100 years with Peter Rabbit

April 09, 1993|By Beverly K. Fine

WHAT literary character hops into the minds of children, as well as the young in heart, at Easter? Quick as a bunny, out pops the answer: Peter Rabbit!

Therefore, on the centennial of the rambunctious rabbit's entrance into the world of children's literature, we present him with the Golden Carrot Award for best performance in an animal literary series.

And to his creator, Beatrix Potter, we express gratitude for igniting the imagination of millions of readers.

Born in London in 1866, Beatrix Potter summered with her family in the bucolic Scottish countryside. Wandering through the flowered meadows and exploring country lanes, 7-year-old Beatrix discovered a diversity of animals: frogs, pigs, squirrels, rabbits and even lizards and snakes. Observing that their daily routines (if not their lifestyles) were similar to those of humans, Beatrix began writing little stories about them and sketching scenes of their adventures beside each story. Secretly, she stored them in her room.

When Beatrix returned to London, her nurse gave her a paint set as a gift. Using a variety of pastel colors, she painted small watercolor illustrations in the margins of her stories.

"Peter Rabbit" first appeared in a letter Beatrix Potter wrote to a friend's 5-year-old son who was ill. Between the lines, she painted the cranky Farmer McGregor, Peter pilfering carrots and cabbage from the farmer's garden, the furious farmer in pursuit and Peter wriggling his way out of the farmer's fence just in time to prevent his becoming rabbit stew for the McGregor family dinner. In each episode, Peter was wearing what was to become his identifying outfit -- a blue coat with brass buttons.

In subsequent letters, Beatrix included Peter's family: Mother Rabbit and his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. At the time these letters were written, the author was 27 years old. Fortunately, the child's family kept the letters, which were later published in storybook form. "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" did not make its published debut, however, until Beatrix Potter was 37.

At the time of Potter's death in 1943 at 77, her magic of making animals talk, wear clothes, and have human-like experiences had delighted three generations of children (and not a few adults). In her private journal, Potter provided a poignant note to the child in each of us: "What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit world of childhood . . .?"

Beverly K. Fine writes from Baltimore.

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