The Peterkin Papers Critical Context - Essay

Lucretia P. Hale

Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Peterkin Papers is one of the earliest examples of nonsense prose written for young adults. Prior to its publication in 1880, most stories that explored family relationships were heavily didactic, such as Mary Sherwood’s The History of the Fairchild Family (1812). Strict obedience to parents, especially to one’s father, was stressed and accompanied by moralizing on the nature of sin and repentance. Parents were portrayed as wise, with a strong sense of what was right, as in Martha Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore books, beginning in 1867. These parents did not condone foolishness, nor did they demonstrate foolishness in their own behavior. The humorous treatment of the Peterkins is the more remarkable and memorable for this reason. Despite Lucretia Hale’s example, most authors writing for young adults continued in their didactic approaches. One exception was E. Nesbit’s Bastable family in The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899). These stories, narrated by the oldest son, Oswald, offer the same sense that children have the ability to initiate actions and to think of grand schemes on their own. Nesbit’s humorous touch to the situations is similar to Hale’s. Other notable humorous books of this era include Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902), and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).