The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Passé

The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, by Margaret Sydney, was a book that I read in fourth grade, while visiting my grandparents in Florida at Christmastime. I remember loving it because the story was so homey and old fashioned, the characters engaging, with their light escapades and cheerful family life. The pure and good Polly Pepper, her brothers Ben, Joel and Davie, little sister Phronsie, and their poor widowed mother. Although they went through trying times, they were a happy and grateful family.

After I discovered my Kindle capabilities last week (see my recent blog post: Virtually Unlimited), I skimmed the Kindle Store’s Popular Classics (pre-1923, free because they are no longer under copyright). When I saw The Five Little Peppers, I pushed the button and it became mine once again.

Re-reading the book as an adult, The Five Little Peppers still holds some of its early charms, but I was surprised at how archaic the writing style was. I don’t recall that from when I was little. I also noticed how Doctor Fisher (a grown man) “skipped” and “pranced about” when agitated, which I guess I vaguely remember, but at the time recognized that it was from an earlier, more innocent era, and it didn’t bother me.

When children read, they don’t have many of the preconceived notions that adults do. Children are more elastic in their view of the world and tend to take things as they come. They have not developed fixed expectations or become jaded, and care more about story than style. A book is what it is, and they will read without question. More fluid in their understanding than adults, kids find it relatively easy to shift their thinking to accommodate an old fashioned writing style. 

When they read stories about the past, children assume that the settings and details are factual, whether reading fiction or non-fiction. They accept that things and people were different then. Values and ways of behaving in society weren’t the same either, with modesty, honesty and character being stressed rather than the independence, edginess and frequently antisocial behavior of today. Many characters from earlier time periods were written as examples of virtue, an ideal to aspire to, rather than someone readers would see themselves in. 

Today I did some research on The Five Little Peppers series, and discovered that it was written from 1881 – 1916. The Five Little Peppers books were so popular that when the author finally completed her six book series, readers overwhelmed her with letters begging for more, and she wrote several additional books of background and side stories to keep her fans happy.

Our modern society values the new and disposable, getting rid of old books at library sales and replacing them with recent paperbacks and commercial fiction. One wonders these days, in an era of road rage, depression and isolation due to technological “advances,” if they didn’t have the right idea back then.

The six books in the original series, Five Little Peppers and How They GrewFive Little Peppers MidwayFive Little Peppers AbroadFive Little Peppers and Their FriendsFive Little Peppers Grown Up and Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper can all be found and downloaded for free at the Kindle Store (Popular Classics) and Gutenberg.org

For more information on The Five Little Peppers, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Little_Peppers

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Passé

  1. Kate

    I am trying to figure out what it is that I object to about this post. I agree that kids are more likely to just absorb a story and not get bogged down in dissecting the writing style.

    I think I object more to the implicit argument you make that the past was somehow superior to now. “Innocent” was an ideal and is mostly an ideal that the present imposes on the past.

    There were still antisocial people in th 1900s and though fewer cars meant less road rage but people still had rage. People went through depression as well.

    That thes things aren’t portrayed in a childrens series isn’t surprising. While I agree the idea that stories should educate morally was much stronger in the past with embodied virtues and vices rather than shades of grey characters I would argue that there is something to be said for the shift.

    By taking some of the black and white out of fiction we give kids a chance to see issues in a safe environment and learn to make their own decisions. That argument is more applicable to older kids who are developing their reasoning skills than younger kids.

    As a someone who has worked in libraries I’m going to say that holding onto old kids books that don’t circulate any more is a luxury that smaller libraries simply ant indulge. We may not always like it but libraries are in the business of giving people what the want and getting a ten year old to read an old book can be really hard. Even if he might enjoy the story he isn’t going to get past the outdated cover and lack of giant robots. Kids may be less judgemental of writing style but they definitely do judge books by their cover.

    There is a place for nostalgia but for the most part I am a “bring on the future” type of person.

    This was an interesting post, thank for putting it out there. (I found it through the #amwriting tag on Twitter if you’re curious).

    • Kate,

      Thank you for your response, it made me think.

      It is true that there was depression and anti-social behavior in earlier times, and perhaps even some wagon rage, but, if reports from the American Psychological Association are to be believed, not anywhere near the percentage of people who suffer from those afflictions today (for whatever reason). Ironically, at the same time The Five Little Peppers was first printed, Tombstone, Arizona was gaining its reputation for being the town where the men all killed each other and the women killed themselves. It is not that the “old days” were innocent, but children, for the most part, were.

      You are right to say that disturbing things such as those weren’t portrayed in children’s literature. The problem is that these days, they frequently are. Now there are books for 12- and 13-year-olds like Rats! by Paul Zindel about rats that rebel against the conditions at the dump where they live, graphically attacking and eating people. And a school librarian I know says that kids are wild about books like that. I don’t know about you, but I find that disturbing.

      I do agree that characters painted in shades of gray are a positive facet of contemporary children’s literature, but I wonder how many children would be borrowing older library books if the librarians were recommending them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting on this post! All opinions are welcome. 🙂

  2. Susan Gainous

    I agree completely! I read Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott to my son a few years ago when he was 8 and he loved it. The phrasing was old fashioned and frankly more difficult to read than the modern books that we’ve read but we both really enjoyed it.

  3. I love older books Layinda. I think the window for children’s innocence has continued to grow smaller and smaller. I’m always shocked by some of the things kids are reading at a young age these days. And just to say, “that’s the way things are today” isn’t acceptable either. Yes, I know there were issues and such in the past but they also weren’t brought right into our homes via tv and the internet, in response to previous poster. Our kids (kids today) are innundated with too much through media, etc. I don’t put anymore out there to my son than I absolutely have to. I monitor his online activity and media exposure as much as possible. Kids are more accepting. One of my most loved books was one I read around the same time frame you refer to in your post. Oh and I’m envious; I want a Kindle. 😉

    • I totally agree with you, Lisa. What shocks me the most is what some of the teachers select for required reading.

      Re: wanting a Kindle, did you know that Amazon.com has free downloads of the software for both Mac and PC? It’s not exactly the same, but you can read the books that way. (That’s what I did!)

  4. I was surprised at the archaic language as well when I re-read a few childhood favourites . I hadn’t realized how archaic Little Women, Huck Finn, Anne of Green Gables were. As a kid, I simply enjoyed the story – and loved every word. It didn’t seem hard or odd to me at the time. Interesting stuff!

    • I did find that after about ten pages, I got used to the style and didn’t notice it so much. I think it’s great that Kindle and Gutenberg.org are making older titles available again. Re-reading things from an adult perspective can be eye opening!

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