There’s something on the nose about the new breed of children’s books

There was a time when ‘bloody hell’ was a profanity considered too rude for polite conversation. Now, it is a part of everyday language in Australia, no longer causing a blush or a reprimand. Not to say it might even be considered un-Australian. More recently, another word has joined its ranks: fart.

This hit home when I was, of all places, in the children’s section of the bookstore. Emblazoned on several covers was ‘fart’, on Nobody Likes a Fart, Old MacDonald Heard a Fart and Girls Don’t Fart.

At risk of sounding more at home watching Betty White in The Golden Girls than Lena Dunham in Girls, I was surprised to see the word had become so widely accepted that it is appearing on the cover of children’s books, and as a consequence – unashamedly coming out of children’s mouths.

It might be my age, or my role as a mother, that makes me feel uneasy. But, this qualm is one that is difficult to pick apart, especially while berating my kids for using words that stand proudly on the covers of picture books.

“Why is it rude?” they ask, and it is hard to reply without the admittedly wishy-washy answer, “It’s just not a nice word.”

But, after long believing that ‘fart’ was not suitable for children, I’m struggling to read a word I’ve always considered to be at least a little rude to my children in a picture book.

And, it appears, so are a lot of other mothers. If you Google ‘is fart a swear word?’, you will see that parents on mumsnet, babycenter and numerous other forums have been asking that very question. Those who answered were divided, and it appears those divisions run right through families. Some mothers were horrified when the word was used casually in front of children by their partners, and vice versa, while others considered it an everyday, inoffensive, term.

So, is it just a funny word that should be celebrated for its honesty, and its ability to unite our species? Or should is it a sound and word that should forever remain muffled under layers of cotton and corduroy and life-long squeamishness?

The writers of The Fart Tootorial believe that this bodily function is one that should be honoured, uniting all humans (and sometimes causing them to disperse). However, they put forward an impressive 150 euphemisms for flatulence, from air biscuit to tushy tickler.

It is all a far cry from the days when Enid Blyton wrote her famous Faraway Tree series, in which readers are more likely to come across quaintly formal language, with the children ‘astonished’ by what they saw, or calling a nasty character ‘horrid’, than any whiff of profanity.

And it is easy to understand the attraction of books featuring toilet humour – there are few more reliable ways to get a giggle from a young reader. I know my kids are the first to laugh at any mention of so-called tushy ticklers, underwear or bottoms. And I remember the exquisite sense of rebelliousness in reading a book with a little bit of naughtiness, let alone a rude word on the cover.

However, not all barriers have broken down between what is and is not considered too rude for publication. While fart might have well and truly entered the mainstream, an adult book has identified there is still a line separating what is acceptable and what is not, at least on the cover. Self-help guru Mark Manson resolved the profanity question by titling his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Similarly, the children’s book for adults, Go the F-k to Sleep was coy about the profanity in its title.

I wonder how long it will be before the full word is placed in all its glory on covers, for a while shocking us into paying inattention, but eventually, barely catching our eye.

One writer railed against the negative response to the profanity in his book by writing an “Ode to a Four-letter Word”. After readers removed one star from their ratings due to his (albeit, sparse) use of swear words, he hit back, saying, “Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.”

As true as this might be for adult fiction, I’m not so sure it applies in the case of children’s books. I am still uncomfortable with the growing use in children’s publishing of words that I don’t want my children saying in the playground or in the classroom, especially when there are so many alternatives that are both funnier, and less likely to make their teacher, or mother, blush.

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