From “Ain’t it Awful Mabel” to WTF: Slang and Classic Children’s Literature

Among the major lessons of the books of my childhood is that slang is very bad, and that it’s the central task of parents to cure their children of it. There is much handwringing over the use of informal speech, the kind of despair we reserve today for stalled potty training, profanity, bullying, drug abuse, and delinquency.

Take Eunice Young Smith’s dreamy Jennifer Hill, books published in the late 40s and early 50s about a character growing up in the early 1900s.  Jennifer is fond of superlatives: “spiffy,” “spondolix,” and “scrumptious.” Their mother doesn’t quit approve of this. She keeps admonishing the children to say “surely,” instead of “sure,” “goodness,” instead of “gosh.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne is aggrieved when young Davy of Anne of Avonlea, published in 1909, admires a “bully splash,” since bully is apparently a highly vulgar if enthusiastically complimentary adjective. 1880’s Little Women’s Jo likes to exclaim “Christopher Columbus!” but manages to finally overcomes this appalling habit. She is eventually praised by her father for no longer being his “son Jo.” He says, “I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to.” Jo, the most critical of all heroines of female indoctrination, is also, paradoxically, the only literary heroine ever to be cured of using slang.

Jo March, not lying on the rug.  Illustration by Sue Rundle-Hughes

Jo March, not lying on the rug. Illustration by Sue Rundle-Hughes

Poor Laura in Little Town on the Prairie isn’t reprimanded for slang, but what appears to be its close cousin, “wooden swearing.” In the book, published in 1941 but taking place in the late nineteenth century, Ma scolds her for this after an outburst against the pressures of having to study all the time in order to earn her teaching certificate at fifteen and provide her sister an education. Laura doesn’t swear, but her tone has suggested that she might possibly want to, and the mere possibility of this desire merits a reprimand. Even an all-too-human expression of exhaustion is too unladylike to be borne.

Even while her characters are perpetually reprimanded for their slang, Anne creator Lucy Maud Montgomery makes fun of the prudery that leads to euphemistic language, as in an argument in which Dora insists that a tomcat should be referred to as a “gentleman cat” while Davy maintains it should be a “Thomas pussy.” And in Anne of the Island (1915), when corrected for using the phrase “dig in,” Anne’s friend Phil laments, “Oh, why must a minister’s wife be supposed to utter only prunes and prisms?” Slang, she adds, is only “metaphorical language.” She then wisely concludes that she’ll be perceived as stuck up among the parishioners that her future husband serves if she doesn’t use their language.
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Thank goodness that slang wasn’t eradicated from the speech of all characters. Sometimes, it’s one of the quickest routes to recreating a time period. I remember one autumn night a few years ago, as a light cold rain fell and leaves skittered across the street, I dropped my daughter off at a school dance and went home to reread Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy books, set in the early 1900s. While my daughter was off at a middle school gym navigating a world of kids who casually said “WTF” at every turn, I was content at home with a bunch of teenagers whose favorite slang is “Ain’t it awful, Mabel?”

Betsy, undoubtedly using slang.  Illustration by Vera Neville.

Betsy, undoubtedly using slang. Illustration by Vera Neville.

Meet the MalonesThe period slang is one of my favorite things about Lenora Mattingly Weber’s Beany series. In Meet the Malones (1943), a bigshot football player takes an interest in Beany’s sister Mary Fred. Dike—yep, that’s his name—prefers “smooth little queens” to “mop squeezers” like Mary Fred or to “studes,” girls who make good grades. But suddenly, wisecracking Dike resolves to make Mary Fred his “squaw.” Dike is clearly using Mary Fred; his trendy language announces his lack of substance, as does his unfortunate name, probably meant as an ironic reference to a hole in the wall that lets water through rather than any secret lesbian tendencies.

In Make a Wish for Me (1956), Beany’s boss, Eve, says, “In my day we called it ‘petting.’ And it did a girl no good to be labeled a ‘petter.’ You’ll notice, Beany, it’s always the girl who is labeled, never the boy. As I say, it’s a man’s world. What’s the word for petting now? I can’t keep up with it. Smooching?” Beany replies, “No, that’s baroque—meaning old-fashioned. Now it’s loving-it-up. Only at Harkness we have a new word—more-thanning. . .” Nowadays, more people remember terminology like petting and smooching than loving-it-up and more-thanning. Most of this slang had largely fallen out of use by the time I encountered these books, replaced by necking and then making out. Today, people hook up rather than loving-it-up. They certainly no longer more-than, as far as I know.

No-Slang

The World According to Children’s Books: What I Learned from Childhood Reading

The four Boxcar Children

The four Boxcar Children

I grew up reading books mostly published before 1970, ones that reflected the values of previous generations and knocked me completely out of step with my peers. I wasn’t aware of how much those books were products of a particular place and time, and so I thought that their values were timeless, universal.

For instance, through childhood reading it became readily apparent to me that a normal, well-balanced family has four children. The Boxcar Children has a quartet of resourceful youngsters, two boys and two girls. The Little House books’ Ingallses (eventually) have four daughters, Little Women‘s Marches have four daughters, Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Family has two boys and two girls, Eunice Young Smith’s Jennifer books have two boys and two girls. In Jennie Lindquist’s Golden Name Day series, Nancy Bruce is an only child—but she goes to live with her adopted grandparents and becomes a unit with her three adopted cousins (all girls). Lenora Mattingly Weber’s Malone family has four children, three girls and a boy.

I also knew from my reading that if you’ve experienced an illness or trauma, the solution is to go to the country (or the Alps, the moors, the woods—anywhere remote.) Fresh air and sunshine will restore you. (See Heidi, The Secret Garden, and Understood Betsy.) Better yet, pick up your whole household and move to the country (along with your two parents and three brothers and sisters and live-in housekeeper.) Your house will have a cupola on top. There will be a subplot about being kidnapped by gypsies, who will actually turn out to be allies (see Eunice Young Smith’s Jennifer books and Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Family books.)

The Four Melendy Children

The Four Melendy Children

Even if you don’t live in the country, a really interesting house will have nooks, crannies, hiding places, cool attics. Like Jo in Little Women, you can hang out up there writing melodramas and eating apples. Maybe, like Heidi, you’ll have a sleeping loft, or like Nancy Bruce, you’ll find a cute little house in the woods and inside, a crystal tree with a mysterious and romantic story attached to it. Or maybe, like the Melendy kids, you will discover a secret room.

If you’re a pioneer girl, you’ll do the extreme version of moving to the country or occupying a cool house. You’ll live in log cabins and sod houses as you go further and further west every few years—never east. Eastward movement is embarrassing and shameful. Only wimps move back east. (See Wilder’s Little House series.)

A really good heroine will help other people heal by her very presence. (See Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, A Little PrincessThe Secret Garden, The Golden Name Day, and the Jennifer series.) A really great heroine works miracles. Like Nancy Bruce, who helps her lame friend Alex walk again. Or Mary Lennox, who helps her lame cousin Colin walk again. Or Heidi, who helps her lame friend Klara walk again. Or Jennifer, who helps her lame friend Sarabeth—whose name evokes both Heidi’s wheelchair-bound friend Klara and the sickly March sister, Beth—to—guess what?—walk again.

The Four March Girls

The Four March Girls

Many times, the miraculous nurturing powers of these literary heroines come from their very essence, not their effort, not even their touch. The title character of Donna Parker at Cherrydale enables a mute boy to talk and a grieving concentration camp survivor to find joy in life again. Sara Crewe, Anne Shirley, and Pollyanna simply inspire others through their charm, dignity, imagination, and optimism. “You are always making people happy,” a character tells the title character in Anne of Windy Poplars. “Why, whenever you come into a room, Miss Shirley, the people in it feel happier.”

If you are dismissed as ugly by adults or peers, but have high cheekbones, never fear—that’s universal code for “future beauty.” If others comment regularly on your starry eyes, that’s also good. Dreaminess means that you’re imaginative. The more criticism and/or teasing that you endure as a child, the greater will be your eventual triumph. (See Rachel, the vastly underestimated high-cheekboned heroine of Noel Streatfeild’s Dancing Shoes. Or starry-eyed Jennifer in Young’s series. Or awkward young Hans in Eva Moore’s The Fairy Tale Life of Hans Christian Andersen, who grows up to become a world-renowned author to whom all of the citizens of his home town raise their torches.)

Furthermore, really sensitive, imaginative characters make up whimsical stories about flowers and fairies. Anne delights in giving ornate names to ordinary places; Jennifer fantasizes that she can talk to bumblebees. When Anne, in Anne of Avonlea, falls through the roof of an old duck house, she is stuck hanging there while her friend goes for help, forced to draw on her own inner resources to pass the time. No problem. Anne entertains herself by working out a “most interesting dialogue between the asters and the sweet peas and the wild canaries in the lilac bush and the guardian spirit of the garden.”

The Four Ingalls Girls

The Four Ingalls Girls

In contrast to all of the lessons I learned from books, there were only three children in my family, my childhood home was a boring, serviceable split level built in 1965, I was never sent to the country to recover from anything nor did my family ever pick up and move to a pastoral setting. I did not have high cheekbones and when my eyes got starry my teachers told me to stop daydreaming and pay attention. I never helped anyone lame walk again, and I was secretly ashamed that I didn’t care what the bees would say to the flowers if they could all talk.

If these books failed to reflect my own white, middle-class reality, their values undoubtedly seemed foreign to many, many other readers. But for the most part, I didn’t feel inadequate or diminished by these books. I was too busy living vicariously through them, becoming these characters, surprised to close a book and remember that I was me, in my own room, in my own life, but still richer for the journey I’d just undertaken.

Welcome to Rereading Childhood

As a child, I was a passionate reader—especially of books about girls who wanted to be writers, books passed on to me by my mother and aunts. My forthcoming book From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood is the story of my journey back through the books that shaped me as a child, from Nancy Drew to the Betsy-Tacy and Anne of Green Gables series—and my journeys to tourist sites related to some of my favorite writers.

I retraced the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder and visited sites related to Betsy-Tacy series creator Maud Hart Lovelace in Minnesota, museums devoted to Louisa May Alcott in Concord, MA, and tourist attractions revolving around Anne of Green Gables creator Lucy Maud Montgomery in PEI, Canada. In the process of returning to these books and visiting these places, I began to understand my powerful connection to many creative, intelligent heroines as well as to my mother and aunts who first inspired me to read these books—books that eventually helped me forge my own path.

There were many more books that I wanted to revisit for this project and didn’t have a chance. This blog is a chance to do that as well as include additional material that didn’t make it into the book. Conversation with others always jogs my memory and reminds me of books that were important to me, so I especially welcome reader comments and would love to hear about the books that shaped you.