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For 100 years, Beatrix Potter's 'Peter Rabbit' has been enchanting children

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It all began as a letter to a sick 5-year-old boy in 1893. "My dear Noel," wrote Beatrix Potter, " I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names are -- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter."

This 1913 photo shows Beatrix Potter at Hill Top, a home she boughtin 1905 with the royalties from her first few books. Hill Top is in the Lake District in northwest England, an area that inspired her to write her tales of Peter Rabbit. (Associated Press/The National Trust)

Nine years later, Potter's letter to Noel Moore became the diminutive book "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and was published in time for Christmas 1902 by F. Warne & Co.

The story of the naughty rabbit, complemented by exquisitely detailed watercolor illustrations, became an instant best seller and launched the 36-year-old Potter into an unexpected and wildly successful career as a children's book writer.

Now, 100 years later, Potter's place as one of the world's most beloved children's authors is secure.

"Peter Rabbit" has been translated into more than 30 languages and, according to Publishers' Weekly, is the second-best-selling children's book of all time, with 9.3 million copies sold. (The first is "The Poky Little Puppy," with nearly 15 million copies since 1942. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" ranks fifth with 7.9 million copies sold since 2000.)

"These [Beatrix Potter books] are the only picture books that have stayed in print for 100 years," said Anita Silvey, editor of the authoritative "Children's Books and Their Creators." "She is just absolutely in a class by herself."

Many children's book authors have used humanized animals in their stories. But Potter's classic books -- including "The Tailor of Gloucester," "The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher," "The Tale of Benjamin Bunny" -- stand out because they are charming without being sentimental in their portrayal of the animal world.

 
 

(Editors' note: There is a prize-winning, interactive Web site for "Peter Rabbit": http://www.peterrabbit.com).

   
 

"Potter's characters are not human beings in animal clothing," Silvey said. "They are animals who can walk and talk. Peter Rabbit is an anatomically correct rabbit. She really combined her knowledge of nature with a touch of fantasy and whimsy."

Although she never had children of her own, Potter doesn't talk down to children in her books. In "Peter Rabbit," for example, she writes that Peter is "dreadfully frightened" and that nearby birds "implored him to exert himself."

"It would not pass any vocabulary test used today for first-graders, yet these are words that every child who has read 'Peter Rabbit' understands," said Silvey, adding that Potter's illustrations help young readers to decipher her language.

To celebrate the book's centennial, F. Warne & Co. has reissued a new, $6.99 edition of "Peter Rabbit" that includes six illustrations dropped from -- or never included in -- previous printings. Potter's life and work also are the subjects of a new illustration-filled book, "The Ultimate Peter Rabbit" (DK, $19.95), which is aimed at school-age children and adults.

And the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has on display a multimedia exhibition, "Peter Rabbit's Garden," that explores Potter's roles as author, artist, naturalist and farmer.

"It may seem odd that here is this citadel of rigorous science with an exhibition on 'Peter Rabbit,' " said Robert Sullivan, the museum's associate director for public programs. "But Beatrix Potter was a keen observer of nature. What comes out in her work is the joy ... and the wonder of nature."

Nature was, in fact, Potter's major source of solace in the first four decades of her life. Born Helen Beatrix Potter on July 28, 1866, she was raised by domineering parents according to the strict standards of the Victorian middle class. As one Potter observer, writer Reinbert Tabbert, has noted: "This is the story of a woman who was expected to be like Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, but who desired to be like Peter."

Potter spent most of her childhood with a nanny or governess in the nursery on the third floor of her parents' home in London's Bolton Gardens neighborhood. She was rarely allowed outside except for a daily walk with her nurse. Even her brother, Bertram, born when Potter was 5, was available as a companion only until he reached school age and was sent away to boarding school.

Each year, however, Potter got a break from this monotonous life when her family took a three-month summer vacation in England's North Country. She and her brother spent much of their time outdoors observing, drawing and collecting specimens of plants, flowers, animals and insects, keeping some as pets.

As adults, the Potter children continued their interest in drawing and nature. Bertram liked landscape painting, while Beatrix was fascinated with nature's tiny details, especially the nuances of fossils and fungi.

In her early 20s, in fact, Potter began a serious study of fungi, hoping to publish her theory on the propagation of mold spores. But she was firmly rebuffed, as both a woman and an amateur, by the eminent scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Years later, however, Potter's propagation theory was acknowledged as correct, and her fungus drawings are now highly regarded for their scientific exactness. Several are included in the Smithsonian's exhibit.

Potter, who lived at home with her parents until she married at age 47, continued her drawings and watercolors. After successfully selling some for use as greeting cards and illustrations for other authors' children's books, she thought she might write and illustrate her own book. She recalled how delighted Noel Moore and his siblings had been with her "Peter Rabbit" story. The Moore family had kept the letter as a treasured family heirloom and readily agreed to let Potter make a copy of it.

Getting the book published, however, was a challenge. Six publishers rejected it before Potter decided to publish it herself. A friend sent a copy to Frederick Warne & Co. publishers, which published it as "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." Potter instructed that it be kept small-sized to fit in children's hands.

Over the next decade, Potter published 20 more "little books." She also was perhaps the first author to begin "licensing" products related to her work, sewing the first "Peter Rabbit" stuffed animal and creating the first "Peter Rabbit" board game herself.

Potter reveled in her new career. Her earnings allowed her to purchase farming properties in England's beautiful Lake District, where she spent more and more time, eventually marrying William Heelis, the solicitor who had helped her buy the land.

At that point, Potter's career essentially ended. She devoted the rest of her life to her husband, and her farms, becoming a breeder of championship sheep and a champion of land conservation.

When she died Dec. 22, 1943, Potter left more than 4,000 acres of property to Britain's major conservation group, the National Trust, which has kept them free of development.

But Potter's most important legacy, at least in the eyes of the world's children, will always be "Peter Rabbit" and her other "little books."

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