To Slang or Not To Slang: Defending authentic language in YA and children’s literature

Young people have always used a language of their own. But does that language belong on the page? Is it literary?

Most of author Mia Garcia’s characters are Puerto Rican like herself. They comfortably use slang and speak Spanglish, something that comes naturally to her.

“I grew up speaking Spanish and English interchangeably, and when I sit down to write characters that’s simply how I hear them,” says Garcia. “That being said, it took me a while to feel brave enough to write it that way.”

The YA author worried that her readers might not understand her work, especially if they didn’t speak Spanish. That was a real concern while she was writing her first novel, Even If the Sky Falls. But by the time Garcia started working on her second book, The Resolutions, she felt more confident about her style of writing.

“I worried less and trusted that I could structure my sentences and dialogue—that even if you didn’t understand the slang/Spanish, you could get the gist of what was being said,” she says.

Young people have always used a language of their own, one that the adults in their lives sometimes struggle to understand. But does that language belong on the page? Is it literary?

Slang has a vital place in children’s and YA literature, many in the field insist. Still, while some say using slang and/or Spanglish helps writers connect with their readers, others find it off-putting and say it can limit appeal.

Merriam-Webster defines slang as both a language peculiar to a particular group and as an informal, nonstandard vocabulary. An author using slang might say that a character “spilled the tea” rather than “shared a juicy bit of gossip,” or that a character was so mad that she was about to “throw hands,” meaning that she was ready to fight.

Slang can be regional, or it can be specific to certain groups. For example, the term “throwing shade,” which means to insult someone, originated with black and Latino gay communities, but is now widely used.

In recent years, YA novels by authors including Meg Medina and Sofia Quintero have been praised for their use of language that appeals to young readers. Quintero, who’s of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, calls her writing, which includes slang and Spanglish, an act of cultural preservation.

“I write about and for young people of color—primarily but not exclusively African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx across race and ethnicity—who live in urban environments, and this is how many of them speak,” says Quintero. “My genre of choice as of now is urban realism. There’s no realistically depicting such youth without capturing the way they flow from one language to the next, invent new words and phrases, blend and borrow from each other’s language and dialects.”

One of the most popular YA books of 2017 was Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a bestseller that makes use of a lot of slang and is beloved by teen readers and critics. Protagonist Starr Carter navigates life in two worlds—her low-income, mostly black neighborhood, and her well-to-do, mostly white private school. Readers see the teenager code switch, or shift the way she expresses herself based on her surroundings.

Author Darlene P. Campos

Real kids use slang

YA authors sometimes get blowback from critics or readers for using slang and Spanglish. That was the case for Ibi Zoboi last fall when Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, found fault with Zoboi’s lack of “literary formality” in her novel Pride, a modern take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in Brooklyn and an SLJ best book of 2018.

Gurdon wrote, “her heavy use of slang will undoubtedly amuse and validate those readers ages 13–17 who use it themselves, but it may otherwise limit the book’s appeal.”

Zoboi took to Twitter to express her displeasure with what she said was the reviewer’s “limited understanding of metaphor, wordplay, and the overall verbal ingenuity that Black children bring to the English language.”

Fellow YA author Daniel José Older tweeted that the review was an example of “linguistic racism.”

Editor, writer, and “Minorities in Publishing” podcast host Jennifer Baker calls the use of slang “necessary” for writers who are trying to reach young readers.

“If we’re writing about young people in New York City, they use colloquialisms,” says Baker. “They use slang.”

She says that to accuse writers who use slang of dumbing down their work smacks of some ugly ideas about what is worthy of being called literature.

“It’s elitist,” says Baker. “It’s also racist and classist.”

Using the language of your audience to relate to them is nothing new. Mark Twain did it, and so did Shakespeare.

“[Shakespeare] was trying to appeal to a lot of people, and people would recognize the slang and appreciate it,” says Beth Rapp Young, associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida. “Just like today you can’t have people who are writing for a broad audience sound like your grandma’s English teacher.”

Young says Shakespeare didn’t face criticism for his use of slang when he was writing—perhaps because, at that time, theater wasn’t considered high-brow entertainment.

Effectively using slang shows sophistication with the use of language, she adds.

“A lot of times, people are using slang just to sound more creative, and that certainly fits in with what Shakespeare did,” says Young. “He loved playing with words.”

Avoiding “the Queen’s Spanish”

Garcia says that incorporating Spanglish can make it more challenging and more enjoyable for her as a writer.

“It made my analyze my sentences and word choice differently, since there are many words in Spanish that exist spelling-wise in English but mean something different,” Garcia says.

She gives the example of the word “dime,” which in Spanish means “tell me” but has a completely different meaning in English.

YA author Darlene P. Campos knows these challenges well. Her second novel, Summer Camp Is Cancelled, uses all kinds of slang and Spanglish.

“My household speaks both Spanish and English fluently,” says Campos. “So, in my opinion, if Latinx people use slang and Spanglish in real life, then why not use this speaking style in a novel?”

She says that “¡Qué bestia!” is one of her favorite expressions. It literally means “what beast,” but it’s used to say something is wild or unbelievable.

The Ecuadorian American never got any pushback from her editors for using language this way, and she attributes that to her publisher, Vital Narrative Press, which focuses on writers of color.

But she has heard of other writers running into trouble with editors or critics.

“There’s a fear that the reader won’t understand everything and stop reading the book as a result,” says Campos. “In my opinion, if people were able to read [Anthony] Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange when it first came out, then they can learn some Spanish/Spanglish, too.”

Quintero says she’s faced a little pressure not to include so much slang out of fear that it might date her work, but her biggest issue has come from copyeditors.

“The most common and challenging experiences I have had have been with a copyeditor who wants to turn my colloquial phrases into the Queen’s Spanish,” says Quintero, who says she repeatedly rejects any suggested changes to make her language more formal.

Both Garcia and Campos hope their non-Spanish-speaking readers will pick up some of the language from their books.

Garcia says that some people have left snarky reviews on Goodreads about not wanting to need Google when they crack open a book. But she takes it all in stride.

“It made me giggle a bit,” says Garcia. “I thought it would hurt more, but it just made me bolder.”

A publishing shift

In the past, the idea that a YA reader would encounter unfamiliar, foreign words led some tastemakers to question the accessibility or quality of a novel, as reviewer Gurdon did.

But that’s changing now, some say, and writers with Garcia’s boldness are being rewarded. More industry insiders are questioning the centering of monolingual, white English speakers at the expense of bilingual children of color.

Ruth Quiroa is an associate professor in reading and language programs in the National College of Education at National Louis University in Chicago. She’s also a 2019 Caldecott Award selection committee member.

Quiroa is a white, native English speaker who has been married to a Guatemalan American man for nearly 30 years.

She stresses that the use of slang or Spanglish “has to be done right” and the author needs to consider all of his or her readers.

“It takes a very, very skillful author to weave it in in a way that respects the reader so that it doesn’t impede the flow,” says Quiroa, who argues that readers should be able to understand the meaning of these words from the immediate context.

“It has to be true to who the character is, and it has nothing to do with the literary quality of a book,” she adds. “It should be used as the author feels it elevates the rounded nature of the characters. If it’s added on just to say, ‘I’m a Latinx book,’ then I think that can really bring a book down. It requires skill and art and someone who speaks it or who has lived around those who speak it and knows the cadence and the rhythm.”

Baker says the same is true of slang. If a writer is unfamiliar with it, it will come across as phony.

“There’s this way that I see authors attempting to use it,” she says. “It’s like trying to be the cool, hip person getting in with the kids and utilizing something they just don’t know how to utilize, whereas you look at Jason Reynolds who does it very well because he talks like that. He’s a poet who also uses slang.”

Baker points to Zoboi as another author who’s adept at this.

“She is someone who writes scholarly things but who also was raised in Brooklyn, so she’s aware of those colloquialisms,” says Baker. “She’s aware of that kind of speech that goes on within poetry circles, within Brooklyn circles, within Caribbean circles, within black circles.”

Librarians say students often gravitate to these books, especially those from marginalized communities.

Becky Calzada, library services coordinator for Leander (TX) Independent School District, a suburban area northwest of Austin, says that students are excited to see characters who sound like them, and educators tend to be fans of these books as well.

“Teachers are excited to share these books because of connections students can make via the language,” says Calzada. “The use of Spanish consejos [advice], sayings, greetings, etc., helps to make characters relatable.”

For Campos, it all boils down to coming up with a good story.

“Some people avoid the use of slang or another language in a story because it may draw the reader away,” she says. “However, if a story has a gripping plot and realistic characters, then the reader is likely to stay hooked, no matter what.”

Garcia no longer pays attention to critics where the use of slang and Spanglish is concerned because, in her view, so many seem to look down on YA literature.

“If they can’t see the authenticity behind the language and how the flow between Spanish and English speaks to the way cultures work together, then that’s their issue,” says Garcia. “I just have to write the best story I can.”

 Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast.


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