This is 2009, right? And supposedly the world is more politically correct, more sympathetic. People are trying not to say things like "that's so gay!" when a friend is being silly or weird or nonsensical or annoying, for instance.
So why do I have to open up not one, but two middle-grade novels this month, to find the word "retard" being used in place of idiot/moron/buttface/goof/weirdo/whatever? I'm sorry - didn't we decide quite awhile ago that calling people "retard" was offensive?
I understand the use of offensive words if the context requires them or is bettered by them. But when one character thinks another character is doing something dumb, aren't there a lot of other things for the first character to call the second besides "retard"? WHY YES. YES THERE ARE. Calling someone retarded or a retard is incredibly offensive to those who have someone with special needs in their life. It's offensive to people who have special needs. And, yes, I think it's just offensive, period. It's a charged word, and charged words should be used carefully.
It's one thing if you have a kids' book about an 8th grader who has a younger brother who's maybe autistic and they have to deal with the younger brother being called a retard at school. It's another thing entirely when someone falls down a flight of stairs in front of their entire class and stands up, saying, "OMG, I am SUCH a retard!" I'm betting if I asked these authors why they didn't have the character saying something like "OMG, I am such a faggot!" that the authors in question would respond, "Well, "faggot" is so offensive!"
And saying things like "well, it doesn't offend ME," is not a good excuse on any planet. It doesn't matter if you don't find it offensive. It matters that it is found offensive, period, by a large, large number of people.
Shouldn't we be even more careful in kids' books? Aren't the school years already fraught with insulting words and hurtful names? Aren't we supposed to be teaching kids to teach others with respect? Because kids are repeating what they read in books just like they're repeating what they hear in movies or from their parents' lips, and if you think they're not, you're not paying very close attention.
I am not advocating censorship. I am married to a First Amendment scholar, after all. I am just saying that when you have a wealth of words to choose from, could you just choose a word that a huge swath of the population DOESN'T find personally offensive?
(And I'm not just blaming the authors, here. What about the editors? The agents? The early manuscript readers?)
If I'm reading your ARC and I come upon that word, under the circumstances I've described above, that's it for me - that's the end of my experience with that book.
Is being able to use that word really worth turning off readers? Reviewers? Booksellers?