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Children’s Literature: The Tale of Beatrix Potter

by Sidney Beck

Children's literature includes stories, books, magazines, and poems that are enjoyed by children. Beatrix Potter’s stories are special because they are an outgrowth of her interest in nature, in scientific study and in farming.  Her writing is enjoyable and educational for children. Although her English is old-fashioned and may seem somewhat unusual to non-native speakers, her plots and characters are without equal in the animal world she illustrated for small children.

After printing became widespread, many classic "children's" tales were originally created for adults and later adapted for a younger audience. The period 1880 -1930 was called the  "Golden Age of Children's Literature" because many classic children's books were published then. In the midst of the  Golden Age  there was Beatrix Potter ( 28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943). In all, Potter wrote thirty books.

She was unique in her writing and illustration.  Potter was the first to use pictures as well as words to tell the story. These pictures were anatomically correct illustrations of animals drawn by a scientifically-minded artist. Not only that, but she also incorporated colored illustrations with the text, page for page, and was a  forerunner of today’s popular graphic novel format.

Her stories lend themselves well to reciting aloud, as well as to silent reading.  Critics often say  “Peter Rabbit”, in particular, is a story created for telling aloud. They believe Potter created an ideal mix of suspense and tension,  with frequent lulls in the action. It is said that her writing style- "the economy of words, the crisp writing"- lends itself well to a young audience.  Most of all, it is perhaps her sardonic humor that makes Beatrix Potter so much fun for kids and grown-ups.  This humor is well seen in her two best-known stories are about Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin.

“Peter Rabbit”  was originally printed privately by Potter in 1901  but was then printed commercially in 1902. The book was a success, Today It has been translated into 36 languages, and, with 45 million copies sold, it is one of the world’s best-selling books.  The story focuses on a family of rabbits with some human characteristics. “Squirrel Nutkin”  appeared in 1903. The squirrel family asks permission to collect nuts from Old Brown, a fierce owl. However, Nutkin dances about cheekily. The owl seizes Nutkin, but  Nutkin escapes, losing most of his tail.

Here are some facts about Beatrix Potter. The “real” Peter Rabbit was a rabbit named Peter Piper. He was talented at performing tricks and could jump through a hoop, ring a bell and play the tambourine. The story of Peter Rabbit started off as a picture-story in her letter to the sick son of a friend. Peter  Rabbit appears in five of Potter’s other stories. It’s easy to see that Potter loved animals and lots of her characters were based on pets she owned.   In 1903, Potter designed, created and sold the very first Peter Rabbit doll. Again, Potter was a forerunner of today’s marketing of children’s toys/books.

By 1920,  Beatrix Potter was the best-known author and illustrator of children's books, which featured animal characters.  Potter not only wrote  23 children's books, but she was also an illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist. She was very interested in nature and had numerous pets. She spent holidays in her house called Hill Top, in the Lake District, developing a love of landscape, flora, and fauna, all of which she closely observed and painted. With her study and water-colors of fungi, she became widely-respected in the field of mycology. Potter was also a prize-winning breeder of  Herdwick sheep,  and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.

I visited Hill Top on a sunny September day a few years ago, just as the tourist season was coming to an end. The guide explained that one of the conditions Beatrix insisted on with Hill Top farm was that everything should be left as it was when she lived there. The first thing that struck me was that the garden was almost exactly as she illustrated in her books, with a green watering can and one brown rabbit nibbling at the grass. Up some creaking wooden stairs were several bedrooms, the first of which was set up as her writing room. A small wooden writing desk faced the window with views out over the garden and on it were some letters to her publisher. They were written in Beatrix Potter's neat handwriting and looked real. Indeed, the whole visit was a moving journey into the past, and the life of the writer.

Many versions of Potters stories have been produced for tv and for films. In 1982, the  BBC produced a dramatization of her life  called  “The Tale of Beatrix Potter.” Her stories  became an extremely popular  tv series  called “ The World of Peter Rabbit and his Friends.” In  2006    the BBC   produced  “Miss Potter”, a biographical film of her life, especially her early career.   In 2018, Columbia Pictures released their movie “Peter Rabbit”, based on the written work of Beatrix Potter.

 S. Peck,  6  June  2019.