Don’t Judge a Book by a Word

A politician in my county has found that a list of recommended books for summer reading includes books that are considered objectionable, especially because of the writer’s use of “vile” language.


In looking up what this politician deemed “vile,” I found that she objected to a book by Walter Dean Myers.

I’ve only read two of his books and know that he deals with tough topics and will use profanity.  Monster is a novel about an African-American young man in jail; Fallen Angels is a Vietnam War novel in which the reader is plunged into the horrors the soldiers experienced when on the “front line” (such as this existed in this war).

Yeah..he uses language that would be considered profane or objectionable.  I know that he used the “n-word;” however, this is a term I have heard many of my students use to refer to one another.

I had a student use this word as a pronoun for his six month-old son.  I scolded him, talked about why it’s important not to use this term.  It didn’t matter.  He justified his decision by saying that he used the “ah” ending and not the “er” ending.  It’s been ten years since this discussion and I’m still horrified.

Laurie Halse Anderson wrote SpeakWintergirlsCatalyst amongst other pieces that deal with the hard, realistic issues affecting middle and high school students.  She uses profanity in her novels, but, in doing so, she creates a realistic portrait of the lives of those who have experienced horrific events in their lives including rape, eating disorders, incest.   To use pretty, potentially non-offensive generating language in her novels would be to lessen the reality and the pain which accompanies these experiences.

I am not advocating for writers to use a plethora of vulgarity and profanity merely for the need to create a shock effect.  Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern do this and I can’t listen to them.  They aren’t funny, to me.  They aren’t even shocking.  I find them grotesque.

But I still respect other people’s rights to choose whether or not they want to listen to these individuals.

Labelling a book as having a “trigger” element, something which could be considered upsetting, is infuriating.  Suggesting that librarians should be fired after receiving a warning because they are encouraging students to read books that could have “vile” language is horrific.  Currently, in Turkey, thousands of educators are being told to report to their schools with the possibility of undergoing interrogation to determine if they supported or helped create the coup.  I know that I’m making a bit of an intellectual stretch, but, for me, targeting librarians and educators because they may be encouraging students to read questionable literature is similar.

The librarians with whom I work or who are my friends have zero intention of upsetting people by the books they select.  They are well-meaning individuals who want to help others by giving them books which might have characters who have had similar experiences, have similar traits or qualities.  These librarians are not bringing out volumes of Penthouse Letters or erotic material with no literary value.

The books I teach deal with events or situations which have an equally raw element to them.  Some books have words that this politician would definitely consider “vile.”  Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried definitely has profanity and vulgarity on every page.  And through this novel, I developed a stronger relationship with my father.  I made friends with my Big Daddy who is a fabulous man and is helping the Boy find an Eagle Scout project.  102 Minutes, a book I use to teach my students about 9/11, has several uses of the “f-word.”  Sure, the writers could have edited out the word, but in doing so, they would have also edited out the voice, tone, and mood related to this day.  The word needed to be there.  And I’m not about to hide from it.

Another point that needs to be addressed is the concept of “vile” or “explicit” language.  Words that we deem acceptable at this point likely had a sordid history or had a perfectly clean and acceptable history.  “Ship High In Transit” eventually became the dreaded “s-word.”  These four words were abbreviated as an instruction to boat captains to ship boxes of chicken manure on stilts to enable air to circulate underneath, thereby preventing heat-related explosions.

What is vile? I have been reprimanded because I taught my children the scientific names for their private parts as opposed to cutesy nicknames.  To me, my children using the proper names for their body parts was far better than to have them think that various parts of their bodies are taboo or ugly because they are generally assigned a nickname.  I want my children to have the comfort, security, and knowledge on speaking to a physician and use the correct words to accurately describe potential problems.

I am proud that I have placed in my own children’s hands books that may or may not be considered “vile.”  When my son complained about how his life sucked, my husband asked me to give our son non-fiction books that showed the reality of a “sucky life.”  The Boy read Night by Elie Wiesel and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.  Both had language which might be considered “vile” or “objectionable.”

I didn’t care.  I had (and still have) enough trust and faith in my son to know that he will be able to read these words and know what they mean and know that he is expected not to use them.  Or, at least, not to use them to such excess that he would be acting trashy.  My son has used “bad words.”  And I know that he is going to use them because, as a teenager, I reveled in the usage of these words to watch my mother cringe.  Now, I apologize to my mom and let my son test his boundaries and then snap him into place when he has exceeded the limit of my patience.

I choose the works of literature for my classroom with great care and thought.  I choose works that will reflect different cultures and different time periods.  And I do take into consideration my students’ parents because I want them to know that I only have our students’ best interest at heart.

And I have had a book challenged because of a word.  One word.  Demons.  Which was in the title.  Because the student (and not the parent) was convinced we were about to read a book about principalities and evil.  We weren’t.  Eventually, I was told to back down, that the student was clearly going to take this well beyond the classroom and I was looking at a media nightmare.  The student said he/she didn’t care what I had the classes read so long as the book was on the College Board approved reading list and/or in the textbook.

So I taught The Inferno.

I’m not nice.  I never said I was.  But don’t try to censor me because of a word.  Not when the context is completely off, not when the word really doesn’t have anything to do with what you might think it means.

I have read The Bible cover to cover at least five times.  Throughout this book, I have found hope, I have found peace and love.  I have also found instances of masturbation, genocide, rape, sodomy, incest, drunkenness, public intoxication, public nudity, murder, prostitution, human-trafficking, slavery, and misogyny.

They are there.  They are real and they do capture elements of the human experience.  And I will still choose to quote the Bible and find verses within the Bible which inspire me.

“A friend loves at all times.”  Proverbs 17:17

“I lift mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help”  Psalm 121

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have ever lasting life.”  John 3:16

“Perfect love casteth out fear” I John 4:18

I have likely mis-quoted.  I don’t care.  In spite of “vile” actions, I have also found beautiful actions.  People doing everything they can to help one another.  People giving everything for the betterment of humankind.

So, politician, if you want to come after me for choosing books that have “vile” language, go for it.  I’m waiting for you.  Just know that I object to your usage of the word “vile.”  I think that this is “vile.”  And I think that you might want to take this as a warning…because the second time this happens….well?  If you’re prepared to fire librarians, are you willing to answer for your own actions?

2 thoughts on “Don’t Judge a Book by a Word

  1. I’ve never been able to understand the fear of words! Does this politician really believe that in this day and age, with all of the available technology, that young people aren’t already aware of these words? Goofiness abounds.

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