Book discussed: The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter, Warne, 2002 (reprint of 1902 edition), Beatrix – Jeanette Winter, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
I have not seen the new computer-generated animation movie version of Peter Rabbit, and it isn’t high on my list of things to do. If you are following the controversy, you know that parents have complained about the inclusion of a scene in which Tom McGregor, allergic to blueberries, is deliberately shot in the mouth with the dangerous food and experiences anaphylaxis.
Aside from empathizing with the distress of those families affected by this apparent insensitivity, I prefer to focus on the review of the movie in the New York Times by Glenn Kenny, who seems, despite the title of the review, oddly unaware of the nature of the original story by Beatrix Potter.
Mr. Kenny writes: “Yes, right away the movie dispenses with the sweetness and light and lyricism of the books by Beatrix Potter.” Lyricism, definitely. Sweetness and light? This seemed like a good time to revisit the understated tale of childhood fears and disobedience by the brilliant writer, artist, and naturalist (on whom I have also blogged here).
In case you have forgotten, the mother of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter, feels the need to remind them that they should avoid Mr. McGregor’s garden at all cost, since their own father “…had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”
Three of the siblings, having internalized their mother’s values, obey her rules, but Peter is “naughty,” an understatement for a bunny who risks death in order to consume lettuce, French beans, and radishes.
The picture shows him also nibbling on a carrot. He then feels sick and, unlike the very hungry caterpillar who transforms into a beautiful butterfly, he goes in search of some parsley, hoping to find relief. He is then chased by Farmer McGregor and “was most dreadfully frightened.” His new jacket is ruined, and “Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears…” At the end of the story he is “comforted,” if you can call it that, by his mother, who doses him with chamomile tea but does not utter a word of sympathy.
After all, he could have been baked in a pie and she needed to reinforce a life-saving lesson. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail are rewarded for their obedience with bread, milk, and blackberries, the rabbit version of junk food. The words “sweetness and light” don’t seem to capture this series of events. From the perspective of adulthood, Peter’s mother showed sensible compassion, but for a child, it just seemed unfair. This is one of the many reasons, along with exquisite drawings, that parents and children can both enjoy Potter’s tales.
For an interesting perspective on Potter’s brilliance and loneliness as a child, I recommend Jeanette Winter’s child-sized book, Beatrix, which embeds quotes from Potter’s letters and journals in Winter’s text, paired with drawings of her as a sad and serious child consoled by the natural world and by her talent at drawing.
“The lonely days have begun. No one has time for me. I talk to the birds, who have the time.”
“I live so much out of the world. Will I ever be connected?”
“I have just made stories to please myself because I never grew up!”
“It is something to have little money. The little books are quite successful.”
Winter (on whom I have blogged before here) definitely does not patronize her young readers, admitting that genius can be lonely and that earning a living is essential. The colorful images, which look like wood-block prints, capture Potter’s journey towards accomplishment and professional satisfaction, offering a hopeful vision of childhood oddness and its potential benefits. I’m not sure about the movie, but both these books offer children visual beauty accompanied by intelligent words about experiences that matter.