

National Hispanic Heritage Month: Spotlight on Pam Muñoz Ryan

To celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, I am highlighting an Hispanic author of young adult literature each week. At the end of the month, I will post a list of titles for those of you interested in reading YA novels written by Hispanic authors. I will continue to
chip away at the long list and post about them during the year because–hey, Hispanics should be celebrated year round! :.)

Here’s a link with more information about National Hispanic Heritage Month:


And here’s a link for Latina Book Club, a site by Maria Ferrer dedicated to promoting Hispanic authors and literacy.


And, today’s YA author in the spotlight is PAM MUÑOZ RYAN. Enjoy!

AUTHOR: (information comes from the author’s website www.pammunozryan.com): Pam Muñoz Ryan  has written over thirty books for young people, from picture books for the very young to young adult novels, including the award winning ESPERANZA RISING, BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN, RIDING FREEDOM, PAINT THE WIND, and THE DREAMER. She is the National Education Association´s Author recipient of the Civil and Human Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Award for Multicultural Literature, and is twice the recipient of the Willa Cather Literary Award for writing. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, (formerly Pam Bell), received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Diego State University, and now lives in North San Diego County with her family.


Esperanza Rising

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Esperanza believed her life would be wonderful forever. She would always live on her family’s ranch in Mexico. She would always have fancy dresses and a beautiful home filled with servants. Papa and Abuelita would always be with her. But a sudden tragedy shatters her world and forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California, where they settle in a camp for Mexican migrant workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles brought on by the Great Depression, and lack of acceptance she now faces. When Mama gets sick, and a strike for better working conditions threatens to uproot their new life, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–because Mama’s life and her own depend on it.

MY TWO CENTS: This novel was on my to-read list for a long time. The teachers at my former school read it with their 6th graders, and I had heard a lot about it, but I never got around to reading it myself. I’m glad I finally did. I listened to the audio version of the novel, which can sometimes make or break my experience. The reader was great, and the story was both beautifully written and touching. Muñoz Ryan’s writing has a lyrical quality and her characters are likeable and memorable. The story of Esperanza’s family losing everything and needing to start over was skillfully blended with the historical setting, the Great Depression. Esperanza’s relationship with her mother, her love of the land–a seed planted by her father–and the lovely portrayal of Mexican culture were all high points for me.

LINKS for more information:

Find ESPERANZA RISING on Amazon.com and Goodreads.


NEXT UP: The long list of YA novels written by Hispanic authors.

National Hispanic Heritage Month: Spotlight on Gary Soto

To celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, I am highlighting an Hispanic author of young adult literature each week. At the end of the month, I will post a list of titles for those of you interested in reading YA novels written by Hispanic authors. I will continue to
chip away at the long list and post about them during the year because–hey, Hispanics should be celebrated year round! :.)

Here’s a link with more information about National Hispanic Heritage Month:


And here’s a link for Latina Book Club, a site by Maria Ferrer dedicated to promoting Hispanic authors and literacy.


And, today’s YA author in the spotlight is GARY SOTO. Enjoy!

AUTHOR: (information comes from the author’s website www.garysoto.com): Gary Soto, born April 12, 1952, was raised in Fresno, California. His poetry collection for adults, New and Selected Poems, was a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1997, because of his advocacy for reading, he was featured as NBC’s Person-of-the-Week. In 1999, he received the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association, and the PEN Center West Book Award for Petty Crimes. A prolific writer, Soto has authored picture books, middle grade novels, short stories, poetry for younger readers, YA novels, and books for adults and high school students. Other titles include: ACCIDENTAL LOVE, THE AFTERLIFE, TAKING SIDES, and BASEBALL IN APRIL AND OTHER STORIES.


Buried Onions

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: All of my life everyone was pulling away from me—Father, my mom, Jesús, school friends, and homies who disappeared in three lines of the obituary column. I could have cried under the heat of Fresno, but it wouldn’t have mattered. My tears would have evaporated before anyone saw my sadness.

Fresno, California, is such a sorrowful place that nineteen-year-old Eddie imagines there must be onions buried underground, their vapors drawing tears from the residents above. Eddie is trying hard to stay out of trouble and make a decent living, but he’s not finding it easy—especially with his aunt urging him to avenge his cousin’s murder. Will Eddie get caught up in the violence he despises? Or can he escape this land of buried onions?

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults

An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers

A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

MY TWO CENTS: Soto’s talent as a poet with a keen eye for detail and skill for beautiful description is always evident. The buried onion image runs throughout the novel, as Eddie navigates life in a community plagued by gang violence and few real options for a brighter future. Soto writes: “For me, there wasn’t much to do except eat and sleep, watch out for drive-bys, and pace myself through life. I had dropped out of City College, where I was taking classes in air-conditioning. I quit not long after my cousin, mi primo, Jesús got killed.” Eddie struggles to work honestly and ultimately has to decide whether to stay in Fresno or get out by joining the military. While this is a sad tale on many levels, there is hope in Eddie, who refuses to give in or give up.

LINKS for more information:

Find BURIED ONIONS on Amazon.com and Goodreads.


When Teens Speak Up To Help Others

Last week was National Suicide Prevention Week. I’m not sure how many schools were able to plan activities for students. The hectic nature of the start of a school year probably didn’t allow much beyond instructing teachers and students of the new, tougher bullying law in Connecticut. Bullying has led to suicide for some students, so the connection may have been made there.

Also last week, my students decided to read THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, a bestselling young adult novel about a high school junior who commits suicide and then leaves audiotapes explaining why.

According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between 10 and 24, resulting in about 4,400 youth deaths per year. Also: 15% of  U.S. high school students “reported seriously considering suicide, 11% reported creating a plan, and 7% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. Each year, about 149,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at Emergency Departments across the U.S.”

But I don’t want to spend the rest of this post writing about bullies in and out of a child’s home and what happens when things go wrong. I want to write about when things go well and a student does not become a statistic.

I want to tell you about the freshman who came to my classroom last year, first thing in the morning, to tell me he was concerned about a friend. She wrote him some disturbing texts the night before. She wasn’t in school that morning. We walked to guidance immediately and, there, they worked to determine if she was safe.

I want to tell you about the junior who was sitting in ISS. A girl borrowed a pencil from her, then broke it, ripped off the metal part, and used it to cut herself. The junior called me and asked if I could retrieve her from ISS so that she could work with me on her English paper. When I took her out of ISS, she broke down, telling me the English paper was a lie, but she had to get out of ISS to tell someone. Counselors and social workers moved into action to help both girls.

I am one of 100 teachers in my building. I’m sure we all have similar stories.

Bullies are out of control, and the number of students who hurt themselves as a result of bullying is astounding. But, this post is about the students who do the right thing. They step up and help others in need. They tell people to back off. They tell an adult when they think something serious is about to happen. They are responsible and brave when it’s not easy to be either.

I look forward to reading THIRTEEN REASONS WHY with my students. A major theme is a line stated by Hannah Baker, the girl who commits suicide. She says, “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”

I hope this sinks in as my students read the novel. The good news is some of them already know the impact they have on the lives of others. Some of them have already proven they will not stand by and do nothing. Instead of “pushing it,” they will “push back.” Anti-bullies. They’re out there. Perhaps we need more of them, but let’s not overlook the ones that already exist. To them, I say thank you. I’m sure you have had a positive impact on the lives of other people.

Writing In Someone Else’s Shoes

Like countless others, I read THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. I listened to the audiobook, actually, because I spend more time in my car than curled up on the couch with a book. I have not seen the movie, yet, but I know that it’s been selling out theaters. At the same time, it’s been getting serious criticism. I’m fine with the critics who want to blast Stockett’s style or how the book or movie failed in their eyes. What’s bothersome to me, though, is when people refuse to read the book or see the movie because Stockett is a white author who created black characters.

Something similar happens on Goodreads and Amazon, where people give one-star reviews and rail against the book, and then somewhere in the review, the writer makes it obvious that he hasn’t actually read the book or did not finish reading the book. The reviewer, then, really has a problem with the author or the subject matter.

We all have personal preferences. My mother hates science fiction and vampires, other than Edward, of course. My dad, on the other hand, loves sci-fi, and hates watching Oscar-nominated drama. So be it. But, when people make decisions based on an author’s race or another identifying factor, I find it harder to accept.

Beyond THE HELP, this issue interests me because writing outside of one’s race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. has been addressed in several of the blogs I read about writing and YA fiction. The general consensus on these blogs has been, yes, of course you can write outside your own identity with authenticity as long as you do your homework and be respectful. I agree, and there were lots of examples of authors who have done this successfully.

To complement these posts, other blogs have lamented the fact that the characters in YA fiction are overwhelmingly white. One cool blog actually analyzed the covers of books and found that most were graced by beautiful white girls. Again, the comments were that writers should include more characters of color with diverse backgrounds and experiences. At the same time, I have read blogs that call for more writers of color to be published. This could help to increase the number of diverse characters in fiction.

In general, they are all collectively saying: the publishing world needs more diverse characters from all authors.

And yet, there’s the Stockett controversy. From a review by Alynda Wheat: “I have friends who refuse to see The Help (or read Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller of the same name)…What galls many of us black folks is that Stockett is white, writing in the voices of black women.” Ms. Wheat, for the record, liked the movie.

So, on the one hand, I’m reading blogs that say, yes, we love diversity, go for it, even if you are not of that group. On the other hand, we have people basically saying, “Don’t you dare.” To make matters more complex, even writers of color have been criticized for portraying stereotypes within their own cultures.

Ultimately, I am curious about these issues because in my work in progress, the main character is a boy, his best friend is a Puerto Rican girl, his spirit guide is Native American, and another character is black. As I’m writing, I’m finding that my teens act and speak similarly, because my experience as a teacher is that most teens act and speak similarly. Some moments will be influenced by their gender, religion, or race, but so far I’m discovering that my writing is not about “being X, Y, or Z.” My characters are people who happen to be those things. Yes, they are defined in certain ways by their races, religions, ethnicities, or sexual identities, but these are not the central issues.

I’m not intentionally shying away from these issues. My WIP just isn’t developing in a way that requires me to go there. Maybe someday I will. Maybe I’ll be driven to write about my family or being Latina. Maybe I’ll dare to write deeply about another group. If anything, the success and criticism that has showered Stockett proves that writing about race, and especially in someone else’s shoes, es muy complicado, even in 2011.

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