A new novel has prompted conversation about what language is appropriate in children’s books and whether books for kids carry age distinctions, as well as questions about how to publicize a book that contains its fair share of swear words.
When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan was released on January 16 in the U.K. by Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing, and will be published in the U.S. on June 10. The story, about a 16-year-old Scottish boy named Dylan Mint with Tourette syndrome, is rife with profanities.
The book’s language first drew media attention on February 4, when Telegraph culture editor Martin Chilton wrote an opinion piece addressing the language issue. Chilton wasn’t so much taken back by the obscenities – although his profanity list for a 16-page stretch of text is sizable – but rather he expressed concern that the publisher is using the fact of the strong language to publicize the book. “It is not as though publishers, Bloomsbury, are unaware of the novel’s content, which they have issued simultaneously on their YA and adult list... because they are using the swearing to publicise the book,” Chilton wrote. “Charlie Higson’ verdict (that the book is “funny and foul-mouthed”) is included on the press release along with two ostensibly humorous promotional slogans: “Welcome to the world of Dylan Mint. He's going to take you on one *#@! of a journey” and “When Mr Dog Bites is controversial, hilarious and #@!Δing brilliant!”
Rebecca McNally, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books in the U.K., responded to Chilton’s piece in the Telegraph on February 5. She expressed how the story is so much more than the swearing it contains. In fact, she said, she has always been very careful in allowing profanities in books she edits. “Yes, these words are shocking,” she wrote. “That’s intentional. If we weren’t shocked by them, we couldn’t begin to understand how Dylan feels at having them explode uncontrollably from his mouth.”
In response to the ongoing conversation, the author told PW via e-mail, “I always believed during the writing process and even today that every curse and/or objectionable word used was not written gratuitously. Everything was well measured to fit the honesty and accuracy of the characters.”
He said he appreciates the discussion that Chilton began. “It’s important to generate a proper discourse around these issues, just as it’s important for me not to misrepresent some of the characters in my book.” As for whether Bloomsbury has used profanity to publicize the book, the author disagrees with Chilton, saying, “What they have done is use certain characteristics and personality traits of the main protagonist, Dylan Mint, to publicize it. I find their approach bold, clever and appealing actually.”
Letting Readers Decide
As is sometimes the case for books in the U.K. thought to have crossover appeal, the book was released in two editions, one for teens and the other for adults. The content is identical, except the YA edition was given a warning label that says the book contains explicit content and is not for young readers. In Chilton’s article, he argues for attaching an age classification to books for readers, such as the film industry does, saying that “young readers” is too vague a term. (The subject of age classifications on books has been the subject of much debate in the U.K. in recent years.)
Conaghan said he considers a young reader anyone up to age 14 and argues against putting age labels on books. “We have to be careful,” he said, “because I have taught many younger teenagers over the years with a level of maturity and intelligence that belies their years. It may be inaccurate to simply measure ability, emotional maturity and erudition through age range alone. That being said, I fully understand why the warning label is on the jacket of my book and I have not rallied against having it on there.”
He believes that readers are able to self-censor when deciding what to read. “If we want to create informed, impassioned and insightful young minds then let’s not take away their ability to make decisions,” he said, “Let them be the ones to complain if they feel something is unpalatable. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that it is incumbent on parents to protect and guide their children in accordance with their own set of moral codes, values and principles. Who am I to tell parents how they should go about protecting their kids?”
Author Patrick Ness who has written for adults as well as for teens, weighed in on Twitter. He said such classifications are tricky because reading ability doesn’t always match age. Young readers, he added, are also exposed to what he sees as more problematic content, such as “a naked Miley Cyrus licking a sledgehammer.”
In the U.S., Bloomsbury will release a single edition, for young adults, and it will not include the language warning. Cindy Loh, U.S. publishing director for Bloomsbury Children’s Books, believes the book does not need a warning here. “There is a robust network of ‘gatekeepers’ in this country – including booksellers, teachers, librarians and parents – that are experts in selecting books for children,” she told PW. “But we also trust that teenagers will make their own choices and find their way to our books for their own reasons. We hope the emotional poignancy of Dylan’s story in When Mr. Dog Bites will speak to them and will inspire them to reflect on the impact words can have.”