Peter Rabbit: why it is still one of the greats of children’s literature

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Peter Rabbit.
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Paul Wells, Loughborough University

Since the days of Aesop, animals have been used as vehicles by which humankind has addressed its moral, ethical and cultural identity. For some, this serves to misrepresent animals, privileging anthropomorphism at the expense of the more sensitive address of animal sentience and welfare. For others, this approach allows humans to circumvent their own social taboos to reveal not merely fresh insights into what it is to be human, but also humanity’s intrinsic relationship to animals, with animals, and as part of nature.

Beatrix Potter enjoyed the work of poet Edward Lear, who specialised in nonsense verse and who wrote about a “Remarkable Rabbit”. Potter thus decided to create The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the story of a mischievous rabbit, who disobeys his mother, to play in Mr and Mrs McGregor’s garden, despite all its apparent dangers. From the outset, it was Potter’s intention to use the story to show both human characteristics and animal behaviour.

Peter is at once a playful vehicle by which to assess human foible and to present an animal within a pastoral environment. Reception of the story over time has been mixed. Is Peter a social transgressor within a human conception of the world, or merely the epitome of “the wild” outside the codes and conventions of rural society? Is the garden his most “natural” environment and home comforts a mere distortion of the countryside? And is Mr McGregor, the gardener intent on keeping rabbits off his patch, Peter’s most obvious adversary in the great chain of being?

These are but some of the issues in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which make it one of the most enduring and popular of children’s narratives.

Detached storyteller

Initially written as a series of illustrated letters to her friend, Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, in 1893, the texts were reclaimed by Potter for private publication, and later taken up by established publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. Its words and images were finalised by the 1903 edition.

Potter insisted the size of the book be suitable for children to hold, and that the animal illustrations were anatomically correct. Her watercolours provide the text with its distinctive aesthetic. Potter also drew the images from the animal’s point of view, a vantage point nominally shared by a child’s gaze, which stimulates the empathy of the young reader. Potter herself is a detached storyteller, narrating the indifferent (omni)presence of the human world.

This clear and precise vision for Peter informed Potter’s decision to resist Walt Disney’s approach to adapt the story into an animated feature in 1936. A 1935 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Country Boy, freely adapted The Tale of Peter Rabbit a year earlier.

Disney, though, an admirer of the hare drawings of Heinrich Kley, saw Peter as an appealing rabbit character that would advance his own earlier creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Debuting in 1927, Oswald featured in 27 shorts, rivalling Felix the Cat, but in 1928, Charles Mintz took the rights from Disney for the character, forcing Disney to create another – soon afterwards, Mickey Mouse became the studio’s signature character. Disney realised, though, that he needed a more iconic rabbit, and Potter’s Peter was his favoured character.

Keen to maintain the tone, aesthetic and copyright of her book, Potter ensured Peter’s identity would always be bound up, though, with the serious tone and colour palette of her own illustrations.

Potter’s watercolours also later influenced the art direction of Bambi in 1942, and her rabbit sketches (1890) the design of Thumper.

Bambi’s Thumper.
Wikipedia

Crucially, Potter’s imagery represented her artistic and intellectual skills as a naturalist. This helps to present Potter not as a quasi-Victorian moralist, but as a modernist, insisting upon a representation of what animals and children might naturally do. Disney would surely have made Peter both comic and morally accountable. Potter ensures he is both feisty and fun. As a more incisive fabulist, Potter depicts what Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein suggests (when, ironically, writing about Disney’s characters) is the “factual regression into the animal”.

Later adaptations

The integrity of Potter’s design and outlook is maintained in Geoff Dunbar’s later television series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, which aired between 1992 and 1995. Each tale is bookended by live-action vignettes, featuring Niamh Cusack as Potter, filmed in Potter’s real-life home environment of Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.

Hill Top Farm, Lake District.
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A CGI series, Peter Rabbit, made for the Nickelodeon Channel in 2012, anticipates the more improvisatory tone and outlook of the recent Sony Entertainment adaptation of the Potter tale, Peter Rabbit. The Sony film mistakes Peter’s imperative to return to nature for a need to crassly avenge and humiliate Mr McGregor. Though playful, this detracts from the tension between human and animal explored in Potter’s text. It replaces Peter’s essential struggle for independence, with routine adventures in the garden.

It is important to recall, then, that Potter wrote that Peter’s father was baked in a pie by Mrs McGregor. Real world things really happen to animals. Throughout the story, Peter is aware of the danger he is in. He is aware of his own mortality. Peter’s persona as a “naughty boy” is not played out as an identity by which he is judged or punished, though, but rather, as a sensibility that must simply enact itself.

Children are left to decide for themselves about the consequences of his disobedience and desire. As such, this ambiguity has helped maintain The Tale of Peter Rabbit as part of a canon of literature and film for children that has become part of the very process of their development and socialisation.The Conversation

Paul Wells, Director of the Animation Academy, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Exotic and inspiring places for writers

Text and Photo by Nora Vasconcelos

Exotic by NVS

Just a few days ago, while traveling around some tropical islands, several thoughts came to my mind. First, looking at such exotic places with solid green colors and soft blues, the idea of Gauguin getting all fascinated by the Polynesia came to me in a very clear way, understanding all of a sudden, how the artist found this source of inspiration so great, as it was so different from his home town back in France.

Then I started thinking about how much the weather and the scenery influence writers and provoke them to produce pieces that they might not have written if they hadn’t gone through all these new experiences.

So, I remembered how Albert Camus wrote in his famous The Outsider, how the extreme heat was the cause of a violent act while in Algiers, which, the main character, Raymond Meursault, may not have committed otherwise.

I also thought of Beatrix Potter, famous for her lovely and colorful Peter Rabbit stories, as she spent a good deal of time writing, inspired either by her little pets and farm animals, as well as for the time she spent outdoors surrounded by the green British scenery.

Also inspired by his surroundings, Ernest Hemingway developed The Old Man and the Sea, one of his most famous stories in Cuba. It was a fisherman who lived there, the waves and the warm scenery, that made Hemingway came up with the story of old Santiago trying to succeeded with his last catch.

But cities also have a very big influence in writers, and I keep wondering how is it that some cities are (or seem to be) more inspirational than others?

Places like Dublin, Saint Petersburg and Prague seem to have a special magic that brings out most of the best and deep stories, like the ones written by the Czech author Jan Neruda, who, in his Tales of the Lesser Quarter, shows vivid descriptions of the local customs and what it was like to live in the 19th century Prague.

How this magic works is a question I haven’t actually find an answer for, but of one thing I’m sure, the most important thing for any writer or avid traveler (they usually combine) is to keep your eyes alert, your ears attentive and your heart wide open.

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Dear lively characters

Charming characters make us smile like only good friends can do.
Charming characters make us smile like only good friends can do.
I always get amazed when a writer has the immense capacity of developing characters that get alive in our minds.

The way these characters are described and presented in different kind of stories make us feel them real, as we’re able to have a very clear image of them in our minds, so much that little by little they start gaining more and more space in our everyday thoughts.

As the days pass by, we want to know what’s going to happen with them, and how the story’s going to develop for them. In some extraordinary cases, we even rush home to get back to our books and see how things are going for these special characters.

In some cases we even identify with them, and we get attached to them the same as we do with a dear friend.

Then, when the story’s over, we remain close to these characters for a long time, and even forever.

Of course, I have a group of dear characters that I keep in my mind and close to my heart, even when I’ve read some of these books a long time ago.

The very first want that made this kind of impression on me was Peter Rabbit, from the series of books by Beatrix Potter. I first read a Peter Rabbit book when I was a little child, and ever since, this lovely lovely little rabbit has remained as one of my favorite characters ever.

Of course, I’m pretty fond of Sherlock Holmes, that it’s said “is the character that every writer would like to have written”. For that I admire Conan Doyle a lot, however, I have to say that my very very favorite character is Dr. John Watson.

I’m just totally taken by him. Not only because he’s the real image of a loyal friend but also, because in the story, besides being a doctor and Mr. Holmes’ partner, Watson is a writer who really enjoys writing Sherlock Holmes adventures in a very detailed way.

Another character I’ve totally got attached to is Captain James Holland, from the fast-passed suspense novel Pandora’s clock, written by John Nance. In this book, Captain Holland, the pilot of a doomed plane, becomes a true hero in a very humane way, so much that it’s almost possible to see him on the cockpit of the plane saving the day.

And lately, I’ve become pretty fond of the characters of the old TV series Murder, She wrote. Although the characters were created for the series, what I like very much of it is the way every single detail has being taken care of, creating very lively characters that live in an ocean town which, of course doesn’t exist in the real life, but due to the way it was conceive it totally feels like the place you’d like to visit for your next holiday.

Based on this TV series, a number of books keeping the same characters have being written throughout the recent years by Donald Bain, who has being able to keep the same lovely charm of each one of the characters who live in the coastal town of “Cabot Cove”. My favorite one of all of them is Sheriff Metzger, a caring man who looks after the well being of the town and of course, his own friends.

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