What is a “Clean Read”? Walking That Fine Line We Call a Book Review

A modern-style friend of mine (meaning someone I’ve only met online, although we seem to share a great deal) recently paid me a big compliment: she featured my novel on her blog about books for Tweens, Bookworm Blather. Since Michelle Isenhoff has over 3,200 book-loving followers, this is a great shot in the arm for me and The Flying Burgowski.

Michelle, the author of several series for Tweens, has the goods. So far I have only read the first two books of the Mountain trilogy, Song of the Mountain and Fire on the Mountain,

Book One now available FREE on Kindle and Nook!

Book One now available FREE on Kindle and Nook!

and I found them to be strong examples of the classic Quest book for young readers, along the lines of The Black Cauldron, mystical enough to intrigue, but peopled by real-life characters with real-life yearnings.

I have not yet read her tween sci-fi series,

Book One also now available FREE!

Book One also now available FREE!

but it’s on my list. She has an historical fiction series too. (Really, when does this woman sleep?)

Michelle did not tell me she was reviewing my book until after she was done, and frankly, I was pleasantly surprised at the positive review.

Gretchen has a natural talent—a very distinctive voice, great timing and a good punch, creative imagery, and a super sense of humor. I absolutely loved the story. And I have to admit, I didn’t see the ending coming. 

I was surprised, not because I doubt my own writing chops–people, please!–but because the one area in which Michelle and I differ widely is in the political. 

From each other’s postings, Michelle and I can easily tell where each other stands on certain social issues that tend to divide our society. And in such sensitive territory, certain words, or avoidance of them, tend to wave like red flags to readers: “I’m on YOUR side!” or, “Don’t read this–it stands for everything you despise!”

Bookworm Blather is a blog that tends to promote “clean” books for kids–no sexual situations, no profanity, and, as far as I can tell, no gratuitous violence.

Profanity–or, as reviewers diplomatically put it, “language”–this can be one of those parental red flags.

I struggled with the decision to include swearing in my book, which I knew was aimed at ages 11 and up. In the end, the artificiality of non-cussing teenagers just seemed too weird to stomach, so I minimized the blue language, made fun of it where possible (“But at least he did say ‘frickin’ this time”), and, when I deemed it necessary for authenticity, I used dashes (s—, f—) and let folks deal with it as they’d deal with profanity in real life.

Here is how Michelle handled this issue in her review: “I do want to give moms a content advisory: there is quite a bit of mild language and some teen subject matter.”

Notice how she walks the line? The warning is there, but couched in very non-judgmental terms. “Mild,” in fact, bends over backwards to reassure. I wish all reviewers of “clean reads” would do the same.

Full disclosure: as applied to books, “clean” is a red-flag word for me. 

I dislike gratuitous sexual scenes, profanity, and above all, violence probably as much if not more than the next reader. There are certain scenes stuck in my head–some written by Stephen King excellent authors, that I wish had never been written so that NO ONE would have such images in their gray cells.

But sometimes bad stuff happens to good people, and they have to deal with it. In my book, a character the protagonist is close to is almost raped. To depict that scene without profanity would be to scrub it of its full horror. Not to write that scene at all would be to soften the harshness of the world in which my heroine must learn to operate. She has a pretty good life, actually. But millions of kids don’t. I like to think I’m writing for them–as well as for those kids who might not be able to relate, but need to learn empathy for those less fortunate.

Speaking of fortunate, I feel lucky to have “met” someone who can get beyond the red flags in the world of literature.

Do you have literary red flags? Are there certain “types” of books you find yourself avoiding because you think they will rub you the wrong way? Or…how do you feel about profanity in young adult literature? Go ahead–Wing’s World is open for comment.

7 thoughts on “What is a “Clean Read”? Walking That Fine Line We Call a Book Review

  1. Ha, ha! I wondered if you saw my post last week. 🙂 Yeah, I’m not much for profanity in general and especially for kids, but I admit it’s a gray area–even in scripture. Words are simply ideas. BUT, they also carry meaning in society, so I tend to leave out profanity completely in my books. It’s been really easy so far–almost all of them are set in the past. But it’s an individual choice. I have featured a variety of teen/tween books (including Hunger Games, Harry Potter, 13 Reasons Why, etc.). My blog readers tend to be conservative moms, so I put the warning out there in all my reviews whenever I sense one of those “red flags.”

    (Btw, the Taylor Davis series is not historical. It’s Rick Riordan-style silly tween sci-fi. My historical series is The Divided Decade Trilogy.)

  2. You tickled my brain cells with this post. I woke up this morning still thinking about why two words can be a handle for the same idea, yet one is considered profane (ass/shit) and the other is not (butt/poop)? What’s the basis for that? I refrain from using the former for the most part because of the society, but society has never been a good indicator of right and wrong for me. Now, I understand why omg and other words that mock God/Christ are considered profane. I don’t use those at all. Even old English words like ‘swounds and bloody make me uncomfortable (though I did use that last one in my Revolutionary War book). Yet, the word f*** makes me so uncomfortable I never use it, but frickin’ doesn’t bother me the least. I guess it’s sort of like hair–society says that’s a no-no, so I grudgingly shave my legs every few days even though I really don’t understand why when my arms can stay fuzzy. 🙂

  3. That’s just it–it’s so random-seeming. And so contextual. We taught our kids that swearing is for, well, when you need to swear, so they wouldn’t be the type of teenager that laces his words with language that makes others uncomfortable. At the same time, we wanted to take away the power of those words, and using them when you hit your thumb with a hammer or describe a really despicable person feels appropriate to us. So I guess that parental part of me exists in the author part of me, even though I know I risk alienating a sector of my readership. I’m still trying to broaden minds, I guess…hazard of my former occupation. 🙂
    I also get the difference between Damn and G-damn–that’s obvious. (I have a Jewish author friend who will not even write out the word God, only G-d.) But the body-part ones, those are quite comical, as you point out.
    It would be fun to write this conversation out as a scene in a YA book, wouldn’t it? Wonder if anyone has.

  4. Hey, Gretchen,

    As you’ve probably already guessed, I am a liberal mom with a capital LIBERAL.

    Information is powerful, and I don’t want to limit my kids’ power in their own lives.

    At just shy of ten and closing in on thirteen, they have no restrictions on what they can read, watch, or say. They’re free of chores, bedtimes, school, and punishments.

    We live as four equal people every moment that I don’t absolutely need to be an authority. When I do need to be, they respect that, and I respect them by explaining my position. I figure if I can’t explain it to them, it’s probably not a valid reason to wield that authority.

    I’m sure many people might think that so much freedom would lead to utter chaos, and ill-mannered, spoiled, selfish kids who had no idea how to function in society.

    They’d be wrong.

    Because we don’t forbid, limit, decree, force, or penalize, I can say, “Some words are just fine here at home. But they also offend a lot of people. Some words have a long history of being used to control and demean groups of people, and it might be better to not use those at all. If you’re not sure about a word, you can ask me.”

    We talk a lot about whatever’s on their minds, and I do my best to nourish their natural empathy for others, and their awareness that those with different beliefs aren’t wrong for having them. I try to espouse in my own life the acceptance of others I would like them to have in their own.

    I’ve got a bumper sticker (on the back of my Subaru!) that says, “Be the change you want to see in your child.” I try to live that directive.

    Personally, I have abuse and infant death triggers. They won’t stop me from reading something, necessarily, but I’ve lived these. There are times when I simply can’t handle these types of stories. For instance, I and two of my three children were born in July. Elijah died in the same month. I don’t open myself to stories of babies sick or dying in that month; there’s already too much deep emotion involved to invite more. In other months, though, it can be deeply healing…

    This is a thought provoking post, and may inspire a response….I’ll let you know, if it does.

    And I think my kids might enjoy your book, so, just after I send this, I’m getting it for them, language, mild violence, and all! =)

  5. SJ, knowing what I know about you, and about your kids, I think they will love my book. I’m not just saying that; I mean I write for empathetic people, and to create empathy. But keep gnawing on this topic; I would love to hear more. I do certainly understand about trigger words, at least intellectually; gotta remind myself sometimes that I can step on others’ toes as easily as they might step on mine.

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