of mice and hedgehogs…the brilliance of Beatrix

If you haven’t already heard, 2016 is being fondly celebrated by a world-ful of Beatrix Potter fans. July 28 marks her 150th birthday, and I should say that bread and milk and blackberries would make the ideal birthday tea.wedgewood peter rabbit tea set

Today, I’m here to tell you about some old Potter titles I just discovered in the stacks of my library, some brand new biographical picture books  just released in the last year, as well as the newly discovered Tale we await later this year. And as always, to attempt to persuade you to read these robust little books.

The cherry on top must be the announcement of the soon-to-be-published, long-forgotten manuscript.

the tale of kitty in boots from The Guardian

 The Tale of Kitty in Boots was found tucked away in the archives of the Victoria and Albert museum along with one prized color sketch by Potter. The story was handed off to Quentin Blake to illustrate (no pressure there) and I am greatly looking forward to seeing it this September. You can read more about the manuscript discovery at the link here.

The tale, according to Beatrix herself, is “about a well-behaved

One of Quentin Blake's illustrations for The Tale of Kitty in Boots.

One of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for The Tale of Kitty in Boots.

prime black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life, and goes out hunting with a little gun on moonlight nights, dressed up like Puss in Boots.” What’s more, there are cameo appearances by Mr. Tod, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Ribby, Tabitha Twitchit, and Peter Rabbit himself. I understand Peter’s physique has become a bit stouter.

This all sounds like a Christmas 2016 gift-giving no-brainer, to me. What do you think?

beatrix-potter-the-tale-of-mrs-tiggy-1I have highlighted several of Beatrix’s Tales over the years on Orange Marmalade and each time I cross my fingers that some of you will discover for the first time what a rich treasure they are. If you know only the name of Peter Rabbit, or perhaps have read an abridged, toddler-ized version of his story, let me say again: You are missing out! If you suppose Potter’s stories to be merely “cute” due to the unending supply of Peter-merchandise for nurseries, you are in for a grand surprise.

The library of Peter Rabbit Stories features some of the richest, most sophisticated vocabulary in children’s literature. And unlike the recent trend where words are defined intermittently (a word meaning from time to time) in the text, Potter trusts her readers to relish the toothsome sounds of the language itself and ferret out the meaning in context, in time. Their venturesome plots move along with not a flicker of condescension for young readers.

Besides the unabashedly expansive language, Potter’s stories present Jemima1a decidedly unsentimental view of life complete with toothy foxes ready to gobble up daft ducks, and farmers lumbering along trying to drown sacks full of kittens. There is nothing twee here. It’s a rough-and-tumble world and you’d better keep your wits about you. Potter presents us with vivid characters, fully-realized in her short stories, who live on as substantially as those in Winnie the Pooh’s 100 Acre Wood, or on the River Beatrix_Potter_and_Kep_in_1915Banks of Wind in the Willows.

Potter herself was not a dainty person. Her nature-tramping in childhood, expertise in the field of mycology, perseverance in becoming published, business acumen, farming and conservation work in the Lakes District, her rugged life there — we would not expect such a person to write fraudulently sweet stories. 

Of course, all this masterful storytelling is paired with her exquisite illustrations that have brought so much joy to generations of children, and the whole package is tucked into books fit for small hands, a feature Potter insisted upon from the start.

A number of biographies about Beatrix have been written over the years, including two picture books recently published that offer glimpses of her childhood for young readers:

beatrix potter and her paint box cover image

Beatrix Potter and Her Paintbox, written and illustrated by David McPhail, published last year. My review of it is here.

beatrix potter and the unfortunate tale of a borrowed guinea pig cover image

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by Charlotte Voake, has just recently hit the shelves. I reviewed an advance copy of it last year, which you can find here.

A while back I scanned through the lists of Potter titles in my library and found a couple I’d never heard of, so I read them and was delighted with one especially.

The first was another of her Tales, published posthumously and illustrated by Marie Angel.

the tale of the faithful dove cover imageThe Tale of the Faithful Dove, written in 1907 was published by Frederick Warne in 1956. It’s based on a true account, and tells the story of a dove trying to escape from a predatory falcon who falls into a chimney and would certainly have perished there but for the extraordinary behavior of her faithful mate and the lucky observance of a couple of tradesmen in the neighborhood. For those of you who love Beatrix’s work, it is worth looking for, although it is not quite as polished a story as the others. It’s been published in the same small-hands size as the entire Peter Rabbit library.

The second book I read is a novel! Did you know she had written one?the fairy caravan cover image I was flabbergasted. It’s a 200+ page novel called The Fairy Caravan, originally published in 1929 by Frederick Warne, and it’s a book that is crying out to be brought back into print.

Here is the opening:

In the Land of Green Ginger there is a town called Marmalade, which is inhabited exclusively by guinea-pigs. They are of all colours, and of two sorts. The common, or garden, guinea-pigs are the most numerous. They have short hair, and they run errands and twitter. The guinea-pigs of the other variety are called Abyssinian Cavies. They have long hair and side whiskers, and they walk upon their toes.

the fairy caravan illustration2 beatrix potter

The common guinea-pigs admire and envy the hair of the Abyssinian Cavies; they would give anything to be able to make their own short hair grow long. So there was excitement and twittering amongst the short-haired guinea pigs when Messrs. Ratton and Scratch, Hair Specialists, sent out hundreds of advertisements by post, describing their new elixir.

the fairy caravan illustration beatrix potterWhen one guinea pig by the name of Tuppenny, a dilapidated fellow suffering from toothache and chilblains, undergoes treatment with the wonderful “new quintessence,” the most luxurious results are achieved! You can see a bit of his wild, white fluff in the picture above. Yet his new hairdo brings new trials to Tuppenny and in the end, he runs away. By and by he meets up with a “tiny four-wheeled caravan, painted yellow and red, upon whose sides were written in capital letters “ALEXANDER AND WILLIAM’S CIRCUS” and now Tuppenny’s adventures begin in earnest.

The rest of the novel acquaints us with the highly imaginative, charming the fairy caravan illustration4 beatrix potterescapades of this little troupe of animals, including some marvelously-enchanted goings-on. Absolutely delightful! It would make a fabulous read-aloud for kids who’ve cut their teeth on Kipling, Grahame, Milne, or the like, and can manage the sophisticated vocabulary and style. This could be as young as 5 or 6. For those reading it on their own, I’d say a stout reader of 9 or 10 might manage it.

So — dip in where you find yourself. If you’ve never read the Tales, start there. There are at least 23 of them, depending on how you count, so that 712wse-D5+Lshould keep you busy for awhile! If you’re already a dyed-in-the-wool Potter fan, look for the newest picture-book biographies, get in line for the forthcoming Tale, and see if you can track down the wonderful story of The Fairy Caravan. Her work is a glory. Don’t miss it!