Today’s post takes a look at Dean Ing’s It’s Up to Charlie Hardin, which publishes today from Baen Books.
It’s Up to Charlie Hardin
Author: Dean Ing
Publisher: Baen Books
Pub Date: February 3, 2015
Review copy received: Netgalley
It’s Up To Charlie Hardin follows second grader Charlie Hardin through World War II era boyhood exploits with his friends. Charlie discovers what happens to jam when it’s left to ferment, how to make a glider and why hiding your treasure in a drainage pipe is (probably) a bad idea. When their sometimes playmate (and sometimes bully) Jackie Rhett comes face to face with a pair of counterfeiters, saving the day is up to Charlie Hardin.
In thinking about It’s Up To Charlie Hardin, two things stuck out to me immediately:
1.) The censoring in the dialogue and text of curse words. The text will use substitutes like, “D Word” and “jay Word-cee Word” instead of the actual curse.
2.) The paratext.
Let’s tackle point number one first.
Cursing in Children’s Literature
Honestly, seeing “D word” and “jay Word-cee Word” confused me during the opening chapters, and I was pulled out so that I could think about what the offending word might be. This was especially true in dialogue, where I initially assumed the characters were vocalizing the words exactly as written.
For the reasons above, most advice concerning cursing in children’s literature would suggest the following:
Only do it if it’s necessary.
This covers everything from an overabundance of curse words to the right word at the right time. If Jane never curses, then one well-timed “Holy. Shit.” is going to have much more impact than one from a character that curses in almost every line of dialogue.
Like most jokes, cursing loses its impact the more frequently it’s done.
If the word feels inappropriate for the age range, use a realistic substitute.
For example, I use “crapple” in Hot Ticket, as both slang that Juliet and her friend created and also as a less harsh alternative for “crap” or “shit,” since Juliet uses it more than once.
This also helps me do a little character building, because it shows the friendship between Juliet and Lucy — only they use this term. It’s part of their secret language as friends.
In other words, lines like, “What the *****, Jason?” pull the reader out of the story, because they can see the author in the work. When we read something like the above, what we see is the author’s discomfort with the word they want to use and the age they’re writing for.
While I was eventually able to stop thinking so hard about what the “D” and “JC” words were, I eventually also started to wonder:
– Did the author not trust the reader to understand a historically accurate substitute in context?
– Would the replacement words have been worse than a couple of “damns?” In other words, would all these D words really have been slurs against the Japanese, Germans and Italians? And in avoiding that, are we losing both an opportunity for a discussion of the ‘othering’ of war, and also an opportunity for world-building?
In literary theory, a book’s paratext is the printed (or digital) material that surrounds the actual narrative. This includes front matter like forwards and title pages, and back matter like acknowledgements and jacket copy. For some theorists, who wrote the paratext is irrelevant to the discussion of what that means in the analysis of the work.
Okay, so. Paratext.
At the beginning of It’s Up To Charlie Hardin, a preface notes:
“This is the sort of confession a man may indulge in if he is too lazy to commit the autobiography his grandkids asked for, and too self-absorbed to scribble the books his publishers wanted more of. It is also naked homage to Mark Twain, who in 1875 half-fictionalized the lively times he had enjoyed in his Missouri village thirty years earlier.
So Charlie Hardin is my Tom Sawyer, infesting my small Southwestern city during World War II.”
In an Afterward, Ing gives more explanation about what characters in the book were inspired by his childhood, and what became of them later in life. Ing notes:
“Although the Nazis did try to sabotage the U.S. economy with schemes to counterfeit our money, I don’t know if they did it with scoundrels like Bridger and Pinero. I had to invent them because I never knew anyone like them.”
For me, the preface and afterward illuminated much about the narrative structure and voice in the novel. There were times where I wondered how a particular incident – like bombing the neighbor’s house with gourds – was going to come back to the main plot. In truth, it didn’t.
But the paratext tells us here that it wasn’t supposed to. The main plot may have been the counterfeit money and the danger of dealing with Bridger and Pinero, but Hardin doesn’t actually have an overwhelming drive to stop the counterfeiters. He simply wants to understand if the money is exchangeable for real goods.
The afterward tells us that the counterfeiting plot was invented in order to form a cohesive thread in what would otherwise be a series of boyhood vignettes.
Similarly, the narrator’s voice purposefully creates a distance between himself and the child reader.
“The Hardin telephone was normally reserved for adults because in 1944 the telephone company had not yet added signals that let a user know, while he is talking, that someone else is trying to call.”
Passages like the above remind us in the text that an adult is looking back on their boyhood. There’s also subtle nods to other adults, such as:
“Anyone who wonders what boys were created for might be directed to situations like this.”
We hear Dean Ing in the narrator’s voice much more than we might in say, a contemporary middle grade.
Putting it all together…
Writers should keep in mind the following:
– While paratext can either give further clarification or set the stage for the main narrative, a writer has to make sure the narrative stands on its own.
– Word choice (be it cursing or otherwise) can be used to distance oneself from the reader, or to keep the reader close. Consider the distance you need to keep your reader at in order to achieve your narrative goals.