Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Burning Questions

I'll admit that a small part of me liked Pacific's MFA program because the website promised bonfires on the beach. While I joke that this is the main reason I chose it, the fact that the program is ranked #4 in low-res programs in the U.S., has amazing faculty, is exactly the kind of curriculum and semester requirements I'd hoped for, and didn't require a foreign language proficiency to apply all ranked higher in practical reasons I chose it.

But the bonfire might have ranked highest on my emotional levels.

Really, is there anything more literarily romantic than a bonfire on a beach with a bunch of writers standing around talking shop? That just might be might idea of a tiny slice of heaven.

The funny thing is that it never once crossed my mind how ironic it is that a bunch of writers aspire to stand on a beach around a bonfire, considering the history of literature and how many books have been thrown in just such a bonfire. 

This was on my mind this morning, though, when I spent breakfast talking to my two middle-school-age kids about profanity in required reading at school. This weekend my son told me his reading group at school (8th grade) is getting ready to read The Book Thief, which happened to also be on my semester reading list. In anticipation, I moved it up on my to-read list and began last night. In the first 40 pages, there is a not-inconsequential amount of profanity.

My son's been choosing a lot of adult fiction to read on his own lately: Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Tim LaHaye to name a few. Grisham and LaHaye have been pretty safe, but Crichton he's had to sift through. On his own choice, he puts back the ones that have profanity, because he just doesn't want to read it. I admire him for that.

But now he's heading into a book required by his teacher that he doesn't have a choice in.

In our breakfast conversation, my daughter, who is currently in 6th grade, informed me that last year her class had to read a book with profanity in it as well. And they read much of it out loud. She said when one girl had to read a page to the class that had a word she wasn't allowed to say (by her parents or, according to the Code of Behavior, by the school), the teacher told her to go ahead and read it, because it was part of the curriculum. The teacher himself read much of it out loud, and my daughter said the class giggled because their teacher was "swearing" in class. She told me she never laughed because she didn't think it was funny.

Call me what you want - a prude, a fundamentalist, a head-in-the-sand parent - but this disturbs me. 

I've never used profanity. I didn't growing up, and I don't now. I don't wear that as some point of pride, anymore than I would be proud that I've never worn stilettos or eaten foie gras. I just haven't. It's a choice I've made for my life. I don't make it for yours; you are free to talk however you wish. And when my kids are adults, they can choose to talk however they wish. But while they are in our house, they are not allowed to use profanity - or scream, or hit one another, or throw things, or eat dessert without finishing their vegetable. The thing is, I've had to teach them not to scream or hit or throw, but I've never had to teach them not to swear. Because they know instinctively that, like screaming and hitting and throwing, words like that are meant to hurt or shock. 

My kids know it's out there. Sure, they hear it in the stores and on the street and even, sadly, at DisneyWorld. It's everywhere. It's true. I can't shield them from life. 

But I wonder why public school choose books with language in them that the kids aren't allowed to speak in the hallways. 

Don't get me wrong: I think a lot of these books are great books. The Book Thief is outstanding. I don't want to throw books onto the proverbial bonfire. I'm not saying kids shouldn't be allowed to read them. I'm just saying, shouldn't they have a choice? Shouldn't books in lower education be put to the same standard as the kids themselves? Should kids who are nine and ten be made to read books with language that would, if it were a movie, be rated PG-13?

So my son will read The Book Thief, and we will talk about it together, which is a good thing, and something I'm unable to do with every book my kids read. But that doesn't make the exposure go away. And while some might say that exposure is going to come anyway, that doesn't make it beneficial.

There is, hopefully, an awful lot of life left for my kids to hear these words... to decide for themselves if they want to use them, to read them. Is it a crime to want them to have a few more years without them?

(And don't think I haven't missed the irony that The Book Thief contains a crucial scene of book burning in Nazi Germany... which brings us back around to the irony of the beginning photo... )


  1. I remember having a conversation with a lady who was looking forward to her kids getting a little older so that they could watch more adult movies and so they could swear at home. Have you heard of anything more sad.

    I loved the Book Thief, but I wouldn't give it to my 9 year old daughter to read. My boys are reading the Hunger Games and I've told my daughter that she's not allowed to read it until she's much older.

    The old adage that they hear swear words everyday so it's no big, doesn't ring true for me. Just because they hear other kids say those kinds of words doesn't mean they need to hear them in their safety zones, which to me is their homes and what they choose to read.

    Okay, I'm jumping off my soap box now.

  2. I read The Book Thief about 4 years ago. Loved it. I must have glossed over the profanity, I don't really remember it. Nonetheless, I think this book tells a very important story from a very important perspective. For me, (aside from the awesome writing and language) that's what makes this book so very special.

  3. I'm with you on this one. I read about a third of Catcher in the Rye in high school just so I could say I tried, but put it down and asked for an alternative book because of the constant profanity. Yes, I was in high school-practically an adult. But I didn't want the 'f' word in my head that much. My teacher was angry, but she did give me another book to read. Which was VERY boring by the way. I think she did that on purpose:)

  4. It's a fine line, isn't it? Because on one hand, some authors may say that profanity must be a part of their story because that's how their characters would talk. On the other hand, some authors would say that if they have to resort to using those words, they're not very creative. LOL. I don't like reading profanity in books or hearing it in real life, but I think in certain cases, when the book sends a message as important as THE BOOK THIEF, then I think overlooking the questionable language is ok. As far as in school...I wouldn't make the kids read it out loud, that's for sure, and as a teacher, I would have a mini lesson on the use of profanity in novels and why authors choose to use it.

    Just my (rather long) two cents.

  5. I'm totally on the same page, Heidi!

    In our school district, our fourth graders had to read the book, "Brian's Winter," by Gary Paulsen, which has some swearing and some pretty graphic dead deer gutting scenes, etc. I was so shocked, I actually wrote a letter to our school board urging them to save the book for a higher grade level...and they listened!

    Call me a prude as well, but I am bummed about how "accepted" profanity seems to have become. And having middle schoolers reading it out loud because it's "literature" is totally not cool in my humble opinion.