The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.

STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER

JEREMY’S HOUSE

Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)

STICKING PLASTERS

I was surprised to read that when Jeremy gets mildly injured he reaches for the sticking plasters. I didn’t think they’d have been around that long. I looked up ‘when were sticking plasters invented’. Certain American websites think they didn’t exist until Johnson & Johnson made them, but the adhesive plaster has a much longer history in England. These days I don’t hear kids talk about ‘sticking plasters’ — Band-aid seems to have suffered the fate of generification.

Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.

SYMBOLISM OF WATER

Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.

Jeremy’s Weakness is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.

Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.

DESIRE

Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.

OPPONENT

Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)

PLAN

  1. Dig in the garden for worms
  2. Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
  3. Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
  4. Catch minnows
  5. Take minnows home to cook for dinner

He gets as far as 3.

BATTLE

The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.

SELF-REVELATION

Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.

Jeremy’s Self-revelation is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

But we’re given a nice cosy New Equilibrium, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

 

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books. Continue reading “Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter”

The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.

Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen a chipmunk in real life. She must have relied upon photos when illustrating the chipmunks, but good reference photos wouldn’t have been easy to come by in England at the time. Continue reading “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes by Beatrix Potter”

The Tale of Mr Tod by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter (1912) is a child-in-jeopardy crime thriller. See my post on thrillers and also my post on secrets and scams.

Note also, crime stories appeal disproportionately to women — for whatever reason, this is a female genre. Beatrix Potter was the perfect candidate to create such a work.

Also, if you want to see what sort of sociopathic, philosophising white man Peter Rabbit turned into, go no further than Mr. Tod — the unexpectedly dark sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter wrote this mindfully and opens with direct address:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Actually, Potter did not use the word ‘nice’. What she wrote was this:

I am quite tired of masking goody goody books about nice people.

The publishers made her change it.

I wonder if, by 1912, Potter had become weary of people’s assessment of her work. Even today, I feel Beatrix Potter is mischaracterised as a spinster who wrote cosy tales about bunnies dressed in coats. But you’d only believe that if you hadn’t actually read any of her stories. More recent made-for-TV bowdlerisations don’t help. Is the opening to Mr. Tod a note to the people who underestimate her darkness?

Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.

If Potter were alive today, I can guess what she’d say to people who insist people — women in particular — write likeable characters as role models for children. I think she’d tell them where to stick their opinions.

Continue reading “The Tale of Mr Tod by Beatrix Potter”

The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter

Ginger and Pickles

The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter is a story of utopian, idealised capitalism, first published 1909. This is how we’d all like capitalism to work — small local businesses provide goods and services; those friends providing the best goods and services win out, those ill-suited to small business find other, more suitable occupations. All is fair and just. Continue reading “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter”

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter

Squirrel Nutkin cover

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.

Though the page turns and small size of the book are a vital component of the reading experience, you can read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin at Project Gutenberg, as Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Crisis Magazine

STORY STRUCTURE OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

Continue reading “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter”

The English Country Garden In Picture Books

The Secret Garden

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.

the-secret-garden

Jerry Griswold writes about The Secret Garden in this post, talking mainly about ‘snugness’ (which I refer to as ‘hygge‘).

Beatrix Potter

Here is my post on Peter Rabbit.

first he ate some lettuces back to us 2

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

beatrix-potter-gardening-life

Allison Uttley

alison-uttley-private-diaries

alison-uttley-fairy-tales

littlegrayrabbit
illustration from Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit, by Margaret Tempest

 

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.

enormous-turnip-seeds_1000x745
from a Ladybird edition of The Enormous Turnip

 

enormous-turnip-doorway-garden_1000x776
view of the Enormous Turnip framed through the doorway of the cottage

FURTHER READING

The Healing Power of Gardens

“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.”

— The NYT

Rats In Children’s Literature

rat-attacks-cat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

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.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

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.”

INFEST — The Ugly Nazi History of Trump’s Chosen Verb About Immigrants

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.

aesops-characters

 

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.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses
from Only Fools and Horses

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.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin

Miss mouse will you marry me

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.

Chase-Sanborn-Coffee

FAMOUS LITERARY RATS

Here are some of the better-known works.

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walter-the-story-of-a-rat_500x633

the_roly-poly_pudding_first_edition_cover_500x636

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The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

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.

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit

 

See also: The Size And Format Of Picturebooks

PROBLEMS WITH PETER RABBIT

As Marjery Hourihan points out in Deconstructing the Hero, Peter Rabbit is basically an Odyssean story. A male hero goes out, has an adventure, faces death and then arrives home, changed. Beatrix Potter was following a long tradition of storytelling when she wrote this one.

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.

Continue reading “The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter”

Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

Rosie's Walk Picture Puffin

Rosie’s Walk is, on a pedagogical level, designed to teach young readers  dimensional prepositions, but this is very much subordinated to the interesting story.

See an animated version of Rosie’s Walk from 1970.

Or if you prefer, an actual chicken walking through an actual obstacle course. Because chickens can be trained, apparently.

 

WONDERFULNESS

There are two distinct stories in this picturebook:

1. Rosie the hen walks from her coop, across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives and back to her coop.

2. A very hungry fox plots to murder Rosie the hen but is foiled time after time by getting himself into pickles.

Continue reading “Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins”