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.