You would have expected me to have read the tiny children’s books written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. They have passed through my hands many times, but I never gave them more attention than a glance. I could admire the books’ design and construction. I did admire the illustrations. Still, I quickly decided there was no substance here that would interest me.
On Saturday, 20th January 2024, I was drinking coffee at Starbucks and reading The New York Times on my phone. What caught my eye was an article by Jess Bidgood titled “Overlooked No More: Beatrix Potter, Author of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’”. Years ago, I had watched and enjoyed the biographic movie Miss Potter starring Renée Zellweger as the famous author. Still, the movie did not compel me to read her books. I didn’t start reading the Times article then, but planned to take a look at it again later, yet the title had stimulated my curiosity.
While still drinking the coffee, and eating a chocolate chip cookie – a cookie that even the British don’t call a biscuit – I began texting numerous friends about Peter Rabbit. The message went out, “I have never read Peter Rabbit. Is that something I should acquaint myself with?”
As I waited for responses, I pondered the important books of my childhood. I was raised on Mother Goose in numerous forms. My mother, to her credit, shared Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, reading it aloud until I could read it for myself. At one time, I had several of his poems memorized. While sitting with my coffee, I tried reciting them again, but they are lost, buried among lightless neurons, if they’re in my head at all. She also read The Story of Babar to me, and its sequels. But it was firmly established that those books belonged to my older sister. For whatever reason, my mother never introduced me to the books of A.A. Milne. I was in my twenties before I added Winnie-the-Pooh to my personal canon of English literature. It was glorious. My friend George revealed he had an LP, The Pooh Song Book with the distinct child-friendly voice of Jack Gilford. I was also in my twenties before I read that Kenneth Grahame masterpiece The Wind in the Willows. These books are as canonical as Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible.
All but one reply to my text acknowledged having read Beatrix Potter. Actually, that one didn’t say she read it, only that she owns copies of the books, perhaps bought for her children when they were young. This dumbfounded me, considering the frequency with which the Potter books have passed through my hands.
A little side trip here. While still at Starbucks, contemplating the children’s books I have read, neurons sparked and flashed and Harold and the Purple Crayon glowed in memory. I was still going back and rereading those books way past my childhood, to the chagrin of my mother. I think Harold might have been a significant influence on me, at least until I discovered Captain Nemo.
Finishing my coffee, compulsion drove me to the library. Cardiff Central Library is architecturally intriguing, but their book collection is inadequate. How can a British library not have a copy of The Autobiography of a Seaman by Thomas Cochrane?
I took the escalator to what I thought was the first floor and the children’s room. In truth, the children’s room is tucked away and bypassed by the escalator, which travels to the second floor. It was a feature that charmed me. I did find my way to the children’s room, but I did not find a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The catalogue claimed nine copies, but my search and a further search by two librarians could not find any. This is not a complaint. That was a children’s room, a sacrifice to a child’s uninhibited explorations.
We found one Beatrix Potter book in its original format as published by F. Warne & Co, The Tale of Tom Kitten. I read it there, sitting on a small chair by a small table. I was not satisfied that I had accomplished my goal. The journey continued. It took me to the local Waterstones.
Waterstones appeared to have them all, shelved in the order they were written. I only concerned myself with the first few, the ones that are the most famous and iconic in English literature and illustration, titles I recognized even if I hadn’t read them. I pulled from the shelf, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tailor of Gloucester, and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. With no place to sit in the children’s section of the bookshop, I read the first three while standing, but didn’t bother with the fourth. I was content.
I particularly liked The Tailor of Gloucester. It included an epigraph in the frontmatter, a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III. The delightful story added words to my vocabulary; paduasoy, tippets, ravelling, pipkin, watch-beetles, and lappets. Sure, I was able to guess correctly with “ravelling”, but still checked the dictionary to be sure. I bought The Tailor of Gloucester to take home, gift wrap, and give to my friend Glenys, who never read Peter Rabbit, but loves working with fabrics.
I had originally assumed the books would be too infantile for me to find pleasurable. That changed when I read Peter Rabbit’s mum warning him to stay out of the McGregor’s garden because Mrs McGregor had put his father in a pie. Once home, I went back to the article in The New York Times. To quote Ms Bidgood, “The world that Potter conjured in her books — whimsical but dark, full of bloodless observations about the food chain — appealed as much to adults as to children.” On Tuesday, this proved not to be the case.
At Tuesday’s Coffee Club, I was determined to read aloud The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but my friends would not have it and voted down the proposition. Philistines! Sara told me how she cried for days when her mother read it to her because Peter’s father had been baked into a pie. She has a good heart and I was not willing to stir up painful memories. As for me, well, I went online and ordered from Blackwell’s Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson.