I confess that although I can see why children adore books by certain illustrators, sometimes I don’t like reading the artists’ words.
Richard Scarry, for example, with his delightful animals and five-seater pencil cars, writes text that can get boring pretty fast. And Beatrix Potter, whom I admire for a multitude of reasons, employs very big words and potentially scary themes.
Christian Blauvelt recently covered that angle at the BBC. He begins with Potter’s first line in a storybook.
“ ‘Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.’
“Old Mrs Rabbit’s frightful warning to her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter appears on the opening page of Beatrix Potter’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Aside from featuring perhaps the most dramatic use of a semicolon in children’s literature, it sets the tone for her work from the start: that horrors abound in a world of Darwinian struggle, but that these must be faced calmly.
“Your parents, and perhaps your children, may be devoured by a vengeful property owner, or sold for tobacco; you may have your tail ripped off by an angry owl; an invading rat might tie you up in string and include you as the key ingredient in a pudding. But life goes on – disappointments must be faced and tragedies overcome. …
“Potter’s tales have been consistently popular with adults, as well as children, since The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 when she was 36 years old. This is not just because they feature adorable creatures in harrowing situations; her talking-animal stories also comment on the era’s class politics, gender roles, economics and domestic life.
“Did she examine British society through animals because she spent more time with animals than children, aside from her brother Bertram, when she was young? Because she wanted to rebel against the bourgeois values and morals of her wealthy middle class family – which had made its money in the textile industry – but only dared do so through furry surrogates? Because she could only publish children’s stories since her true passion, science, was a career field closed to women in the late 19th Century? Because she had a German tutor who introduced her to the back-to-nature ethos of the Romantics?” More.
Hmm. Maybe I’m being too anti-intellectual here, but I’d say Beatrix Potter just got a kick out of telling stories like that.
And maybe she was right that small children could handle the scary parts. My three-year-old grand-daughter for example, has always loved Peter Rabbit and could recite the fancy phrases by heart when she was only two. Reciting fancy phrases is great for language development.
Photo of Beatrix Potter’s art: Penguin
Beatrix Potter, an amateur scientist, was meticulous about representing nature accurately, even if the animals did wear clothes. Here Peter Rabbit gorges on Mr. McGregor’s carrots.