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"What the heck?" in a PB

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I have a PB ms that uses the phrase "What the heck?"

A critique partner of mine said it wasn't acceptable language for a PB, but to me it seems really tame (my daughter says it all the time). Thoughts? I'd switch it to be safe, but it's in verse (and I really like that particular rhyme), so not so easy.

Thanks!!
#1 - March 12, 2014, 02:16 PM

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Completely acceptable to me, and I suspect to most (if not all) editors.
#2 - March 12, 2014, 03:15 PM

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Darn, crikey, gee ? all of those are the same as 'what the heck' in that they're stand-ins for the genuine swear/curse word. I doubt anyone would object unless they were also likely to object to darn, crikey and gee!
#3 - March 12, 2014, 04:36 PM

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I actually kind of agree with your critique partner.  I wouldn't care about my 7 year old but my 2 year old and 4 year old hear all of the same books.  And then they repeat and memorize them.   As they don't enunciate very we'll, it wouldn't be something I wanted in a book that i was going to read to them. Especially since I assume you are a fabulous writer and they would want the book read to them repeatedly.  :). And I don't object to crickey, or gee - just funny exclamations that would sound bad coming out of a two year olds mouth.
#4 - March 12, 2014, 06:09 PM
« Last Edit: March 12, 2014, 06:55 PM by AlenaT »

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I have to agree with Alena - I won't let my 2 and 4 year old say heck (neither will the teachers at their schools / play groups). It is probably fine for an older child though :)
#5 - March 12, 2014, 06:26 PM
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I'd suggest going with your own instinct here, Jennifer. If you'd rather not trip the wires of people who object to "heck," there's nothing stopping you from finding some other expression to use - at least if eliminating "heck" doesn't adversely affect your creative integrity with the book (not being a picture book writer, I don't have a complete sense of that on the PB level). Personally I think it's easy to go down a rabbit hole with doubt about euphemisms, though. "Heck" was originally a euphemistic version of a stronger, PB-inappropriate word, but then again, there will definitely be some people who object to "gee," which in the U.S. was originally a euphemistic version of "Jesus," and which in Ireland is currently a very crude, sexual slang term. I seriously doubt "heck" will set off any alarms among agents and editors, though.
#6 - March 12, 2014, 08:21 PM

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I agree with Alena and Crooked.
#7 - March 13, 2014, 04:19 AM
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The other day my nine-year-old told me that Batman said a bad word in a commercial. It was heck. I don't consider it a bad word but she does!

What sounds worse to me from a child is the hanging expression, "What the...?" because I anticipate WTF, even if the child has no intention of saying it. My six-year-old has taken to saying "What the who now?" which I think is a variation on "What the what?" Those both sound fine to me, although they are euphemisms for "What the" with stronger variants.

But of course they don't rhyme with heck!
#8 - March 13, 2014, 05:01 AM
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This is not a hard and fast rule, but I often think, when in doubt, leave it out


Not long ago, I was writing a rhymer with animals and really, really, really wanted to put a raccoon in the mix.  Syllables-wise, though, I would have had to shorten it to "coon," and ultimately decided not to.  Though most children today would probably not know it was once a racist term, I still couldn't use it.  Doubted...left it out.  (Of course, I'm not comparing a word with a potentially racist connotation to a much less offensive word like "heck"!!!  I'm just throwing in my mindset about making text decisions.)

You could always create some completely kooky nonsense word in order to stick with your rhyme and rhythm!

#9 - March 13, 2014, 06:41 AM
« Last Edit: March 13, 2014, 10:01 AM by carrots »

I have seen "darn" used in very successful picture books.


I have never seen "what the heck?" used.


Personally, I don't mind my kids saying it. However, it's not something I'd want them to say all the time. Kids can get sort of stuck on phrases. They can also sense when people think something sounds slightly naughty or grown-up and then they say it more.


It really depends on what kind of picture book it is and how the phrase is used. It might sound fine or it might sound off. I don't think it would work as a refrain in a concept book, for example.


If you think it feels right, then use it. You can't please everyone. But I think it's something to think about. An original, unique phrase might work even better.
#10 - March 13, 2014, 06:50 AM
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Also, if it's used as an end rhyme, that will put more attention on the phrase and it will make kids want to finish the sentence. Maybe that's fine. Just something to consider.
#11 - March 13, 2014, 06:55 AM
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Thank you, everyone!

It's really interesting to me to see how divisive this is. It never would've occurred to me that there was anything offensive about it! I'm normally of Carrots's mindset -- when in doubt, leave it out -- but none of the replacements I've tried have worked as well, so I'm thinking I might leave it. My ms is aimed towards slightly older kids (though of course that doesn't preclude younger ones from listening along), and the phrase isn't used as a punchline or end line that might encourage kids to repeat it, so I'm hopeful that an agent or editor would ask for edits if they didn't like the phrase but liked the story (rather than dismissing it out of hand).

Thanks so much!
#12 - March 13, 2014, 07:07 AM

It is interesting, isn't it, Jennifer? I'm working on an MG novel and since I lead a writers' workshop for middle grade students, I've been bringing selections to share. One of my characters said, "What the heck!" and the students all tittered and looked around to see if their teacher had heard. Apparently they're not allowed to use it in their classroom, in speech or in writing. I had no idea.
#13 - March 13, 2014, 07:38 AM

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"What the heck" was used (as a rhyme for 'neck') in Ain't Gonna Paint No More - a great book which my daughter loves. I didn't mind it, but it did come as sort of a surprise. I think I've seen it in maybe one other book? If you have a choice, I would leave it out.
#14 - March 13, 2014, 10:36 AM
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I had a "what the..." (not even "heck," but implied) changed in my PB. It didn't stop an editor from accepting it, but he edited it out later.

It is completely fine with be, obviously. I imagine the depends on the press.
#15 - March 13, 2014, 11:57 AM
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"What the heck" was used (as a rhyme for 'neck') in Ain't Gonna Paint No More - a great book which my daughter loves. I didn't mind it, but it did come as sort of a surprise. I think I've seen it in maybe one other book? If you have a choice, I would leave it out.


Carrie, I can't believe I didn't remember that! And I LOVE that book! I think that means it was used well--seamlessly. In that particular case, the phrase definitely matches the tone. I mean, Karen Beaumont implies that the child will paint his butt! And hilariously replaces "butt" with "Whaaaat?" My kids love that part.


Yes, I think this confirms that it depends on the picture book, the audience, and the overall voice.
#16 - March 13, 2014, 12:10 PM
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I had a "what the..." (not even "heck," but implied) changed in my PB. It didn't stop an editor from accepting it, but he edited it out later.

This seems like the worst-case scenario, having it edited out later in the process. I'd venture a guess to say it wouldn't stop the book from being considered or acquired, although I should remind myself that I'm neither a PB author nor an editor, so I truly am just guessing. :)
#17 - March 13, 2014, 01:57 PM

The name for what the title refers to is called minced oaths

Not only would one need to be pretty strict to purposely avoid it, but also fairly knowledgeable to not use it unintentionally. Even something as innocent as the phrase "goodness" is derived from a more offensive phrase.

In fact, some are very popular:
--Charlie Brown, "Good grief!"
--Pinocchio, "Jiminy Cricket" (Although it is his name?)
--Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, '"Crikey"

Personally, I avoid them in both writing and everyday.
#18 - June 22, 2014, 12:06 PM

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My editor just had me change "it's pretty blooming funny" in reference to a statue wearing bloomers because "blooming" was a stand in for a curse word. But it may depend on the publisher and what they deem acceptable.
#19 - June 22, 2014, 03:02 PM
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Not sure how to help, as when I have such a situation I usually summarize to make it fit syllablically.
#20 - June 22, 2014, 05:37 PM
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