Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Ethics of Writing for Children / Young Adults - Part Deux

If you aren't already aware, the Publisher of Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn has decided to remove the 'n' word from the text completely, replacing it with the word 'slave'. (You can read the Chicago Tribune story here). The reason given for this is that many schools / parents are refusing to allow children to read the book in its original form because of the racist terminology.

For a while last night I got my jollies watching people poke fun at the issue.  My personal favorite, which I retweeted several times, was the comment:

"The publishers of Huckleberry Finn are removing the 'n' word from the text to make it less offensive. Also, Moby Dick will now be known as Moby Penis."

But, given the conversation we've been having here recently about the ethics of writing for children and teens, once I got past the laugh about Moby Richard, I found myself saddened and once again riding the swing on the issue.  What's the right call here?  Removing offensive language from a classic so more children can and will read it?  Or leaving the text in its original form so that those who do read it are forced to confront the cultural and historic issues raised by the language and attitudes expressed?

I can see both sides:

On one hand, literacy is on the decline.  I want kids to read this book (I didn't read it until I was twelve and I remember being so surprised that an 'old' book was so interesting).  Anything that gets it into more hands is a good thing. 

On the other, is the book as valuable if the 'hard' aspects of it are removed?  I want kids to be educated and aware of their history - and the implications of the attitudes that underpin some of the language and race issues they will face for the rest of their lives. 

Back and forth, back and forth... I rode the swing until I had this thought:

What is being written now that, in one or two hundred years, will be seen as offensive?  How will our cultural values change in the next couple of centuries?  As a writer, would I want the text changed to reflect the new set of values, or maintained to show later generations how it was here and now?  As a reader, would I want to read a modified version of history?

See, the thing about stories is that unless someone changes them, they're one of the few pieces of history that can move through the ages unscathed.  Cultures and language change, physical items degrade, people die and 'real' history is written by the victors.

Fiction, ironically, is one of the few untouched windows by which we can look into the past.

Let's not fit history into our current mold.  Let's get intelligent and balanced enough to teach children the real truth about their social history, and have the hard conversations that follow.  Let's teach them that if they adopt what we now see as offensive attitudes, it will hurt them as much or more than it hurts their targets.  And let's admit that we don't always get everything right.  Because one day they'll be in our shoes and consciously or not, following our example.

All of this brings me to the conclusion that in the non-fantastical aspects of my story, I can (and should) be honest about how I see relationships and interactions played out.  But that might mean answering some hard questions - or even figuring out later that I got it wrong. 

Watch this space.

What do you think about the changes made to Huckleberry FinnAs a caucasian female, it's easy for me to say 'keep the historical accuracy!'.  Which side of this debate do you support and why?


  1. This is huge for me. I think in context it's not going to change a thing, but overall given the era it was written in and the truth in which it was written it shocks me. Writing is all about observations. It doesn't make them wrong or right. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  2. I was just asked how I felt about this change this morning. This was my reply...

    The N-word is still a delicate subject today and "slave" is much more appropriate for today's society. In the 1800s they threw the N-word around without a second thought. Nowadays, we don't (hopefully). However, there is something to be said about maintaining the integrity of the book.

    I feel that if the book was being turned into a movie, it would be a good change. However, if they are just reprinting the book, I would want it to be the same, just as it was published before.

    However, Huckleberry Finn is read by young children who may not understand the delicacies of the N-word so it may be better for it not to be there. Then again, I am an advocate for families reading together and parents understanding what their children are reading so that they may explain things to their child. Something like this is a perfect example of why a parent needs to discuss the books their children are reading with their children.

    AubrieAnne @

  3. Intent is somewhat good but the idea overall is a bad one. Here's my fuller take on the matter -

    - Roy Pickering (author of Patches of Grey)

  4. The n word is a derogatory, dehumanizing word. But I'm sorry. I can't condone changing Mark Twain's book. The point of the story was that Jim was treated badly and they used that word on him, but he was the most responsible person there! The story is, in part, about racism, thus it's filled with racists. I don't think saying slave, while demeaning in itself, is as powerful or what the author intended.

    And since Samuel Clemons isn't alive to say yes or no, I can only say it's wrong to change his work, no matter how well intentioned people are.

  5. I agree with JEFritz 100%.

    Plus, saying "slave" is more a statement of occupation, however demeaning the occupation may be. Anyone of any race can be a slave (although not in that context, necessarily). The n-word emphasizes HOW dehumanized Jim was. Removing it removes impact. We already knew he was a slave. Removing the n-word lessens the impact of his situation and treatment.

    And as an author, I would not want someone making this kind of value judgment about my work, whether I was dead or alive. If I put something in my stories, it's because *I'm* making the observation or judgment. Don't put words in my mouth... Or take them out...


  6. Is this another example of adults abdicating responsibility for talking to the children? "Just take the word out so we don't have to worry about it."

    I also think even if a child picks this book up and reads it all by himself, he'll get the point that the bad guys are the ones that use that word against the slaves.

    I love the point that fiction is the purest window into history. "Nonfiction" is what gets spun.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. I had an interesting conversation with friends about this very issue yesterday.

    I want to be completely clear that I am in no way, and under no circumstance, advocating the use of the 'n' word in conversation. I think the word itself is abhorrent.

    I only wish to see the integrity of the original story remain intact - and those hard conversations and historical accuracies discussed.

    That said, I think it's too late. The decision has been made.

  8. I think the n word was removed because the book was intended for kids. Kids don't need historical accuracy in their books. If we want to "maintain" true history we can read Uncle Tom's Cabin or Roots.

  9. I don't believe I would agree with "Kids don't need historical accuracy in their books". I think fiction is the perfect way to deliver history to kids who might not have a natural affinity with the subject.

    I read the book when I was eleven or twelve - in the mid eighties when the word was recognized as racist, but there was still some use.

    I was shocked and felt bad for the characters. I remember having the conversation with my father about it and being reassured that the word was 'bad' and that it had been used in the book back when people had the wrong attitude about african americans.

    That conversation is part of what molded my perceptions of racist language (and the fact that we sometimes get things wrong). I don't believe it was a bad thing - quite the contrary - that I read the book in its original form as a child.

    I think we underestimate what children absorb from books, movies, etc. And their ability to understand morale and ethical dillemmas.

  10. Children do need historical accuracy in their literature. Kids also need to know how social interactions were in the past so that they can understand what is going on around them in the present.
    By replacing the word "nigger" with "slave" you are doing two things 1)you are eliminating the fact that some people in the 19th century created a society designed to denigrate certain other people as a matter of course, which makes it impossible to understand how that part of society worked in the 1800s, 2)by associating blacks with the word slave one is suggesting that all blacks are slaves and that all slaves are black, which is historically untrue and a disservice to both the readers and to black people in general.