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Random House Author to Change Language in Bestsellling Children’s Book

There’s some strange goings-on at Random House. First, it canceled the publication of the Jewel of Medina on the grounds that it would stir up some terrorist action.

After sending out advance editions of the novel THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, we received in response, from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.

Second, it decided to insert a behavioral clause in its YA author contracts.

“If you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement.”

Now it has changed the word “twat” to “twit” in Jacqueline Wilson’s My Sister Jodie. The book is aimed at children ages 10 and over and has already sold 150,000 copies. The changes will appear in any reprints. It’s unclear whether the publisher forced the change or whether the author wanted it. As a mother myself, I would probably want to know that there was certain language in a book for my ten year old and I suppose this is just another example that it behooves me to read every book that my child reads. (Which I further suppose means that when she comes of age, I’ll have to start reviewing middle age school books?). Having said that, I don’t know that publishers should start censoring words in a book based on a few complaints. I admit to being torn on this issue.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

28 Comments

  1. Ann Somerville
    Sep 05, 2008 @ 23:15:48

    I honestly don’t think the word ‘twat’ belongs in a book aimed at children of 10 and over – or children under 16. Same with the ‘c’ word.

    But if the book was simply available to them – because it’s lying on mum’s dresser – then twat away. We can’t protect children from every bad thing in the world, and twats of both varieties will be part of their existence, whatever adults do.

  2. Liz in Australia
    Sep 05, 2008 @ 23:43:29

    In England it has varying levels of crudeness. Jacqueline Wilson is English.

    In Australia it is rude but not seen to be as rude as the C-word. It’s not used much any more. I doubt kids here would even pick up it’s literal meaning. Just see it as an insult. Doesn’t bother me much.

    From Wikipedia-
    Although sometimes used as a reference to the female genitalia, the word twat is more often used in various other ways:
    * As a derogatory insult, similar to uses of the word ‘dick’ as a pejorative – ‘you twat!’
    * A fool, synonymous with the word twit – ‘You are a real twat and a half’ (often used in the UK)[3]
    * To express annoyance – ‘I caught my twatting knackers in it!’
    * To hit something (or someone) hard or violently – ‘I twatted him one’
    * In its past tense form, to be drunk or otherwise intoxicated – ‘Let’s get twatted’
    In Northern England ‘Twat’ is seen as an equally offensive, if not more offensive word than ‘C***’. Whereas Southern England, ‘Twat’ is taken as being as offensive as words such as ‘Dick’ or ‘Knob’

  3. Robin
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 01:35:47

    Having said that, I don't know that publishers should start censoring words in a book based on a few complaints. I admit to being torn on this issue.

    I think that if it didn’t bother them when they published the book, it shouldn’t be an issue later, after some letters. These decisions — and whatever negotiations between author and publisher ensue, including the possible decision of the author to submit elsewhere — should happen on the front end, IMO, as part of the acceptance/editing process.

    There does seem to be an “author advocacy” theme going on here, though, doesn’t there?

    As for the morals clause, it strikes me as one of those “we want the right to police you but not the responsibility to mentor you” kind of things. And another weird twist on the independent contractor-type relationship authors are supposed to have with publishers.

  4. Tracey
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 01:48:13

    I’m delighted to say that my mother didn’t vet the books that I read to see if they were proper. She did read recommended reading lists, and encouraged me to get such books out of the library, but she never once told me that I couldn’t read something because a word or two wasn’t of the sort to be used in polite company or because I was supposedly too young to understand. She believed there was a vast difference between “my child is too young to understand” and “I wanted my child to be older when we talked about this subject, and I don’t want to deal with it yet.”

    In her view, reading stories, learning how authors and their characters used words, and thinking about what such usage meant was far more important than a false kind of protection. She had no use for adults “wrapping children in cotton wool,” as she put it. Her feeling was that children became adults fairly quickly, and that nothing was served by encouraging children NOT to think. And if thinking involved asking some awkward and uncomfortable questions about language, sex, sexism, racism, blasphemy and so on…then so be it. Wisdom, in her eyes, meant not asking the right questions, but knowing that questions needed to be asked at all.

    She would have had nothing but contempt for Random House’s retroactive editing process. An editor that can do that at will after the book has already been edited and published can also redo a sentence. Or a paragraph. Or a page. Or more.

    It seems to me that the author’s intent could be severely warped by retroactive editing, let alone retroactive editing based on the yammerings of a few.

  5. Sylvia
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 03:05:21

    Wow, so if certain content in the novel might offend a certain religious group then it might be canceled, have a suspended date, and the author gets put on “probation.” It’s amazing how radical religous groups can control (without any effort too) things like that. I say so what if it offends them publish it anyway. Unbeleivable!!! And why is it always the Islamic population that “we” are afriad of offending. Every religion has something published somewhere that offends it.

  6. Ann Somerville
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 03:19:49

    And why is it always the Islamic population that “we” are afriad of offending.

    Did you go on to read the second part of the post? Where Muslims weren’t even involved?

  7. Sylvia
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 03:30:39

    Adding some more… lol.

    Twat, it doesn’t even sound that bad, when I was a teen I called people the “c” word though I didn’t know what it meant at first I just heard somone using it as an insult and decided it sounded offensive ergo a good insult to use. LOL.

    Though kids can have really bad potty mouths so I don’t think they should make that big of a deal over one word, its rediculous. They should meet the kids from my nieghborhood, and these are ten and under with some really filthy mouths, I’ve been cussed out by a five year old! And watched a four year cuss out someone else, a really good variety of curses they both spewed out.

    Why don’t they put a reader warning on it for parents to see, a simple thing to do. All they need to do is read a few lines. “Warning! Contains language some may find offensive.”

  8. Sparky
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 06:41:37

    Is Helen Lovejoy running Random House these days?

    I’ve never really considered “twat” to be an excessively severe word, though I know others disagree. At the same time, I’ve always been rather cynically amused by the idea of trying to protect children from bad language – because they SO will hear it. At least with a book a parent can sit down with a child and explain that the word is bad.

  9. Kimber An
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 07:03:50

    This is good news to me. I firmly believe all parents should censor everything their children read, watch, or play, while at the same time training them to descern good from crap when they’re on their own. Meanwhile, I think anyone who works with or for children ought to be held to the highest standards in every way. Children are the future. They deserve to be safe and purely loved. I say this as a mother and a retired childcare professional.

  10. LesleyW
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 08:26:30

    I would say that in the UK it’s probably seen more as synonymous with twit.

    Well it’s one of those words that my mom finds offensive – maybe cause she associates it as a derogatory term for female genitalia. But I don’t find that offensive as I associate it with twit. And as someone who’s worked in a school (11-16), compared to some of the things you here on the playground, twat really isn’t that offensive.

    I’ll just add here that the UK is incredibly regional when it comes to language. So that may only be true for the area I live in.

  11. Erastes
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 10:15:48

    *laughs*

    Oh dear Lord. It’s the regional problem again – I find it incredible that RH seem to want to homogenise (with an s) language – to make us all speak some OKPC kind of lingo where we all know what a chip or a boot or a pavement is and where the bad words are taken out of the language so no-one can use them any more.

    Hmmm. Didn’t someone write a book about that?

    As the other UK responders have said although theoretically it’s a slang word for that part of the female anatomy it’s used HERE for a plonker, a nit-wit, someone who’s messed up big time. Twit doesn’t even cover it.

    The thought of censoring children’s access to literature makes my hair stand on end. The only writer my mother kept out of the house was Enid Blyton – and that was nothing to do with the racism slurs that were levelled at her – they came later, it was because she didn’t think the writing was good enough for me to read. She said that if JKR had been around when I was a kid, she’d not have bought those either. Her “banning” Blyton only meant I went and sought it out in libraries though, of course.

    I’m supremely grateful that my mother let me read anything I wanted, and if I were to have children there’s no book I wouldn’t let them read. But if it was “edited” into Newspeak, I wouldn’t have it in the house. I had to learn the difference between chips and crisps, twat and twit, boot and trunk by myself by reading books from other countries – I didn’t need a Publishing Nanny to do it for me.

  12. Marianne McA
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 13:11:24

    I didn’t know there was another meaning to the word – as Erastes said, I’d have used it to mean something like plonker.

    Wouldn’t, myself, get up in arms about the change if the author has okayed it. If she used the word in the normal playground sense, then found the book was being read by an audience who understood the word differently, and decided to clarify the meaning of the text by changing the word – fair enough.

  13. SonomaLass
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 14:25:52

    This is good news to me. I firmly believe all parents should censor everything their children read, watch, or play, while at the same time training them to descern good from crap when they're on their own.

    I don’t have a problem with parents attempting to monitor what their children read, if they choose, but they shouldn’t try to do that through the publisher! Having raised four, I know that they are going to be exposed to all sorts of language and ideas, and I’ve found that it’s better to spend one’s energy teaching them to question and investigate (and yes, discern) than to spend it trying to wrap them in cotton wool, as Tracey’s mum would say.

  14. Monica Burns
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 15:32:17

    I’m not sure why it’s an issue now, where it wasn’t before. I read my youngest’s books with her, she comes to me with questions and I explain them. Would I care for her to read the word twat? Not really, because its a crude word, but I’d rather she read the word in a book, and we discuss it together than have her hear it on the playground and then use it before I have a chance to explain we don’t tolerate it’s use.

    Does the word belong in a book for 10-year-olds, I think that depends on the kid. My 11-year-old is a LOT more street-wise than my 17-year-old was six years ago. A relocation and older sister make a difference. Language in today’s YA is a lot stronger than when I was growing up. Not professing a right or wrong position, simply a statement that some words that would not have been heard on the playground 10-15 years ago, are being heard there now. So I understand why a word like this could find it’s place in a YA.

    If someone wants to protect their kids from all the bad things in the world, I empathize and understand that, but read the book, watch the show or ask who, what, where or why BEFORE their child is exposed to something. If the book’s assigned reading, teachers generally try to work around issues like this or at least warn parents of any unusual content.

    A parent shouldn’t assume that because it’s marketed for kids it’s okay for their kid. Knowledge is power, and some people just want others to do their vetting for them. Accountability is first and foremost my job as a parent and as an individual. I decide what’s right for my family, and I get pretty irked when others try to tell me how to parent my kids.

  15. JulieLeto
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 17:31:13

    Cultural differences aside, as the mother of ten year old who does NOT have a potty mouth who goes to public school and I’ve yet to hear a REALLY bad word on the playground (and trust me, I’m with these kids all the time) I’d be FURIOUS if “twat” was in a book aimed at her age group. Just because curse words are “realistic” doesn’t mean that kids have to hear them all the time. There is nothing wrong with letting our kids hold on to their innocence just a little while longer. Aren’t we already doing everything we can to FORCE them to grow up, whether they are ready to or not?

    I’m against censorship, but I believe that children’s books have a different set of standards and if it was one parent or twelve that sent letters complaining, then good on the publisher for paying attention. I doubt that changing one word hurt the author at all or changed the integrity of the characters.

    But let’s be real, the publisher is all about the $$$. If they see a potential loss of revenue because of publicity over that word, what should they do? Hold to some ideal or cater to their customer? These are CHILDREN’S books. Let’s not forget that.

    A publisher responding to complaints by their customers does not automatically mean 1984 is upon us. There is a lot in between point A and point Z.

  16. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 19:40:17

    Eh, I’m gonna ditto what Julie said. I try to watch what my kids read and if I saw one aimed at the ‘tween’ group with the words TWAT, I wouldn’t be happy.

    I don’t approve of censorship at all, but I also don’t approve of kids losing their innocence any sooner than they have to or being exposed to inappropriate crap. If it was geared more for 15-16 and older, yeah, but 10? Nope.

    edited…

  17. SonomaLass
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 21:27:57

    A lot of slang words start out meaning something specifically indecent, but meaning shifts. Words like “crap,” “jerk” and “wanker” don’t have so much specific meaning anymore, and I think “dick” is getting there. And what about “pussy”? I hear that one being used to mean coward or softie, and I know where it comes from.

    The shift happens at different rates, both geographically and by age group. Obviously from the comments here, “twat” is a word in transition. My guess is that the author used it without intending the specific physiological meaning. The publisher’s response doesn’t really surprise me; I’d just prefer to make it a “teachable moment” about language meaning.

  18. SonomaLass
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 21:43:11

    Edit function isn’t working, so I’ll just post twice. Going back and reading the summary of the book in question, I’m guess that anyone who doesn’t want their kid to read the word “twat” used in a non-sexual slang context (the character must be referring to a person, not a piece of female anatomy, or they couldn’t replace it with “twit”) probably doesn’t want him or her reading this book at all.

    But Asda (that’s Wal-Mart) pulling it off the shelves seems like powerful over-reaction. And yes, I’d rather “hold to some ideal” than “cater to the customer” if that ideal is letting an author use the words that her or she feels convey the meaning best. I guess this is why Wilson is one of the authors who is against the labeling of books by age group.

  19. K. Z. Snow
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 22:39:06

    Keep your peckers up, everybody!

  20. Ann Somerville
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 22:50:33

    A publisher responding to complaints by their customers does not automatically mean 1984 is upon us. There is a lot in between point A and point Z.

    For me, the crucial point was that the change was not imposed on the author, but discussed with her in a rational manner, and she agreed with it. That’s not censorship, that’s revisiting an issue and considering the original decision again.

    By the way, I talked to my British (London-born) husband about this today. I said ‘would you be happy to have the word ‘twat’ used in a book aimed at ten year olds?’ His immediate response was ‘No. It means ‘c*nt.’

    So it’s not as simple as English people think it’s okay. I first heard the word used in England and it was very clear it was intended as a pretty nasty insult, and although I know women, including myself, who use it to mean ‘twit’ or ‘idiot’, I know other women who object as fiercely to its use as the ‘c’ word.

    I think parents can expect that books aimed at children will be free of the more objectionable swear words, without having to read every single page of every book their kid reads (hell, at 10, I chose my own library books and I know my mother never read any of them. Never even came up against a ‘bloody’ in them.) At the same time, I don’t want authors forced to change what they write to protect sensibilities. If Wilson had objected to the change, I’d support her right to do so.

    The matter was settled sensibly and the only overreactor here is the Walmart-owned ASDA chain, which doesn’t surprise me. It’s a horrible supermarket chain.

  21. Meriam
    Sep 07, 2008 @ 17:27:46

    Has anyone picked this one up – re: a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, which has been withdrawn by a GCSE exam board for ‘glorifying’ knife crime.

    Duffy’s poem, Education for Leisure, was removed following a single complaint (similar to the Wilson situation). As The Guardian notes:

    Most parents would see it as timely and sensible for teenagers to discuss knife crime at school, guided by a teacher and prompted by an intelligent piece of writing by an award-winning author which tries to get inside a potential killer’s head.

    Duffy’s clever riposte is a poem called Mrs Schofield’s GCSE (after the external examiner who complained about the poem):

    You must prepare your bosom for his knife,

    said Portia to Antonio in which

    of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,

    insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch

    knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said

    Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?

    (excerpt)

  22. SonomaLass
    Sep 08, 2008 @ 01:56:25

    Yes, Meriam, I did see that, and I’ve been following the Carol Ann Duffy/GSCE story with interest. I am always in favor of using free speech to defend free speech.

    I must agree with Ann Somerville that it’s a relief to know that the author was consulted and agreed with the language change in her book. Much better than the alternative, certainly!

  23. Julia Sullivan
    Sep 08, 2008 @ 16:37:39

    I think that changing words between US and UK editions makes sense if the words have different connotations and valences in the different countries.

    If I wrote “I’m going to spank your fanny” in a US children’s book, where it would be understood as “I’m going to spank your bottom,” I would certainly not cavil for a nanosecond when my UK publishers asked to change it.

    “Twat” has much more negative valence (a/k/a “shock value”) in the US than it does in the UK. The publisher asked Ms. Wilson about the change, and she agreed. It would seem that she doesn’t think the word “twat” is essential to her book, so I’m not sure why people are making such a fuss about this.

  24. Robin
    Sep 08, 2008 @ 16:58:50

    I am always in favor of using free speech to defend free speech.

    England has more restrictive speech laws and policies than the US. So does Canada, for that matter, which I always remind myself when I get that “grass is always greener” thing after contemplating our current political and economic climate.

  25. Folklore Fanatic
    Sep 09, 2008 @ 19:32:17

    I don't approve of censorship at all, but I also don't approve of kids losing their innocence any sooner than they have to or being exposed to inappropriate crap. If it was geared more for 15-16 and older, yeah, but 10? Nope.

    Whenever one qualifies an absolute statement by inserting a ‘but,’ it renders the statement meaningless. I’m not trying to pick on Shiloh or Julie here; it’s perfectly understandable to want to protect one’s children from subjects that are controversial for their age groups. However, NO ONE has the right to tell me or my family what we can and cannot read as children or adults. *WE* make that choice.

    It’s a very simple concept: either you vet your kids’ reading lists prior to them reading the books (this goes for TV as well: another reason why it’s better for TV time to be part of family time instead of an ‘alone’ hobby), or you deal with the results of giving over free reign to your children. Whose fault is it that the author’s views and beliefs aren’t in line with your own?

    Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. But don’t tell everyone else what ten-year olds should and should not read.

    I’m actually somewhat disturbed that this hasn’t provoked more outrage from romance/erotica writers, who more than any other type of author are stigmatized, mocked and ostracized from mainstream media circles because of their creative work. You know what pidgeonholing feels like better than almost all of us. What right does anyone have to tell your editor to tone down your writing to meet the equivalent of a PG-13 rating to be in a book chain or a library? We KNOW the general population is judgemental and illogical; that’s why we have pseudonyms for authors. If you meet your deadlines and do a good job, what right does ANYONE have to tell you that you can’t smoke or drink or go to clubs or protest at political events or stay up late or write pieces completely separate from your first genre, be they autobiographis, YA fiction or textbook essays?

    It’s bad enough that the MPAA has executed Newspeak so completely on the film industry. I’d rather sell my articles off a street corner and write my own children’s books for our family than support any publisher or chain or author who supports such ridiculous censorship.

  26. Folklore Fanatic
    Sep 09, 2008 @ 19:39:29

    Edit: I’m glad the author was consulted on the wording in the example above, provided that the ultimate decision rested with her, and her alone.

  27. Ann Somerville
    Sep 09, 2008 @ 19:55:28

    Whenever one qualifies an absolute statement by inserting a ‘but,' it renders the statement meaningless.

    Only if the two things are mutually incompatible.

    Do I dislike the idea of the word ‘twat’ being used in a children’s book? Yes, absolutely.

    Would I compel or ban or punish an author for using it? Absolutely not (and that means I wouldn’t want anyone else doing it on my behalf)

    Would I write to an author expressing my unease at its use? Yes, if I was a parent. I see that as dialogue. But nothing in that would be to say I had any right to demand a change, or a right to expect it.

    And I believe Shiloh and Julie were expressing much the same kind of sentiment. Disapproval doesn’t mean doing more than wishing the author wouldn’t do it, and perhaps avoiding their books or checking them more thoroughly in future if I was worried.

  28. Folklore Fanatic
    Sep 09, 2008 @ 23:27:13

    Only if the two things are mutually incompatible.

    Is that the case here? If I’ve mistaken anyone’s personal dislike of words in children’s books for an “authors/publishers shouldn’t do this, and I’m glad someone’s doing something to stop them,” then I’ll gladly agree with you. Of course, all too often agreement with an opinion morphs into tacit consent on the actions motivated by that opinion. Silence or lack of protest also acts as a means of encouragement.

    IMHO, I wouldn’t use the word in any fiction unless I was trying to prove an antagonist was a sexist jerk. But I’m sure there are better authors out there who can probably write it without raising my ire.

    And I believe Shiloh and Julie were expressing much the same kind of sentiment. Disapproval doesn't mean doing more than wishing the author wouldn't do it, and perhaps avoiding their books or checking them more thoroughly in future if I was worried.

    This is good. I’m still surprised other blogs I read haven’t mentioned this yet. Compare this HarperCollins clause insertion to, say, the leak of SMeyer’s Midnight Sun or any other instance of piracy/filesharing exposed. I’m expressing general disappointment that reactions to this haven’t been widespread enough to push it into the major media spotlight, because that’s apparently the measure that it takes for public shame and outrage to force a change.

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