Learning to Swear in America

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Learning to Swear in America Book Poster Image
Engaging blend of romance, sci-fi, and culture clash.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some words in Russian (including swear words), mostly not translated, some with context clues. Some facts about Russian language, cultural differences between the U.S. and Russia. Some of the physics, math, and computer programming involved in calculating asteroid paths and how to intercept them. Many Nobel Prize winners in physics listed without biographical details. Some insight into the organizational structure of NASA and its subsidiaries.

Positive Messages

It's more important to do good than to get recognition for it. You'll regret it if you let your ego and arrogance dictate your actions and choices. Growing up is hard because it seems like you have to leave things behind; asks if it's possible to grow up without "pruning your palette," meaning getting rid of things that bring you happiness.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Yuri is a physics wunderkind, already a shoo-in for a Nobel prize at 17. He's arrogant about his accomplishments and has a lot of his ego invested in his abilities, too. He feels out of control until he realizes he never really had any control over his life. He's socially awkward but is a good person at heart and comes up with effective ways to defeat and deflect bullies. When he wants to hit someone in anger, he realizes it won't do any good and is able to wait a moment for the anger to pass. Dovie is smart, artistic, free-spirited, loyal, and supportive. Several high school teachers and the principal are very negative models: A math teacher uses psychological torment to try to motivate students, a gym teacher uses profanity in class, and the principal calls a teen (who's not a student at her school) a "jackass."

Violence

A math teacher makes students who get a problem wrong feed baby hamsters to a snake. Brief contemplation of suicide. Taste of blood, smear of blood from accidental injury. Beating including kicking and punching described vaguely; taste of blood mentioned.

Sex

Some brief kissing, not described in detail. Light making out described briefly once. Yuri occasionally thinks about sex and asks once about the possibility of sex with someone. Pay-per-view porn mentioned humorously.

Language

Frequent:  "Ass" as body part and insult, "damn," "hell," "s--t." Infrequent: "a--hole," "monkeyf---ker," "jackass," "Jesus H. Christ," "prick," "crap," "holy s--t," "goddamn." Once: "son of a bitch," "f--k." "Bastard" in English and Russian. Some Russian swear words not translated. General concepts of swearing explained. "Perv" in flirtatious name-calling. Overheard conversation with "whore" name-calling.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Mention of people opening vodka bottles in Russia. A party with parents present has a cooler with beer and other beverages. Champagne is poured in celebration.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Learning to Swear in America doesn't have as much swearing as you'd think. It symbolizes the 17-year-old Yuri's ability to blend in, understand, and be better understood after he's plucked from his Moscow university and abruptly dropped into Southern California. Most of the swearing is repeating "hell," "damn," and "s--t" several times in succession, late in the book, but there's one "f--k" and several uses of "monkeyf--ker" for humor. It's a good opportunity to talk with teens about appropriate language, why people swear, and why we're so fascinated with swear words in other languages. The only science fiction element is that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth; otherwise it's fully grounded in the here and now. There's some light romance with flirtation, thinking about sex, and a few kisses either not described or very briefly described. There's one beating that's described vaguely; the only other violence is psychological, when a teacher makes students select and feed baby hamsters to a snake when they get a problem wrong.

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What's the story?

LEARNING TO SWEAR IN AMERICA is about 17-year-old Russian physics prodigy Yuri Strelnikov, who's suddenly whisked off to Pasadena to help NASA figure out a way to prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth. They have three weeks to find a solution or the western half of the United States will be obliterated. Although he's constantly watched and chauffeured from his hotel to the lab and back again, he happens to meet the fiercely free-spirited Dovie, a high school junior. Through Dovie, Yuri gets to know a quirky American family, who help him understand there's more to life than the Nobel Prize. Yuri has no doubt that his unpublished work on antimatter containment is the key to eliminating the asteroid, but no one else at the lab agrees. When he's unable to change minds, he secretly replaces codes and calculations to implement his plan without anyone else knowing. Will the plan work, and if it does, will Yuri be able to live with the consequences?

Is it any good?

Katie Kennedy's debut novel is engaging, funny, romantic, and suspenseful, and it introduces us to a quirky but likable hero in Russian teen Yuri Strelnikov. Yuri's awkwardness, loneliness, and desire to fit in make it surprisingly easy to relate to a boy genius who, let's face it, is also a bit full of himself. Dovie and her oddball family show us and Yuri that life, and the great big world out there, have so much to offer those who reach out to it.

Some events are a bit too coincidental, but readers who can just accept the premise and let themselves go along with Learning to Swear in America will be rewarded. Yuri's an unusual kind of hero, and readers may be surprised to find themselves rooting for him so easily. The well-structured plot keeps the pages turning and builds to an exciting finish that doesn't end where you think it will.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about swearing. Do you think it's realistic in Learning to Swear in America? Why is it such an important concept for Yuri?

  • Is it OK to do something wrong to do right? What if you don't know how it will turn out?

  • Dovie tells how the famous artist Michaelangelo came to regret his arrogance when he carved his name into his greatest statue. What does Yuri do out of the same kind of arrogance? Is getting credit for your work more important than the beauty (or scientific knowledge, or anything else) the work itself brings to the world?

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