The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.
When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a taxonomy of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:
The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals–the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.
THE DANGEROUS STORYWORLD OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN
Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behavior as opposed to promoting outlaw behavior. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.
This is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most analysed, of the English country gardens in children’s literature.
Below is an illustration by the wonderful Inga Moore, also well-known for her illustrations of Wind In The Willows. Though Inga Moore is a modern illustrator, her style has a classical style which you might almost expect to have been published with the originals.
Inga Moore is unexpectedly Australian, though these very English landscapes make more sense once you learn she was born and in and moved back to England.
Mr McGregor’s Garden is the most perfect vegetable and flower garden ever seen — its vague topography makes it one’s idea of what an old-fashioned country garden should be. The interesting adventures that Peter Rabbit had there have, at first sight, a familiar moral basis of filial obedience, but that is not what one remembers them for; it is the rural magic, the delicate beauty of the pictures, the few words, precise and perfect, that describe them, and the idealised view of the longed-for North Country of Beatrix Potter’s childhood holidays to which she eventually returned.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Blount continues: The work of Alison Uttley has many of the same strains as Beatrix Potter. There is the same Northern countryside, populated exclusively by small animals living their lives in holes, burrows and tiny houses. These books were published from 1929 onwards.
fire from wood
water from the well
candles made of rushes
a village community
a magic truce is observed at all times: no predators, no marauders, Wise Owl does not catch mice, the Rat only steals a few provisions and makes up for it by giving unexpected presents.
sometimes the animals talk in baby language
even the adult characters have childlike qualities
female adults are old enough to keep house and cook but young enough to enjoy games, tricks and picnics.
At Jonathan Rabbit’s school lessons are about flowers and nursery rhymes.
elements of folklore and animal fairy tale — the animals have magic that humans have lost
There’s a nearby woodland which might be based on Shere or Finchingfield or Tunbridge Wells but with tiny ‘doll’s house improvements which make this kind of art so satisfying’.
There are no humans in these animal garden utopias because if humans were to appear, the illusion of magic would be gone for the reader. In Potter’s A Tale Of Two Bad Mice, there must be a human who plays with the doll house, but the story isn’t about when the human is there.
The Enormous Turnip
A garden always has the potential for surprises. If left alone, pumpkins and other root vegetables can grow huge. The gardener’s concern is, ‘What’s happening right outside, under the earth?’ Especially in earlier times when homegrown food was essential as a measure against starvation, this concern would’ve been much more.
A classic tale such as The Enormous Turnip is about that mindset.
Here we see another English country garden illustrated by John Dyke for Ladybird. (Dyke also illustrated the Pigwig series.) There is a painter by the same name.
The English country garden includes robins, two beam fences, gates with cross bars, stone walls, undulating hills in the background and basic equipment like rakes, shovels and watering cans.
In an English country garden it is neither too bright nor too overcast, but just right for working up a light sweat.
“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.
It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.
Sooo, compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.
There are a number of reasons for this:
First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.
Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.
This gets dark real quick when you realise that the trope of rats as baddies extends to real life.
Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled “Der Ewige Jude,” or “The Eternal Jew.”
Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.
Rats As Cockney Rag And Bone Types
The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.
If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.
Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine
The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.
That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.
The entire story of Peter Rabbit can be read here at Project Gutenberg, but bear in mind that Beatrix Potter was very fussy about the size of her book and everything about the printing process, and it’s therefore meant to be read as a bound copy, in its original small size rather than as part of an anthologised collection.
It’s worth looking closely, too, at the gender attitudes reflected in this tale — attitudes you might expect to have evolved since this story was written, but which haven’t really, in popular children’s literature. Although Peter Rabbit’s sisters are all wearing pink shawl’s, it’s coincidental that it was only several decades later that the colour pink started to be associated with femininity, and blue with masculinity. (Perhaps this partly explains the enduring popularity of Peter Rabbit merch given as baby gifts.) For links on the Pinkification of Everything, see here.
In stories for children, as in stories for adults, emphasis on the seasons and the circular nature of time gives a story a feminine feel. Each season carries its own symbolism, but it’s not a clear delineation.
With the recent Gilmore girls revival we now have agents/editors asking for similar story structures.
What would that mean, exactly, to write a story with a similar structure to Gilmore girls?
One aspect which provides structure to Gilmore girls is the seasons. Rory’s life (like any diligent high school student’s) is determined by the school terms, in turn different according to season. Stars Hollow holds regular annual events which are also connected to seasons, be it Halloween pumpkins, picnic hampers or Christmas festivities.
In television miniseries, the seasonal structure isn’t new. Take for instance the Disney adaptation of Little House On The Prairie. Each of the three episodes has distinctly different seasons.
The fact is, this story structure is very old, especially in stories for and about girls.
The straight (non-reversed, un-ironic) version looks like this:
Characters exist in:
a troubled, vulnerable state or
in a world of freedom susceptible to attack
The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall — the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
— Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Characters begin their decline.
Alternatively, or as well as this decline, autumn lends a cosy feel which takes us back to childhood especially — this is a Northern Hemisphere thing, and works well for American audiences, who have Thanksgiving, Halloween and football matches in the fall.
The late scenes of Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman and Marlena by Julie Buntin both occur in a damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that signals the end of girlhood.
Movies in which autumn features heavily:
When Harry Met Sally
Autumn in New York is a movie in its own right, but…
…another film which features autumn in New York is You’ve Got Mail! You’ve Got Mail spans the entire year through the seasons, but the fall scenes are thought to be the best.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (think of Hagrid’s hut with all the pumpkins)
Stepmom — fall in Connecticut
Hocus Pocus and other Halloween movies like Practical Magic — because for North Americans, fall is synonymous with Halloween
Dead Poet’s Society — for its back-to-school feel. (Australian students return to school while it’s still well and truly summer, so this is a Northern Hemisphere thing.)
Remember The Titans and Rudy — because fall is football season
Pieces of April — because fall is Thanksgiving season
Little Women — because a lot of the story takes place in the fall
Characters reach their lowest point.
Middle grade novel Skellig by David Almond is a story which makes use of seasonal symbolism. When Michael discovers Skellig, his luck begins to change. “Winter was ending.” The season of death and dormancy (especially for Michael and Skellig) is about to give way to the rebirth of spring-a kind of second innocence.
However, there’s winter and then there’s winter. A winter blizzard is dangerous, but a landscape covered in snow has the opposite effect, evoking hygge, or as Jerry Griswold puts it, evoking snugness.
There are, of course, certain times of year and day that are more conducive to evocations of snugness. Winter, especially after snow has fallen, and Christmastime are special in this regard; consider, for example, the tableau of the family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, all gathered together around the fire when father returns at Christmas; or Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” when “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.” And as for time of day, the moment for nesting is when sleep comes; here the great tableau may be in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi when grandfather, both when Heidi first arrives and when she returns from Frankfurt, steals up the ladder to look at the slumbering child in the nest she has made for herself from hay in the attic. To be brief: a snug place is a place where one can sleep peacefully.
In the spring, characters overcome their problem and rise.
This short film, called Spring, follows a girl’s trip out of the dark forest, which gradually blooms into a more welcoming arena.
A story might start in springtime. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:
The things that happened to Emily Bartlett that year!
It seemed to Emily that it all began one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.
Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily felt as if it was rising in her, too.
— Beverly Cleary
SUBVERSION OF SEASONAL SYMBOLISM
However, a writer may choose to avoid the cliche by turning it around. So the character declines in spring and is rejuvenated in the winter. This not only short-circuits the audience’s expectations but also asserts that humans, though of the natural world, are not enslaved by its patterns.
What about the seasons and writing for children?
If writing for children is different from writing for adults, surely it’s because our main audience has not seen enough of the world or of literature to have noticed cliche, which becomes more noticeable the older/better read you become.
Maria Nikolajeva, academic of children’s literature has made the following observations about:
THE TREATMENT OF TIME IN BOOKS FOR GIRLS AND BOOKS FOR BOYS
This is a fascinating concept, and something I’d not noticed until it was pointed out, by Maria Nikolajeva in Children’s Literature Comes Of Age. Earlier in the book she defines books for boys (often adventure) and books for girls (horse stories etc, and those starring girls) which these days tend to have pink somewhere on the cover. In an ideal world there’d be no such thing as sex differentiation in books. Because gender is not genre. But I’m quite radical like that.
One Swedish essay on narrative differences in books for boys and books for girls stipulated that male time is linear, while female time is circular…. Time in books for girls and in books for boys is closely connected with place. Not only is male time linear, but male space is open, as books for boys take place outdoors, sometimes far away from home in the wide world. Male narrative time is structured as a series of stations where an adventure is experienced, a task is performed, a trial is passed. Time between these stations practically does not exist. The text can say something like “after many days full of hardships they reached their destination…” The male chronotope is thus corpuscular, discontinuous, a chain of different separate time-spaces (“quants”) which are held together by a final goal. These separate chronotopes may also correspond to chapters in adventure boos: each chapter is self-contained, even if some threads can run from one chapter to another. It is easily observable in classic stories such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer (1876) or Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price (1943).
The chronotope in books for girls is completely different. The space is closed and confined. The action mostly takes place indoors, at home (alternatively at school). Time is cyclically closed and marked by recurrent time indications: (“It was spring again,” “It was Christmas again”). Three classical girls’ books, Little Women (1868), Anne Of Green Gables (1908) and Little House In The Big Woods (1932), are very good illustrations. Any gaps in time can be easily filled by the reader, who knows that it takes time for plants to grow or for snow to thaw, that the school year is full of homework, that housework is the same year in and year out. Female narrative time is often extended to several years with certain recurrent points. The chronotope is continuous both in time and space. Spatial movement in girls’ books means merely a change from one confined space to another likewise confined one — for instance, from the parents’ home to a boarding school, from the heroine’s childhood home to her husband’s home, to “the doll house,” an image often used by contemporary writers trying to break this pattern; one example is Maud Reutersward’s A Way From Home (1979), the Swedish title of which is “The Girl and the Doll House.”
The female narrative chronotope is also based on our conceptions of male and female nature…Female time is circular, follows the cycle of the moon, and consists of recurrent, regular events of death and resurrection, seasonal changes and so on. … Linear male time is a product of enlightenment and is the spirit of action and progress.
…there are many deviations… As in all other areas, in chronotope structures of children’s books of the past ten to twenty years there is also a merging of male and female, a disintegration of the epic chronotope, and some bold innovations.
Nikolajeva’s book was published in 1996, so another 10 or 20 years have passed even since then. I’d be interested to know what has happened. Are stories for girls still mostly set inside? Do books for girls run by the moon?
EXAMPLES OF SEASONAL SYMBOLISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
In the similarly named, earlier title by Pamela Allen, Black Dog, more is made of the significance of the seasons with inclusion of the following double spread:
In Stick Man, illustrator Axel Scheffler demonstrates the passing of time with the following montage:
In the Australian picture book Tanglewood, too, we have a page of thumbnail illustrations depicting the passage of time via the seasons.
Handy quotes Lewis on his own memory of reading the Beatrix Potter book “Squirrel Nutkin” when he was young: It “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” The subject of childhood, even more than old age, seems always to be about its ending. My favorite chapter was the last one — about death in children’s literature, but also about endings generally.
The examples above are all picture books, but stories which emphasis cycles are common in stories for (or about) older girl readers. Julie of the Wolves is an excellent example. This novel is a Robinsonnade earlier feminist novel with explicitly ecological themes.
Miyax (Julie) must kill to remain alive herself, but her killing is always shown to be part of the ongoing life cycle that must continue if life is to be sustained on the tundra. […] The ideology […] is explicitly ecological, but it contains an implicitly feminist message as well, for this ecological veneration of life cycles inherently praises the interconnectedness of life cycles that feminist texts so often embrace. Rather than unfolding with the linear plot-line that is common in children’s realism, Julie of the Wolves contains an embedded narrative structure that parallels the text’s consciousness of cycles. […] Nothing in Miyax’s life happens in isolation, and nothing occurs in a straight line. Instead, she moves forward, makes mistakes, and moves forward again. Thus, the narrative structure parallels the nonlinear nature of Miyax’s life and the cyclical nature of the novel’s setting. As for the cycles of the female body, the text openly addresses how a teenager living in isolation deals wtih menstruation by clearly stating that she has not yet reached menarche.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Obviously, the association of cycles and femininity are to do with menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. The female body goes through clear cycles of birth and rebirth, while men just get older and die.