Literary value of strong language

Warwick Mansell

It is one of the biggest-selling novels of recent years and has won a host of awards, from last year's Whitbread Prize to the South Bank Show Book Award. It is sometimes marketed as children's fiction and features a 15-year-old narrator, living a life with which secondary pupils will be encouraged to feel empathy. There is just one catch: it is packed with swear words.

This is the dilemma that has been exercising TES readers in our on-line staffroom, after a teacher wrote that she loved the book - and swearing - but had concerns about covering it with her Year 8 pupils.

Some contributors were unimpressed with the idea that youngsters should be exposed to Mark Haddon's bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whatever its artistic merits.

"Giving children books with bad language is not big and it's not clever," said one. Another said her deputy head had banned the book because of the language and she could see why. The unidentified teacher said: "I find it strange that a book that contains strong words such as the c-word, which even I think is offensive, is put on shelves entitled 'children's literature' with no warning."

However, others had a different view. One said it was unrealistic to think that children had not been exposed to such language. Others said the streetwise language was part of the book's appeal to young teenagers, one even venturing that the swearing might be the only way of capturing their interest.

There is a specifi children's edition, but this also includes swear words.

Trevor Millum, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "I would have been happy to cover it with certain classes, where pupils would be unlikely to snigger during the swearing. But it's a sensitive issue, and teachers have every right to say they do not feel confident dealing with the bad language in class."

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Warwick Mansell

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