The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope (Facebook group reading challenge)


This was generally a light, fun, easy read, aimed at fairly young children. There wasn’t much of a plot, and – impressively, for a book written in 1904 – there was no preaching and no moralising, but there were lots of scrapes and jolly japes and “merry days” with friends and family. There were a few talking points, though – the obsession that children’s authors seem to have with twins (and, for that matter, with sleepwalking), the amount of freedom that the children have, the fact that the series was written by a syndicate, the way in which (without writing an essay on Puritan history) Christmas is not really a religious thing in American children’s books, and, last but certainly not least, a very unpleasant racist scene involving separating black dolls from white dolls with a piece of cardboard.

It’s the first in a series of books about two sets of twins in one family – Bert and Nan, here aged eight, and Freddie and Flossie, here aged four – in what (given the mention of lakes and lots of snow) seems to be somewhere in the North Eastern United States. There’s lots of fun with sledging and cake-baking, a few scrapes involving being chased by a dog and one of the kids getting locked in a shop, some incidents with a local bully who eventually gets his come-uppance, and Christmas, Valentine’s Day (which was certainly never such a big thing when I was that age!) and a holiday on some relatives’ farm. As I said, not much of a plot, but mostly good fun with nothing too scary or dangerous. Early on, one of their friends nearly dies from over-exerting herself by jumping over a skipping rope (as you do), but that was out of kilter with the rest of it.

Why are children’s books so obsessed with twins? Obviously, there will be twins in any school or community, but not to the extent that there are in children’s books. Sometimes, as with Enid Blyton’s Connie and Ruth or Erich Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa, the fact that the characters are twins is central to the storyline, and I suppose it can work well to have siblings of the same age in a school story, so that they can be in the same class, but this story would have worked pretty much as well with four siblings of different ages.

What’s particularly strange is when the main characters are the parents, and the fact that they have twins seems intended to say something about them. Elsie J Oxenham and Elinor M Brent-Dyer take it to extremes, with characters having twins (or even triplets) right, left and centre – two sets of twins in a year, in one case. Characters seem to compete with each other to have more children than their friends, and multiple births is part of that. But, in other books, the twins are their parents’ only children – take Daisy and Demi, the children of Meg and John Brooke, or Tobi and Martali, the children of Heidi and Peter. So what’s it all about?! (ETA – oops, apologies for forgetting that Meg and John have another child, in Little Men!!)

Speaking of Heidi, sleepwalking is something else that seems to happen a lot more often in children’s books than in real life. That happens in this book too – and it’s very similar to the Heidi storyline, with people thinking they’ve seen a ghost. It happens more than once in the Chalet School books, as well. Just a point!

That’s one of the home-based storylines, but, most of the time, the children are out having fun. That’s one of the great pleasures of children’s books, certainly the ones that aren’t set in schools. Everyone’s out enjoying themselves all the time, and adult supervision isn’t considered necessary. It rarely seems to rain, and snow is an occasion for fun and games, rather than a hassle. I’m not sure that it’s an overly realistic view of childhood, but it makes for lovely reading!

Part of the fun is at Christmas – and, in the Christmas chapter, everyone exchanges presents, they all – parents, servants and children – have great fun opening them, and one of the kids says that he wishes every day could be Christmas so that they could keep getting presents. In a British book, in which a well-to-do family like this would probably be Church of England, the kid would probably have got a lecture about “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not going to start writing an essay about Puritan views of Christmas and so on, but it’s quite interesting how there is this cultural difference. Religion is not a factor in this book at all; but the March family in Little Women and the Ingalls family in the Little House books are very Christian, but the Christmas chapters in those books are about enjoying the holiday, not about religion. There are no rights or wrongs here – it’s just an interesting cultural difference.

Another point that struck me was that the books were written by a syndicate. There wasn’t a “Laura Lee Hope”: the books were written by different people. As a kid, I loved the Nancy Drew books, by “Carolyn Keene”. I assumed that they were all written by a woman called Carolyn Keene: it never occurred to me that they weren’t. Years later, I found out that “Carolyn Keene” didn’t exist, and the books were written by different people. It quite upset me. It didn’t make the books any less enjoyable, but I like to think of an author loving creating their characters and having a close personal relationship with them. I know it’s silly, but I really wish I’d never found that out, and that I could have gone on thinking that Carolyn Keene was a person, just like Enid Blyton or Elinor Brent-Dyer or Lorna Hill.

And, sorry to end on a bum note, but there is an issue with racism in the book. The books have been criticised over their portrayal of Sam and Dinah, the Bobbsey family’s black servants. As with many books of the time, the black characters are shown as speaking with a different accent, and their speech is written phonetically – “Dem” rather than “them”, “yoah” instead of “your”, etc. It does create a sense of black characters as “other”, and it’s also rather hard to read. However, the speech of a working-class white couple whom Bert and Nan meet – a farmer and his wife – is also shown as being with a different accent, and written phonetically, and I don’t think that Sam and Dinah were shown all that differently to how the author might have shown white servants.  They’re depicted as having a close and loving relationship with the Bobbseys but without being overly devoted or sycophantic in any way.  They also get landed with the crap jobs, and they live in rooms above the stables.  I wouldn’t really say that any of that was about race rather than about socio-economic class.

What I did find very unsettling, though, was that Flossie has five dolls, four white and one black, and she says that the “coloured” doll obviously wasn’t part of the doll family, and, when she puts them away, she separates the black doll from the white dolls with a piece of cardboard. The dolls aren’t even part of the plot. The scene isn’t relevant to anything else. It just seems to be in there purely to make this point that a four-year-old kid thinks that white people and black people have to be separated and (assuming that four-year-olds think that dolls have feelings? I still think dolls and teddies have feelings!) doesn’t even care how the black doll might feel. This isn’t even in the Deep South, where a child would see black and white people treated differently by law. It’s about attitudes that a child has picked up from her family and friends. And, as I said, it is not relevant to the wider storyline in any way: it’s just there for the sake of it. I think people can sometimes be oversensitive about racial and gender issues in children’s books from previous eras, but this really was unpleasant.

It was one scene and I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it really wasn’t nice.  Other than that, it was a “merry romp” type book – and I understand that later editions of the books have been revised to address the issue of racism.  I’m not normally keen on revising books, but in this case, in a book aimed at very young children, I think it’s necessary.

I got a multipack of the books for 71p on Kindle, and I’ll probably read some of the others some time, but I don’t see them becoming part of my life in the way that a lot of children’s books are!


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