- Toward Global Community:The Twins Series of Lucy Fitch Perkins
In her 1990 Newbery acceptance speech for Number the Stars, set in World War II Denmark, Lois Lowry notes that her "entire knowledge of cultural geography [as a child] came from the books by Lucy Fitch Perkins. I probably thought that all children in foreign countries were twins. I read about the Belgian Twins, and the Scottish Twins, and the Dutch Twins, and if there were Danish Twins in that series—I no longer remember—then I read about the Danish Twins as well" (415). Lowry is not alone in her experience: Perkins's well-loved series of Twins books shaped the cultural awareness of several generations of American youth from the second decade of the century, when the first Twins books appeared, through the late 1960s, when a number of the titles were reprinted by Walker & Co. In Perkins's lifetime alone, over two million Twins books were in print (E. Perkins viii). Thus, it is worth evaluating the Twins' legacy, in particular the attitudes toward other peoples and places that they project, as our own debate continues over the appropriate avenues for advancing the aims of multiculturalism.1
In all, Perkins wrote and illustrated twenty-six Twins books, from The Dutch Twins in 1911 (which generated two sequels), through The Chinese Twins, published in 1936, the year before her death.2 Perkins used the Twins device to teach both history (The Cave Twins, The Spartan Twins, The Puritan Twins, The Pioneer Twins, The Colonial Twins of Virginia, The American Twins of 1812, The American Twins of the Revolution) and geography. But her heart plainly lay in the geographical books in the series, which introduced young readers to Dutch, Japanese, Irish, Eskimo, Mexican, Belgian, French, Scotch, Italian, Swiss, Filipino, Norwegian, Spanish, and Chinese Twins, as well as to Indian and, yes, Pickaninny Twins. Perkins's aim of creating cross-cultural friendship is perhaps most perfectly captured in the introductory illustrations to the early books in the series, in which we see the Dutch Twins and the Japanese Twins curtsying to each other, or a group made up of Dutch Twins, Japanese Twins, and Irish Twins greeting their newest friends, the Eskimo Twins.
Although her lasting fame rests on the Twins series, Perkins began her career as an artist and illustrator. Born in Maples, Indiana, in 1865, she studied at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston from 1883 to 1886 before joining the faculty at the newly founded Pratt Institute School of Fine Arts in Brooklyn, where she served from 1887 until her marriage in 1891 to the architect Dwight Heald Perkins. Her body of achievement in children's illustration includes a series of lavishly illustrated classic tales as well as steady textbook work. The latter exposed Perkins to contemporary reform movements in the field of education; her daughter, Eleanor Ellis Perkins, reports that in the course of her freelance career Perkins "taught, lectured, edited, published, illustrated, made mural decorations to enliven school-rooms, and was an excited part of the great enthusiasm that produced modern education" (221).
The original impetus for the Twins series seems to have been in large part commercial. According to her daughter, "the idea for The Dutch Twins came almost without volition on [Lucy Perkins's] part" (224), inspired by the suggestion of a publisher friend who admired quick sketches she had made of little Dutch children to accompany stories told to her four-year-old son. Likewise, momentum for continuing the series through some two and a half decades was fueled by its enormous financial success. Toward the end Perkins begged her editors to allow her to terminate her "twin existence"; they responded that she was welcome to develop other projects "as long as you give us a new Twin story by June first every year in time for the fall catalogue and the pre-Christmas sale" (E. Perkins 234). Contemporary reviews of the books by and large praised their charm, humor, and "atmosphere," rather than appraising them as potential instruments of cultural change.3
But the books clearly reflect a driving sense of mission as well. Perkins herself...