To Twist the Tongue

Peter Piper is harder than you remember – and it has a lot to teach about the history of children's books.

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Everyone has that one book they fondly remember from their childhood that takes them back to the cozy winter nights snuggled up to mom or dad. Perhaps, like me, you’d beg them to read it through one last time before you drifted off to sleep, never satisfied hearing the words only once though you’d memorized nearly all of them. We all have that one book that was just magic for us, whether your favorite was the novel your mother tirelessly read a chapter from each night, or the picture books that your dad always created a new story for. My book was P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, the cardboard pages long since chewed, tattered, and thrown away. A five-year-old me found it hilarious that the poor little bird thought a dog or a “snort” could be its mom. 

Life for children was very different 400 years ago, although literature has always been one of the timeless constants of childhood. In the early 20th century, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach felt similarly, which led him to become a collector of centuries-old kids’ books. His collection has reached its true potential in the current exhibition at the aptly named Rosenbach Museum and Library, “Bescribbled, Nibbled, and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books.” The show contains materials dating back to 1682, when “children’s books” were merely abridged versions of adults books like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Not exactly as charming as a lost baby bird.

The exhibition has an impressive amount of materials, including tidbits about Dr. Rosenbach’s book-centric upbringing, and correspondences by letter to other collectors regarding the purchasing and trading of books. The most intriguing aspect of the show, however, isn’t the weathered copies of beloved kids’ classics or the interactive chalkboard asking visitors, “What was the worst thing you did to a book when you were a kid?” In each of the two expansive rooms holding the materials, there are a few kindergarten-sized chairs placed in front of a section of wall. Each has four story options to choose from, and some headphones. After listening to them all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fanatical mess that was a seemingly rehearsed reading of Peter Piper’s Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation by museum employees and curators.

The book itself is comprised almost solely of what we would call “tongue-twisters” today, ending with a hymn about well-behaved children rather than a rhyme like the preceding pages. Like the beloved little novels of my youth, I recall once being obsessed with the “Peter Piper” rhyme. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper Pick?” I would recite over and over to my mother as she tried to go about her daily activities despite my incessant rhetorical inquiry. But the book at the Rosenbach is a little different than the version I learned in childhood; in fact, it’s much more complicated. The two-line rhyme I thought I had down pat actually reads:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peppers:
Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled Peppers?
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled Peppers,
where’s the peck of pickled Peppers Peter Piper picked?”

It’s not as cute and simple as Are You My Mother?, but it’s a lot more appealing than the painstakingly dense Pilgrim’s Progress.

You’re probably wondering how I can call myself a writer if I can’t pronounce a simple few sentences sprinkled with alliteration. The next page of Peter Piper reads:

Quixote Quicksight quiz’d a queerish Quidbox:
Did Quixote Quicksight quiz a queerish Quidbox?
If Quixote Quicksight quiz’d a queerish Quidbox,
where’s the queerish Quidbox Quixote Quicksight quiz’d?

Let’s mull that over for a second. It’s 2014, and I have no idea what a quidbox is. It could be a box used to hold currency (quids), or a container for trinkets of some kind. It’s no great surprise that the meaning is hard to find, as many of the words in the book are made up.

Whether the words are actual words is actually irrelevant, but their function certainly isn’t. Following the book’s release in 1836, it became one of many used to help children improve their speech. Today we rely on Dr. Seuss and his one, two, red, and blue fish to help our kids learn proper pronunciation, but during a time when books for young Americans were first emerging, education was a bit different. While Peter Piper and his pronunciation posse probably posed problems for perfunctory pupils, we have him to thank for making sure our ancestors knew precisely how to pronounce “pickled.” • 8 September 2014

Alyssa Shaw is an English major and graduate education student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

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