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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the July 10, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Peter Rabbit, Still Naughty at 100

Think of classic children’s books, and invariably "Peter

Rabbit" must appear in the top 10. The names "Flopsy,"

"Mopsy," and "Cotton-tail" have entered the pantheon

of fictional characters, but the true "character" in that

family is, of course, Peter. (Really now, wouldn’t a kid with a name

so very different from those of his siblings have to behave differently

too? He wasn’t called "Fluffy-puff," after all.)

Besides, considering his siblings’ garb of bright red capes (shades

of Little Red Riding Hood), Peter, in his sky blue jacket, seems to

be the only boy in the family. And so, with traditional-girl docility,

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, goody four-shoes all, obeyed their

mother. They took no chances in following in the footsteps of their

dear departed dad: caught in his garden by Mr. McGregor and baked

in a pie.

Peter, however, as perhaps the prototype for the "wascally wabbit"

that later helped make Warner Brothers fortune, did the stereotypical

adventurous-boy thing and headed straight for the garden — with

all the scares and scrapes, pratfalls and near misses that resulted.

For older or forgetful readers, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit"

was the creation of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), a London-born writer

and illustrator, and the first of her many books for children published

early in the 20th century.

The long and popular string of Potter’s animal stories began in 1902,

when the tale of the naughty rabbit was first published. (Note to

wordsmiths: "naughty" is the operative word here. Savor its

quaintness in these days of seriously errant sons, and daughters too.)

It won’t be exactly an historical re-enactment, but to mark Peter

Rabbit’s 100th birthday, the Master Gardeners of Mercer County will

throw a party Saturday, July 13, from 10 a.m. to noon. Fittingly scheduled

for their display gardens in Pennington, the celebration is open to

"children of all ages," and the word is that Mr. McGregor

will make an appearance during the festivities.

Games, music, and art are all on the gardeners’ party agenda, and

rabbit pie is emphatically not on the menu. Peter’s blue jacket, lost

during his adventures, will also be in evidence, probably hanging

near the picket fence that surrounds the garden. Peter’s mother administered

camomile tea to her son after his overindulgence in the bounty of

Mr. McGregor’s garden, and that herb and others, including the parsley

he was looking for when he first encountered the fearsome gardener,

will be on display.

Born in England during Queen Victoria’s long reign, Beatrix Potter

was the first of two children of well-to-do parents who, in the tradition

of the times, paid little attention to their offspring (her brother

Bertram was six years younger), leaving them to servants and nannies.

The children grew up with many pets and an abiding interest in nature

and animals, which they studied with scientific intensity.

At age six, Bertram went off to boarding school, while

Beatrix was left at home to be educated by governesses. She also had

drawing instruction, because for young ladies of the time, sketching

and letter writing were desirable accomplishments. However, Beatrix

had almost always drawn — her earliest surviving sketchbook was

from 1876, when she was nine years old. By the time she was 14, she

had devised her own code for keeping a diary of her observations,

and she developed her writing style there.

Potter’s drawing is thought to have helped assuage her loneliness

during the many years when she lived at home with her parents. In

the early 1890s, she began sending "picture letters" to children

she knew. The first one went to Noel Moore, the son of her former

governess, and it told the story of Peter Rabbit.

This became an historic letter when a few years later, after some

of her drawings had been published as greeting cards, Potter decided

to try a book. She borrowed the Peter Rabbit letter back from Noel,

spruced it up, and tried to sell it, but to no avail. Finally she

decided to publish it herself.

"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was a huge success, and after hundreds

of copies had been sold, Potter offered the book for a second time

to Frederick Warne and Co. — reportedly the publisher from whom

she had initially received the most polite rejection letter. This

time, the answer was yes, and the working relationship continued for

years, making the publisher’s name almost as familiar to bedtime readers

as the author.

As author and illustrator, Potter threw herself into the details of

commercial publication. She believed that children’s books should

be small to better fit little hands — thus began the tradition,

still evident on library shelves everywhere, of slim, 4-inch by nearly

6-inch little books. She also thought there should be a picture each

time the page was turned, and of course she was the one to make this

possible.

With Warne’s publication of Peter Rabbit in 1902, Beatrix Potter,

then 36 years old, became a woman with her own income. An early move

was her purchase of Hill Top farm, in Sawrey, which she explained

away to her controlling parents as just an investment — yet one

she visited as often as possible. She continued to write and illustrate

her animal stories, which ultimately totaled 23 "little books."

Potter usually sketched in pencil or pen and ink. For finished pieces,

she worked mostly in watercolor, adding pen and ink as necessary.

Her images for Peter Rabbit, for instance, include charming details

and humor: the picture of Peter holding one carrot and munching on

another while wearing his blue jacket and what look like patent leather

pumps is a delight. Especially when the accompanying text reads: "First

he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes

. . ."

In their early study of animals, both alive and dead, Beatrix and

Bertram Potter had come to appreciate both the beauty and the ruthlessness

of nature. Potter’s stories reflect a similar understanding of what

Tennyson described as "Nature, red in tooth and claw" —

Peter knows to avoid a big white cat as well as Mr. McGregor, who

eats rabbit pies. Her other stories show the same respect for what

really happens in the animal world.

And although the soft-looking illustrations and a story about a rabbit

in a blue jacket, or a mama rabbit serving camomile tea might seem

fey in the extreme, a redeeming trait of Potter’s books is her characters’

spirit and spunkiness. Would we really be interested in a rabbit who

obeyed his mother’s orders? And Peter’s sisters can have their supper

of bread and milk and blackberries — that’s trifling compensation

for missing Peter’s great adventure.

In 1913, at age 47, Potter married William Heelis, a solicitor. From

then on, with gradually failing eyesight and less inclination to write

or draw, she raised sheep and concentrated on farmland preservation

in England’s Lake District, where the couple lived. She willed her

farm and about 4,000 acres to the National Trust, to assure they would

remain unspoiled forever. Three years after her death in 1943 at age

77, her house at Hill Top was first opened to the public and now attracts

75,000 visitors annually.

A few years ago, Publishers’ Weekly ranked "The Tale of Peter

Rabbit" as America’s second-best-selling children’s classic of

the century, topped only by Janette Sebring Lowrey’s "Pokey Little

Puppy." The Peter Rabbit legacy extends to art reproductions,

dolls, cookie tins, china sets, board games, puzzles, animated films,

even a Frederick Ashton ballet — and its own official, multilingual

website: www.PeterRabbit.com Potter herself was an enthusiastic designer

of "side shows" — the merchandise that can accompany a

book.

After the master gardeners’ birthday party, those still in a Peter

Rabbit mood can hop on up to New York City, where, through Labor Day,

the Children’s Museum of Manhattan is featuring "Peter Rabbit’s

Garden," a big centenery exhibition that originated at London’s

Victoria and Albert Museum. The show includes a 360 degree panorama

of Potter’s Hill Top garden in the Lake Distrinct, characters from

Potter’s 23 tales come to life through a giant storybook and audiovisual

theater, a nature observatory, and a first edition of "The Tale

of Peter Rabbit." Related projects and interactive activities

area detailed on the museum’s website: www.cmom.org.

And, come July 28, die-hard devotees can bake a carrot cake and celebrate

Beatrix Potter’s birthday — her 136th.

— Pat Summers

Peter Rabbit’s Birthday, Mercer County Home Compost

Demonstration Site , 431A Federal City Road, Hopewell, 609-989-6830.

Mr. McGregor’s Garden open for children of all ages in celebration

of Peter Rabbit’s 100th birthday. Free. Saturday, July 13, 10 a.m.

to noon.

Peter Rabbit’s Garden, The Children’s Museum of Manhattan,

212 West 83rd Street, in the Tisch Building, New York, 212-721-1223.

Open Tuesdays through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission $6 for children

and adults; $3 for seniors. All families of uniformed services are

admitted free. Show continues to September 3.


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