Rules For Children’s Writing in 1954

Once upon a time not so long ago, I read a book for teens that opened with a 15-year old girl returning home after school to discover her mother having sex with her boyfriend.  Let me clarify that pronoun:  the heroine caught her OWN teenaged boyfriend having sex with her mother.  Like, after school.  Then, she ran away.  This is 2010.

Not such a very long time ago, stories for kids and teens were very, very different.

Lupe Fernandez of the Pen & Ink children’s writing blog found an amazing list of rules of “How to Write for Boys and Girls” from 1954.

1954_Mickey_Mantle_Card In 1954, this guy was the big baseball hero, and there was no such thing as performance-enhancing drugs.  Babe Ruth’s slightly different form of substance abuse was a close, familiar memory (he drank plenty, and ate more – impacting his play not at all).

I’m going to quote a few sections here:

“Always portray the military, politicians and religious figures in a positive way. Remember, these responsible authority figures keep Americans safe against atheists, beatniks and Communists.”

How to portray young protagonists:

“Boy characters should have healthy, manly hobbies like playing baseball, collecting bubble gum cards, and outdoor camping. Girls should like sewing, cooking and talking with other girls about liking clothes and boys. Activities that keep boys inside like reading, writing or thinking are not suitable role models for young men. Those are girl activities. On the other hand, too much physical exercise by girl characters would be unrealistic and your reader would lose interest. If your story has a Tomboy, make sure she is not a major character. Make the Tomboy a supporting character who longs to act like a real girl.”

Dress and appearance:

“Dress your characters in appropriate clothing. Boys: short sleeve shirts (only puny boys who spend too much time reading in their rooms wear long sleeve shirts), loose, comfortable pants with pockets and Keds sneakers with tied laces.

Girls: ankle-length skirts (absolute no pants), Mary Jane shoes (only girls with loose morals wear high heels unless attending special occasions like a funeral or a wedding), hair tied in a pony tail or neatly trimmed.”

How to handle PDA:

“Never show a boy and a girl holding hands unless accompanied by an adult or riding in a hay wagon with other boys and girls.”

If they’re old enough to date:

“Never have a girl romanced by a foreigner, especially greasers, scratch-backs, potatoes, pachucos, fruitpickers, or braceros.”

By this point, flabbergasted, I began to think, “This can’t be real.”  However, I know from the musical “Grease” that they did call guys greasers.  Bracero and pachuco, I know were actual terms used at the time and not necessarily full-on racial slurs (though obviously used so by whatever pus-filled nutsack of a racist, sexist lunatic wrote this mess).  Fruit pickers sort of makes sense, I guess, thinking along the lines of the moron who wrote these tips, as most people who picked fruit at least around Southern California were primarily Latino men, and often migrant workers.  I’m guessing “potatoes” has to mean “Irish” people, although in 1954, how “Gangs of New York” and Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) from “Angels With Dirty Faces” got in there, I don’t know.

OMG.  OMG.  According to the Urban Dictionary, a “scratch-back” is . . . “A person of Mexican descent, who was so morbidly obese they could neither hop the border or make the swim. So they were forced to dig under the fence and scratched their back in the process.”  OMG.  Oh.  This is . . .  really amazing.  And today, “potato” is a derogatory name for any white people in Asian countries – ha ha!



Rules For Children’s Writing in 1954 — 19 Comments

  1. The whole thing is crap, of course, but I find this bit:

    Activities that keep boys inside like reading, writing or thinking are not suitable role models for young men.

    especially odd. Since in the early fifties, girls still weren’t thought to be capable of performing well in the “thinking” professions — doctors, lawyers, judges, rocket scientists — exactly where did the writer if this crapfest think the men who properly did those jobs came from? Sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus? [eyeroll] Obviously they were never well-adjusted little boys, who’d die before thinking too much.


  2. Greaser may mean the tough young men depicted in Grease, but since it’s used here in conjunction with foreigner, it’s probably intended to mean Mexican American, and is a very offensive and derogatory word.

    The gender stereotyping is as I expected — and as I remember from some of the YA books I read as a kid, which is probably why I eschewed them for adult books by the time I was ten. But the casual use of ethnic slurs in a book of advice shocks me. I know most people — even so-called polite people — used those words regularly in the 50s and into the 60s, but I wouldn’t have expected to find them in a book of advice for writers.

    It occurs to me that while my parents never censored my reading — family lore has me reading Peyton Place at seven (it was boring) — I think they would have taken care to discuss with me any bit of writing containing such ethnic slurs.

    All this silly advice probably explains the great popularity among girls of Nancy Drew who, while she wasn’t a tomboy — that was her sidekick, George — did a great deal more than sewing and cooking. I don’t recall her ever kissing Ned, though.

  3. “On the other hand, too much physical exercise by girl characters would be unrealistic and your reader would lose interest. If your story has a Tomboy, make sure she is not a major character. Make the Tomboy a supporting character who longs to act like a real girl.”

    Bwah ha ha! Oh dear, lucky the writer is certainly deceased. Otherwise Diana would have a couple of unpleasantly enlightening experiences for him.

  4. More seriously, it is good to look back and see how far we have come in one lifetime. I was born in 1955, just after these guidelines appeared. In that year, it would have been illegal for me to marry the man I am married to now in this state (Virginia, which had miscegenation laws on the books until quite recently). In that year, the man who is now President of the United States would not have been served in a restaurant in large swathes of this country. In that year, my mother had to quit her job because pregnancy was a cause for dismissal.

    We’ve come a long way, baby!

  5. Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

    One of the things I’ve tried to teach my daughters (especially after I heard the older one saying “I’m not a feminist”) is what the world was like for women when we were kids. Like the man at the brokerage where I was applying for a temp filing job who noted that my typing wasn’t very fast. I agreed, and noted that I didn’t, in the long run, plan to be a typist*. He looked genuinely puzzled. “Why not? It’s a good job for a woman.”

    What really did it for her was showing her Adam’s Rib, a film I adore, but realize the limitations of). She turned to me, shocked. “Do those guys realize they’re, like, condescending to KATHARINE HEPBURN?” When I told her that, adjusting for humor, that was pretty reflective of the attitude toward women in those days, she shrugged. “Guess I am a feminist.”

    Damned right, kid.

  6. It is good for girls to get into the more male dominated professions, so that they know they are still at a frontier.

  7. Well, I was still thinking about my daughter. Your tax dollar has funded her education in parachuting out of airplanes, rappelling out of black helicopters while clutching an M-16, firing cannon, nightstick, handcuff, and other girlish persuasive arts. Seductive! Her feminine charm while administering choke holds is really delightful to behold — she can render an opponent unconscious in less than six seconds. I am sure the author of the original writing guide would have benefited.

  8. But back to the opening. It seems like “we’ve come a long way, baby” has both positive and negative aspects. I blanch at some of the things that we blithely put into “young adult” fiction and I can’t think of a rational reason that it has to be a trade-off:””We can overcome racism and political tunnel vision only if we bombard our kids with sexuality.”

    I’m collaborating on a novel at the moment in which the 22 year old comes home and finds her mom has seduced her fiance, but it’s targeted to adults, not kids, and I’d frankly not want my teenager to read it.

    When I was a kid, I read voraciously, and one thing I learned was that once I’d had an image or scene take place in my head, it was very, very hard to get it out again. Scenes of horror, carnage, graphic sex or whatever, got stuck in there whether I wanted them to or not. As a result, I’m very careful about what I expose my kids to and I warn them to be careful as well. And to be as careful about what they put into their minds as what they put into their bodies. Some “food” is good for you, some is empty calories, and some can affect your health.

    BTW, I have to wonder how “real” that list is, I’m not doubting the sentiments (my Dad was Polish/Russian and got called “Pinko commie” all the time), but the language seems wrong. This was the age of the euphemism, for one thing, but for another, I’d expect publishers to use more descriptive terms rather than street slang. The list seems awfully pat. It reads like something put together by someone with a consciousness of how derogatory those racist slurs were.

  9. I was reading Dick and Jane when this was published. I also lived in a racist household (Dad was born in Alabama) and a mother who kept insisting that sweating wasn’t good for a girl. I truly wonder how I managed to get as far as I did in ballet!

    No wonder I tossed Nancy Drew at the age of 10 and skipped over to Mitchner. I’m only now daring to go back and read some modern YA. The good stuff is good. But not all of it. I’m finding too many reminders of those editorial guidelines still in place. And the very fine line between a spunky, independent kid who takes risks in response to a dangerous situation and an idiot who creates the dangerous situations just to see what will happen is crossed far too often.

  10. Maya, I could not agree more strongly. I knew there was a reason we got along! I have the same idea that you have about how “strong” subject matter, especially sexuality or crime-related issues, are handled in literature aimed at young people. Obviously, I like to see these issues dealt with honestly and with integrity no matter what “age” the work is aimed at. I think this is the biggest reason that The Lovely Bones, while read by many teens, was published for adults (and remains so). There’s no getting around the fact that Susie Salmon is dead and watching her family from her own personal “heaven” because a serial rapist and murderer killed her. The book details some of his other crimes and she even meets other victims in her “heaven” as the story goes along.

    Granted, I was an “angelic” looking young blond child in the days before anybody mentioned this type of person being out there – and I will confess that I was followed around by not one, but two different sex predators – one in a local toy department and one in the library’s children’s section – considering my personal history of people harassing, following, stalking or otherwise interfering with my normal life, I was about 7 when the first incident occurred, and 9 when the second did (that was my first view of a man’s “anatomy” – nice, huh?) I’ve got a lot of thoughts on this as an adult who raised a daughter who experienced NONE of what I had/did.

    First, I don’t necessarily see either of these incidents as fodder for a children’s story. I also don’t see my young teen experiences with other types of nastiness (attempted seduction by not one, but two actors, one pretty darned well-known, and a “bum” also visiting at my dad’s house). One of these three was nice and took “no” for an answer and behaved appropriately from then on. The second was the sleazy masher from hell, and the third (the bum) was just sad and scary and depressing.

    Look at all my material!!

    It does NOT need to be what the stories are about, and if it is, it had better be as well thought-out as my most strange, wrenching stories dealing with biotechnology and parenting.

    Now, I suppose, is the answer as to why I have always written about parents who either exploit, or do not take care of, or for, their children. Because it wasn’t just one, it was all of them.

  11. Before anybody thinks I’m referring to be age 17 going on 21 with these creeps, I’m referring to being age 13. i.e. younger than Susie Salmon. And this may shed some light on everyone’s favorite cause celebre, Roman Polanski. I’m almost the same age as his victim. I was that good-looking and I could have easily been her. The only difference is that I didn’t have a “show biz” mother pushing me on these beasts, I just wasn’t under enough supervision and neither were they. And I also had the sense, and self-esteem, to run away, protest, and insist “no.” I wouldn’t have crawled in that hole like Susie did. By her age, I had already experienced the creepy tricks and asinine behavior of this particular version of horrible man.

  12. What Maya Said about the list and its provenance. Ankle-length skirts in 1954? is more like what I remember.

    As for tomboys who want to act like “real girls” — maybe that’s the list-maker’s prejudice, that anybody who doesn’t hit the exact middle of the bell curve longs to be “cured,” but the problem with tomboys in the 1950s wasn’t that we longed to act like real girls — it was that we wanted nothing to do with acting like real girls.

    Being a “real girl” meant you were forbidden from doing anything you actually liked to do. Never mind if your mom had been an outdoorswoman, horsewoman, field hockey star, and captain in the WACs during WWII.

    As I say, this advice may be the list-maker’s way of trying to reconcile the existence of tomboys with the way girls are spozed to be. (Though why the person thought a tomboy who wanted to act like a “real girl” wouldn’t just, like, you know… act like a “real girl,” I can’t imagine. It isn’t like anybody would stop her. My grandmother would have been delighted, indeed relieved, if I’d decided to act like a real girl.)

    I do remember stories in which girls went from ugly ducklings to swans surrounded by swooning suitors after getting help with hair, makeup, clothes, acting like morons in order not to unman the potential suitors, or more or less becoming anorexia victims — in fact I knew a couple of girls who did that, so it wasn’t always fictional stories — but none of them started out as tomboys.


  13. It sounds to me like ‘tomboy’ simply means ‘being an Actor in your world’ — in contrast to sitting on your pedestal and being Adored and Acted-Upon. My daughter was never a tomboy but she was resolutely and vehemently an Actor, never the acted-upon.

  14. Hi Brenda,

    If D. had been born in 1948 and wanted to do much more than act stupid* and giggle and wear a different fashionable outfit to school (including girdle, hose, and make-up once you got to about 8th grade) every single day (pants were forbidden) — she would likely have been considered a tomboy. Well, maybe not; anyone exceptional as D could sometimes get away with whatever she wanted. Plain four-eyed science geeks? Not so much.

    I just erased a long ramble about the 1950s. They’re gone, I hope never to return. I’m always amazed at nostalgia trips about the 1950s. You could not pay me to live through them again.


    *The girls were not in fact stupid — but in order to achieve social success they had to act that way. I was not smart enough to get this.

  15. The only thing I admire about the era is the clothing. Dresses were -dresses- in those days. Coco Chanel, thou shouldst be with us now …

  16. I suspect that these are…exaggerated. But not by much. Bob Heinlein’s biography talks about the problems he had getting his juveniles past Kay Tarrant.

    I am constantly amazed at how different current teenagers and early twenty somethings are from the people I went to high school and college with in the late ’80s.

    I was actively *looking* for women who used their brains and considered that normal, and didn’t have ‘chip on their shoulder’ variety of feminism in the early 1990s. They were few and far between, or I was blindered by something else.

    They are far easier to spot in 2010. I’m now old enough that my frame of reference is “Yeah, you could be my daughter. And I’d be proud if you were.”

    Guys in their 20s have it better now than I did. The percentage of women who are self assured, confident, have their own interests, and can hold up their end of the conversation has roughly quadrupled from when I was dating.

    I shudder to think of what it was like in the ’50s if you were a guy with a taste for self assured, confident women.