A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Bad Language, Sex and Violence: Wielding the Red Pen of Censorship by Rachel Ward

When I wrote my first published book, Numbers, I wasn’t sure who I was writing for. I didn’t plan the book. I had a beginning and an ending and I made it up as I went along – telling myself the story. When I read it through, I was surprised that I’d written a love story (of a sort). I also did a quick ‘Find and Replace’ and discovered I’d used over a hundred ‘f’ words.

Not knowing if Numbers was a book for teens or adults, I took it to The Chicken House, via the Frome Festival and Imogen Cooper (then Head of Fiction at The Chicken House and now freelance editor and leading light of The Golden Egg Academy). The Chicken House bought it as a teen book.

During the editing process of that first book, neither Imogen or Barry Cunningham, Director of The Chicken House, pressured me to moderate the language, but I felt that I should tone it down and only use swearing to emphasise when my characters were in dire straits. So, there are only a dozen or so ‘f’ words in ‘Numbers.

However, the book was banned in one school district in Houston, Texas, for ‘profanity’. Other territories haven’t published it because of the content. I was asked to consider removing the ‘objectionable’ part, which in this case meant the very brief, and I think quite sweet, sex scene in Numbers, in order for it to become acceptable to one Middle Eastern publisher. I surprised myself by refusing.

My books are first and foremost thrillers (of a sort) designed to be entertaining, but they do contain references to sex, violence, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and drugs. They tend to focus on teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds, with difficult or non-existent families. They are often difficult people themselves. I don’t want to gloss over what I perceive to be the reality of their lives (I know they’re fictional, but when I’m writing they seem very real to me), but neither do I want to put off readers who might otherwise enjoy the stories. It’s a difficult balance.

I’ve had feedback from readers as young as 10 who love my books, but have also heard from parents of much older ones who couldn’t cope with the content or language. Reading is such a personal thing. While one reader might be offended by the odd f-bomb, another might be terribly upset to find a plotline that mirrors their own experience. I never set out to hurt or offend. And yet, I know that sometimes my books do just that. When you send a book out into the world, you don’t know and can’t control who will pick it up. Some people connect gloriously with your words. Others don’t. I think that we all – children, teens, young adults and adults – self-censor. If I don’t like something in a book I’m reading, I close it and either never look at it again, or only pick it up when I’ve mulled over the thing that disturbed me and I’m ready to face it again.

These days I am mindful of my readership. I’ve taken out a reference or two that might not go down well in Germany, as this is my best market. I don’t use swearing gratuitously (in my writing, not so sure about real life) and I’ve cut right down. In fact, with my newest book, Water Born, I had to rebuke my editor who was sneaking bad language back into one of the drafts.

Am I upset that my books have been banned or not published due to content? Disappointed, maybe. I think that readers should be allowed to make up their own minds. Librarians, parents and others in authority can make recommendations and guide readers, but ultimately each reader is their own best judge of what they can cope with.

On the other hand, being banned adds a certain something to an author’s CV, and, in those places where the book is published, I suspect it’s probably good for books sales …


Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward grew up in Bookham, Surrey. After school she studied Geography at Durham University and combined working for a number of local authorities with raising a family. She began writing in her 30′s, starting out with short stories. One of these short stories formed the first chapter of NUMBERS, which has been published in 26 countries and was the winner of several awards including the Flemish Children and Youth Literature Prize 2011, Angus Book Awards 2010 and the Salisbury Schools Book Award 2012, as well as being shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2009, the Branford Boase Award 2010 and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturepreis 2011.

2 comments on “Bad Language, Sex and Violence: Wielding the Red Pen of Censorship by Rachel Ward

  1. barbarahenderson
    July 21, 2014

    Hi Rachel, this is really interesting! I’ve only ever had to change very minor things in work for 9 – 12 year olds but I am working on a YA book and this question keeps coming up! Your post encourages me to stick with my instincts. Best wishes, Bea Davenport

  2. Rachel Ward
    July 21, 2014

    Hi Barbara, It’s a tricky one. I think following your instinct is a good basic principle. However, publishers have so much experience, so if they think some of your content will be a barrier to sales, then it’s worth listening. I’m wondering if I should have modified Numbers to access Middle Eastern markets – even with a few ‘offensive’ words taken out, it would still essentially be my story. Ho hum. We just do our best, don’t we? R xx

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