Friday, March 27, 2015

A Way with Words

I adored my editor Frances Foster for many reasons. Her humor, her smarts, her genteel manner. She also had a lovely way with words...always eloquent, tactful, and respectful.

In my ongoing quest to purge my office of STUFF, I came across some correspondence that showcased her way with words perfectly.

Back in 2000 (FIFTEEN YEARS AGO!!! How can that be?),
Frances received a letter from an elementary school media specialist about the use of the word "hell" in my book Me and Rupert Goody.

It reads, in part:

I am faced with a real problem. Several times in the book, the character of Uncle Beau uses language that parents of elementary age children would find offensive. More and more, I am finding that this is an issue with well-written books for children this age. If the inclusion of such language were an integral part of the story, that would be at least justifiable. In this book, it is gratuitous and could easily have been deleted.

What will I do with the book? I cannot recommend it to students at my schools. The language is unacceptable - and it occurs only a few times! I am passing the book on to the middle school where students - and their parents - might not be offended. I regret having to do this as the story is appropriate for fourth and fifth graders.

What can you do? I would suggest that, when you edit books in the future, you become aware of such gratuitous language and suggest to authors that they, too, become sensitive to the inclusion of such language. No one is opposed to freedom of expression but let us be more sensitive to what language is necessary and what is not.



Frances responded in the most perfect way. Her letter reads, in part:

I can certainly appreciate the sensitivity of your position as a media specialist. We may, however, disagree on whether or not certain language is integral to a story. I don't think it's so easy to separate language from characterization, and in my opinion, there is nothing gratuitous in O'Connor's depiction of Uncle Beau. His every word and gesture make him totally believable. I suppose the occasional "hell" could have been edited out, but it seemed so utterly true to Uncle Beau's voice and character.

Are you aware that School Library Journal gave Me and Rupert Goody a starred review and a Best Book of the Year ranking? It was also named an ALA Notable Children's Book. Those recommendations, of course may not carry any weight with parents, but they do suggest that not everyone has found the language unacceptable to fourth and fifth grade audiences. 


I couldn't have said it better myself.

P.S. If it had been an e-book, the librarian could have used this Clean Reader App (eye-yi-yi) .

2 comments:

Augusta Scattergood said...

Love this. I wonder what Frances would do now. I understand some districts actually have it in writing that no more than x number of curse words may be in a book. I suspect she would keep whatever words are necessary to the character's speech!

That clean reader thing is very worrisome.

Susan Hill Long said...

"I don't think it's so easy to separate language from characterization..." Gently-put, but razor-sharp.

I never heard of that clean-reader app!