The Books We Got For Christmas

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Louisa May Alcott said of Little Women, “We really lived most of it.” Little Women is read and reread today, while Elsie Dinsmore is left neglected to gather dust in grandmother’s attic.

Another book family that was an instantaneous success was The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Harriet Mulford Lothrop, the author, wrote under the name of Margaret Sydney. This first of the Pepper series, published in 1881, introduces the little brown house, whose walls contained only meager comforts but bulged with the liveliness and high spirits of Ben, Polly, Joel, David, and little Phronsie.

Margaret Sydney knew how to tell a story that had the ring of truth, even though she almost spoiled the ending with the appearance of some long-lost rich relations. During the siege of measles, young Ben Pepper made up a spine-tingling tale for his brothers and sisters about a bear. Ben’s story was so convincing that when their mother came in at the end of it, Phronsie cried, “Oh, mammyl We’ve had a bear, a real live bear, we have. Ben made him!” And in The Five Little Peppers, we’ve had a real live family; Margaret Sydney made them.

Until The Peterkin Papers came along, the mothers in most books were towers of strength to their families. Mrs. Peterkin was no tower of strength. She was as scatterbrained as the rest of her family. Perhaps that is why children who were beginning to suspect the Nineteenth-Century doctrine of the infallibility of parents grew so fond of her.

The Peterkin family, created by Lucretia Hale in 1886, consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, Solomon John, Agamemnon, Elizabeth Eliza, and the two little boys who never went anywhere without their India rubber boots. They are a zany crew, innocently getting themselves into endless and hilarious trouble.

The most famous of the Peterkin contretemps is the one where the movers leave the piano keyboard up against a window. In warm weather, Elizabeth Eliza can seat herself on the porch and play by reaching the keys through the open window. But of course that won’t do in the wintertime. The Lady from Philadelphia comes to the rescue, suggesting that the Peterkins simply turn the piano around.

The stories first made their appearance in a young people’s magazine. They were probably funnier when scattered over many issues. The jokes wear a little thin when read in rapid sequence between book covers. Still, there is no Fourth of July celebration so crammed with accumulative hilarious disaster as the chapter on the Peterkin parents’ futile attempt to have a quiet national holiday. And there is never any moral to spoil the fun.

Movies have recently revived children’s interest in The Wizard of Oz. This book was popular for two decades after its publication in 1900 but then suffered a decline. It is difficult to see why most of the literary experts in children’s literature ignore it in their listings of classics. To be sure, it does not offer new and fresh delight to the adult as the more subtle Alice in Wonderland does, but children revel in the amusing invention of the Cowardly Lion who longed for courage, the stuffed Scarecrow who wanted brains, and the Tin Woodman who wished above all for a heart and always had to have his oil can nearby in case rain or tears rusted his joints. Even adults appreciate the humor of having the Great and Terrible Oz himself turn out to be a humbug—a very good man but a very poor wizard.

Animal stories have always been popular with children, probably because children are themselves young animals. Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, collected in book form in 1880 and later illustrated by A. B. Frost, are still the most original American contribution to this genre. People are either devoted to Uncle Remus or they can’t abide him. A child finds it almost impossible to cut his way through the thick briar-patch of dialect on the printed page. And yet, without the dialect Uncle Remus would not be Uncle Remus. The fortunate youngster who has had Uncle Remus read aloud to him by an enthusiastic and competent reader has often been so entertained by Brer Rabbit’s rib-tickling antics that he “laughed en laughed twel he couldn’t laugh no mo!” Brer Rabbit was the weakest but the shrewdest of all the animals, and through his craftiness always turned the tables on his natural enemies. No wonder that Brer Rabbit still appeals to lads who are tormented by bigger and stronger boys, the Brer Foxes of the neighborhood.