When Bad Words Are Said to Good Children

Should bad words be read to children? This question surfaced last week when children’s author Dan Gutman posted his response to a parent letter on Facebook asking whether it was appropriate to use the N-word in books for young audiences.

Gutman rose to fame with his My Weird School series. The wacky volumes, beloved by many first and second grade boys (my own included), will sound familiar to many parents: Mr. Nick is a Lunatic, Mrs. Meyer is on Fire, Miss Daisy is Still Crazy. Gutman and his characters take having fun and disliking school seriously.

Gutman is also the author of a baseball time travel series: Babe & Me, Honus & Me, etc. A parent wrote to say that his ten-year old son “is learning a great deal and enjoying the experience” of reading Jackie & Me, about famed ballplayer Jackie Robinson. But the book prompted an unexpected question from the child to the parent:

Last night he told me that a word kept appearing in one of the books and he didn’t understand it. I told him to point it out to me the next time he saw it. Within a few moments, he showed me the word. . . I think you know where I am headed with this.

The parent pointed out that in other books, Gutman has used symbols to convey curse words instead of profanity. “Giving children a picture into the world and suffering of others is what empathy and learning is all about,” but the parent concluded that the use of the N-word for a child “is just simply not necessary to convey the message. . . a use of symbols here would seem to be appropriate.”

Gutman confessed that he “struggled with how to handle ‘the N word’” when he wrote the book eighteen years earlier. But upon reflection he felt

that leaving it out would be sugarcoating Jackie Robinson’s experience and not giving an accurate description of what he went through in 1947. In the end, I decided to leave it in, though I did limit the use of it to a few instances. . . . In the end, I haven’t regretted my decision. Thousands of kids have learned about race relations and the civil rights movement by reading Jackie & Me.

Gutman’s post comes after recent reports that a school district in Virginia temporarily suspended from its curriculum To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain because they contain racial slurs. The tradition of banning Huckleberry Finn dates back to Twain’s time. A couple of years ago, a publisher announced plans to release a cleaner version of the classic that used something “less hurtful, less controversial” than that dreaded word, a version more accepting in the “new classroom” of today.

The commonsense response—to Gutman’s post and efforts to eliminate from the curriculum of language that beckons to distinct historical periods—is that these are teachable moments for those parents who see teaching as a primary responsibility of parenthood.

When I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with my three oldest children, I remember coming to the first instance of the N-word. My eyes saw it looming on the page ahead and in a few dozen more syllables I was at the moment of “read or skip,” “truth or denial.” I paused in my reading and told the kids that the next word was a very bad word and not a word I would ever say. “It’s not a word I ever want you to say,” I told them. “But I will let you read it with your eyes so that you know the word and if you ever hear the word spoken you will remember that it is a powerfully offensive word.” One of my sons tried to sound it out. We all heard it. It sounded vile. Reading the word, of course, prompted questions about when the word was used, who used it, why they used it, and whether anyone would still use it today.

The last thing I want to teach my kids is hate, but spreading a shroud of compassion over past verses is not an act of compassion. It is an act of duplicity.

These words—and the fact that they appear in some of the most famous works of American literature, and that they have been spoken and sadly are still spoken in some quarters—are awakening moments.

If we shield our children from hearing evil or seeing the wrongs of the past, they will be deluded into thinking they live in a pristine world. Our job as parents is to teach them how to be righteous people in their own moment of history and how to prepare to teach righteousness to their own children. If literary volumes are scrubbed of language artifacts, if stained glass in old buildings displaying slavery is shattered, if dilapidated railroad tracks withering in the concentration camps are disassembled, there is no journey towards light because there is no reckoning with truth.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review last month, Christopher Buckley reviewed a new audiobook recording of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer performed by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and called the eight-hour recitation “a tonic.” Buckley noted that “[T]his is a novel many of us first heard before we read it. Tom Sawyer and its sequel Huckleberry Finn are arguably America’s ur-bedtime stories.” But Buckley also pointed out they may not be deemed appropriate by more recent generations of parents.

Twain’s story for children includes grave robbing and murder, homelessness, drunkenness, and a child slave. It also contains numerous references to the N-word. “Nostalgia can be a mixed bag,” Buckley concluded. Indeed, the same can be said for humanity.

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  • MaryannKay

    Do not edit US literature the author wrote, it was in his vision #Like

  • Notjack

    Well, your kids will hear that word a lot if they hang out with black people, especially when it is a group of black people.

  • theBuckWheat

    There is good and evil in the world. In order to grow up and be able to face the world, they must learn to discern and to choose between the two. When children are shielded too much for too long, they never know how evil and dangerous some people can be. Thus, they must know what the word “vile” means, and what words convey vile thoughts.

    When parents don’t do this, we get naive young adults not only putting themselves at risk, but voting for politicians who advocate that government should put us all risk.

    In my opinion, we must stop being insufficiently honest. We are all adults. And what is with this “n-word” stuff? The “n-word” which is honestly the word “n i g g e r” is being worn out every day by black rappers. Why do we allow a vile word to be used in entertainment at the same time spelling that word out will probably get me in trouble as I appeal for us all acting like mature grown ups who are obligated to properly convey cultural and moral values.

    • onlyabill

      In addition, “we” (speaking globally) have lost all historical perspective and view everything through a lens of “the last 5 minutes”. That word was not always a derogatory term. Many other words that are today “off limits” slid into unacceptability over time, some in much shorter time than others.

      Personal pronouns are now under attack and in some quarters considered “hate speech”.

      Yes, some words are today viewed as unacceptable and their use should be limited in a polite society by mutual agreement but that civility agreement should also extent to preserving the historical record and not sanitizing our history.

      As others (you) have also noted, the wrath of the language police can be quite selective. The same word used by different ethnic groups can result in either a career ending slip or a Grammy award…

  • conor_ob

    It would be interesting to know the race of the parent in this article. For me, a white parent immediately popped into my head, as all the gnashing of teeth about “this word” seems to come from upper middle class whites. Yes, when used as an insult against a real person in daily life, this sounds shocking to modern ears. But in a story or a history, particularly when used to illustrate hardship someone faced, there should be no question this is acceptable. The word literally derives from the Latin for “black” — the offense only comes in the American context of its use, and like others point out, the word is used with affection among certain groups of people.

    In short: Get a life, people.

  • InklingBooks

    This debate needs to quit being so prissy about the N-word. We need to notice something far more significant about Mark Twain’s writings. I’ve been listening to his Life on the Mississippi recently. I noticed it there and then recalled similar experiences with his other novels.

    It’s not just that Twain uses the N-word. It’s that he can’t seem to bring up black people without putting them down. I recall as a kid hating Huck Finn, in part, because the escaped slave in the tale is described as such a simpleton. That’s what’s wrong about Twain. Remove every N-word and that his ugly views about black people remains. Like I said, don’t fuss over words. Focus on the bigger picture.

    Someone with time on their hands might want to go through Twain’s major stories, locating every mention of black people. Then classify his description of them. My hunch is that they’ll will be as varied as those in white-supremacy racism in his day, but that they’re almost always negative.

    In short, I grow tired of our modern tendency to get in silly fusses about words. It’s what someone is actually saying that matters most.

    We also need to remember that kids don’t come out of little cookie-cutter machines. They vary enormously. Some can take even the most disturbing tales and languages with ease. Others need to be guided through the harder stuff. And finally, there are those who simply can’t handle, at least when young, life’s grimmer realities. The child’s parents know best and should be the one’s deciding not any some so-called expert.
    ——-
    I also grow tired of the literary fascists—yes, I’m looking at you ALA with your “Banned Books Week”—who want to establish themselves as little fuhrers dictating what books must be read by children and (more covertly) what books must not be read. Look closely and you will discover that they have nothing against censorship as long as they are the censors.

    For the latter, you might look into how Enid Blyton’s children’s stories have been treated here and in the UK. Her books are enormously popular with kids around the world, with over half a BILLION copies sold. Yet the BBC banned dramatic productions of her work for 30 years:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6573855/BBC-banned-Enid-Blyton-for-30-years.html

    Or looking closer to home, the NY Public library has millions of books. Do you know how many of Enid Blyton’s titles it has? There are 21 under one listing, almost all in Spanish and 9 under another listing, all in Spanish. Knowing of Blyton in their home countries, recent immigrants have insisted that the library purchase them.

    Most telling of all, do you how many copies of the original English-language versions of Enid Blyton’s books the New York Public Library has? Exactly one—a copy of her The Christmas Book dating from 1953. Half-a-billion copies around the world and only one in the NYPL. I’m left suspecting that one remaining copy is a mistake.

    Also, when I checked the NYPL catalog about fifteen years ago, I recall finding about half a dozen English ones and about a dozen in Hebrew. Since then, someone at the NYPL has apparently gone to the trouble to pull them from circulation.

    That’s censorship and that’s what we should be talking about. We should never let the so-called mainstream media dictate what is an issue and what is not.

    And yes, I know Enid Blyton has some dreadfully stereotypical tales with little black ‘pickaninnies’ and that’s sometimes used as an excuse to ban all her books. But her stereotyping is far milder than the nasty attitude Twain often displays and yet she’s banned by librarians while Twain is pushed over the objections of parents. That doesn’t make sense other than as an exercise in authoritarianism. “Do as we say,” parents are told.

    Those interested into buying some of Blyton’s books for their kids might want to go here to understand the details and issues.

    http://www.enidblyton.net/buy-enid-blyton-books.html

    I’ve read about half-a-dozen of them, put onto her by a young woman from Singapore who grew up loving them. They’re simple and fun, much like the Hardy Boys tales I read as a kid and the Nancy Drew ones read by girls. Perhaps the only difference is that Blyton tales tend to center on groups of kids such as the Secret Seven and the Famous Five. That teaches friendship.

    Literary critics may sneer, but children love them. Indeed, one of the excuses offered for the drive by librarians in the 1950s to make them unavailable in the U.S. is that kids didn’t want to read anything else.

    And having driven out of their libraries the author of hundreds of books that kids love, librarians then go “tisk, tisk” and wonder why kids aren’t interested in reading the books they are supposed to read.

    We live in a mad, mad world, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

    –Michael W. Perry, author

  • Laka

    This debate has been around plenty long enough that the children victimized by it are in or past college. The fascistic violence we see today in universities against any idea outside current dogma, (even as in Twain where the N-word generally was used to show the moral regressiveness or confusion of the speaker,) is the result of allowing words to act as magic talismans.

  • catorenasci

    I like the politically incorrect response of my very unreconstructed Southern grandmother more than 60 years ago when she heard me use the “N-word” – this stalwart UDC/DAR matron marched me into the bathroom and washed my mouth out with soap. She told me that “only white trash” used the word and she never wanted to hear it out of my mouth again. I was reminded of it when my kids were in middle school and a kid in their class used called a black teacher the ‘n-word” to her face. She looked the boy up and down and told him the same thing: “only white trash use that word” and sent him to the principal (who promptly suspended him for a fortnight – washing a pupil’s mouth out with soap had already gone out of fashion)….

  • happy1ga

    My kids read these works and others with different words & events that don’t coincide with a more modern age of thinking. I merely said, “It was a different time in our history, people lived & spoke differently.”
    That was all that was needed, they got it just fine & my grandkids all have read them & are also functioning fine, as well.
    In short, much ado about absolutely nothing.