In general, laziness in child heroes is a big no-no. But there is definitely a happy medium so far as children’s book creators are concerned. Once you become so busy that you neglect your loved ones, you’re working too hard.
Many children’s books are about grandparents and grandchildren. In many stories, only the grandparent has time to spend with the grandchild because the parents are too busy working. Perhaps, off-stage, the sandwich generation also busy looking after the grandparents themselves.
English writer William Mayne demonstrated this ideology, explained by Alison Lurie:
Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool — sometimes, indeed, [Harold] Pinteresque.
Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Sometimes it’s the animal who is the stand-in for the child, and the child is too busy for the animal.
In Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr it is implied Mog’s family is too busy, because they don’t have time to pay Mog any attention. This is seen as motivation for Mog leaving the house and going to sit on the roof in the snow. (I’m going down to the garden to eat worms…)
Sometimes the characters are too busy to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enjoy nature. They may be punished for their lack of noticing when something they should have seen jumps out to bite them. After that they learn to pay attention to their surrounds. In children’s literature, children are thought to be better noticers than adults. This ideology can be seen in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, for instance.
Six Dinner Sid (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by Inga Moore.
The plot of the cat who goes from house to house pretending to be anyone’s will be familiar to anyone who’s ever known a cat. There’s an episode of cult hit This Country (“The Vicar’s Son”) in which Kerry Mucklowe eats her mum’s dinners, then sort of falls opportunistically into a scheme whereby she cadges dinner off an elderly lady living in the same village. The audience soon realises that Kerry is behaving exactly like a house cat.
Six Dinner Sid is a picture book cat who does the same thing. In these stories about opportunistic tricksters, there’s a storytelling rule which I have not yet seen broken: At the climax, their scheming ways are exposed for all to see. The mask comes off. Two types of stories rely heavily on the mask: thrillers and comedies. This is more comedy than thriller. For a thriller cat picture book which also uses a mask, see Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd.
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.
The publisher pointed out that Potter’s chipmunks looked more like rabbits. She initially insisted chipmunks DO look like rabbits, but was required to re-do them regardless.
This story is notable for its depiction of bird calls set to words. Like the riddles found in other Beatrix Potter books, and like nursery rhymes in general, my generation of parents may be skipping the teaching of these bird calls set to words. e.g. “A little bit of bread and no cheese” to describe the call of a yellowhammer, introduced to New Zealand by Acclimatisation Societies between 1865 and 1879. My own father taught this to me, but I remain unfamiliar with the calls of European birds.
The calls in Aristophanes’ Birds (produced in 414 bce) must be some of the oldest examples of this on record: Torotorotorotix, Epopoi popopopopopopoi and so on.
Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds North America, Britain, and Northern Europe is a book by John Bevis. Its marketing copy reads: The distinctive and amazing songs and calls of birds: a meditation and a lexicon.
We do have a few New Zealand-specific bird calls set to words, most notably from Denis Glover’s famous poem “The Magpies”, which I learned in school. My parents’ generation were required to memorise poetry and this was one that New Zealanders over about 75 will be able to recite for you, but the skill of poetry recital had died by the time I went through primary school in the eighties. I didn’t memorise a single poem (outside Bible verses).
New Zealand’s magpies are from Australia. Now I live in Australia, surrounded by an array of outstandingly noisy birds. The magpie barely makes an impact against the cockatoos, so it’s no surprise the poem was written in New Zealand, where the magpie remains distinctively loud.
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a remarkably violent story of the kind you won’t see published anew today. The scene where Timmy is wrangled through a very small hole leaves him close to dead. This is Tony Soprano stuff.
A MODERN THEORY
But it’s also a tender story of two male characters spending time together, one looking after another in a way far more typical of feminine caring. I just did an Internet search in case my thoughts on this are already done to death in literary circles, but found nothing. I may plough a lonely furrow, and this may sound facetious, but through my contemporary lens Chippy Hackee reads as a gay man, perhaps gender queer, or some related combo.
STORY STRUCTURE OF TIMMY TIPTOES
This story is written in classic mythic structure. Timmy leaves home, encounters baddies and goodies, must decipher which is which and eventually returns home slightly changed. Beatrix Potter mixes things up a bit by switching the squirrel main character out for a chipmunk, who continues this same linear journey into darkness. It is the chipmunk who faces the biggest big struggle (with the bear). Potter’s empathetic character remains safe.
Timmy Tiptoes and his wife want to collect enough nuts for winter.
Chippy wants a different lover from the one he’s got, or maybe he only wants the freedom to express the feminine-coded act of caregiving in an era where that’s not permitted for men. But that’s just my reading. (It would not have been Potter’s intention.)
Something must happen to upset Timmy’s idyllic life. Turns out this is no utopia at all — only an snail under the leaf setting. There are baddies in these woods. Thieves.
If you are a hibernating creature and your food store gets stolen, that’s a life and death matter.
The birds are unwitting opponents by outing where the Tiptoe couple are hiding their stash.
Squirrels go to great lengths to hide their nuts — they meticulously arrange leaves to make them look undisturbed. (I think Potter would’ve seen that herself.)
Chippy is also an opponent to Timmy despite his caregiving — Timmy just wants to go home to his wife, but Chippy keeps offering up all this delicious food. He becomes too fat to fit back through the hole.
Our main character has no plan other than to get on with his happy, day-to-day life, so in this case the baddies are the ones with the plan — they steal the Tiptoes’ nuts.
Silvertail is a forgetful squirrel, so his plan is to just dig up whosever nuts he finds. Potter was right about squirrels forgetting the location of some of their nut stores, but their memory is far more amazing than even naturalists knew back then:
Depending on the squirrel species and the type of nut, squirrels are generally able to retrieve up to 95 percent of their buried food, research shows.
Timmy has his near-death moment when he is squeezed through the hole in the tree. He lies semi-conscious upon his own store of nuts. Meanwhile we are subjected to the heartbreaking scene of Goody, his wife, searching everywhere for him. This Battle happens at about the midway point in the story. But Timmy is saved by the tender care of an (at first) non-gendered, unidentified chipmunk (referred to as the distancing ‘it’), who tucks Timmy into his own bed and even lends Timmy his night cap. Then he keeps Timmy captive by feeding him nuts so he will never make it back out through the woodpecker’s hole. This is Emma Donahue’s Room mashed up with Se7en mashed up with Brokeback Mountain.
Conveniently for the story, wind blows Chippy’s tree over. This allows Timmy to escape and the mythic journey now switches to the chipmunk, whose name we learn is Chippy Hackee, but only after the wives get together to lament their missing husbands.
Mrs Chippy Hackee has been abandoned for reasons that remain unexplained within the world of the story. Nor are we given any clues — she seems a perfectly adequate wife — everything one would want in a chipmunk. I deduce the setting reason for Chippy leaving his wife must be this: Timmy has been busy filling their marital home with his nut store and Chippy is dissatisfied because his wife fails to keep their house clean — the main job of a wife in 1911, and perfectly obvious to Potter’s contemporary audience. An obvious plot hole: Chippy’s new hiding place is no less full up with nuts. The nuts are not the problem in that relationship, people.
We learn via Mrs Chippy Hackee that her husband ‘bites’; i.e. he bites her. She assumes he bites everyone. But we have seen the opposite behaviour from Chippy in his tender loving care for the larger, injured (male) squirrel.
Chippy refuses to go home to his wife even when the tree blows over, leaving him exposed to the elements. He would rather CAMP OUT IN THE ACTUAL RAIN than go home to his wife, who pleads with him nonetheless. He’s in a total slump. He had a soul mate in Timmy — now Timmy has gone home, arm in arm with his own wife, and if Chippy can’t have Timmy he would rather have no one.
The only thing that shoos Chippy home is the appearance of a hangry bear.
And when Chippy Hackee got home, he found he had caught a cold in his head; and he was more uncomfortable still.
More uncomfortable because of the head cold? His wife is nursing him back to health despite his previously biting her. Perhaps Chippy is more comfortable in the caregiver’s role. He’s had a taste of his gender expansive freedom and now he’s stuck being someone’s reluctant husband forever in the strict gender binary of 1911.
I don’t believe for one second that this was Beatrix Potter’s intent for the story. So what is the 1911 Anagnorisis of her Timmy Tiptoes tale?
That home with your wife is better, because wives take care of you. Go home to your family. Be loyal to your heteronormative family.
As for the Tiptoes, they buy a lock for their nut stash. Moral: If you don’t want your stuff nicked, lock it up. Hey, that’s what Chippy thought. (‘Lock up what you love’ doesn’t apply to living creatures, Chippy. You can’t just force feed a lover so he can’t escape through the hole, Chippy.)
The Tiptoes have new babies, which makes Goody’s earlier scene all the more upsetting — she was pregnant with at least three when she thought she’d been abandoned by her husband.
The final illustration suggests the chipmunks remain unhappy. Their discord is symbolised by the bird who swoops down, poked at angrily by the wife with that battered and broken umbrella, to symbolise the battered and broken relationship.
Note alo, 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.
LANGUAGE IN MR. TOD
coppice — an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber. This suggests humans are living nearby, though the animals in Beatrix Potter stories are referred to as ‘people’, so it could’ve been maintained by the animals themselves.
to cut a caper — to make a playful skipping movement (it does not mean to slice a pickle, of the sort I’ve only ever encountered at Subway sandwich restaurants)
spud — I thought it referred to potatoes, but now I realise it’s a small spade, and potatoes probably came to be called spuds after the spade used to dig them up. (Looks like no one really knows if that’s the connection — before it was a little spade it was a Nordic dagger. I imagine these were used to cut tubers up. Vikings didn’t have potatoes, however. I’m stumped!)
pig nuts — One of the more palatable wild foods. The tuber can be eaten raw and is very tasty. In flavour and consistency pignuts are something like celery heart crossed with raw hazelnut or sweet chestnut and sometimes have a spicy aftertaste of the sort you get from radishes or watercress.
flags — in this contest it means flagstone, used as flooring.
coal scuttle — a bucket-like container for holding a small, intermediate supply of coal convenient to an indoor coal-fired stove or heater.
counterpane — an old-fashioned word for a bedspread
bedstead — the framework of a bed on which the mattress and bedclothes are placed
warming-pan — A bed warmer was a common household item in countries with cold winters, especially in Europe. It consisted of a metal container, usually fitted with a handle and shaped somewhat like a modern frying pan, with a solid or finely perforated lid.
persian powder — Persian powder is a green pesticide that has been used for centuries for the biological pest extermination of household insects.
kitchen fender — Here’s a picture of one. It’s made of steel but what is it for? Looks like a guard for the stovetop.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Tommy Brock — a vile badger who sleeps all day and is therefore considered lazy (the curse of shift workers everywhere)
Mr. Tod — a fox who likes to eat rabbits, rats etc. Sly.
Mr. Benjamin Bouncer — terrorised by Mr. Tod, old, too old for proper babysitting but there we have it. Because he is old he is the designated dolt — easily tricked by a badger carrying a bag full of his grandbabies. I mean, Brock even stops to have a chat with him.
Benjamin Bunny — Benjamin Bouncer’s son
Flopsy — married to Benjamin. She cleans when she’s had a gutsful.
The bunnies — they spend the entire story in a sack, pretty much. They’re more goods than characters.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF MR TOD
Potter intends two main characters: Tommy Brock and Mr Tod. These guys are nemeses. The rabbits end up functioning as viewpoint characters as well as victims (mostly viewpoint characters). But they have their parallel plot, more reminiscent of a sprawling contemporary crime TV series than of a picture book.
Fairytale elements, such as from Hansel and Gretel are utilised in this story, as well as the classic character archetypes typical of Aesop (especially the sly fox). Then there’s the Goldilocks reference, with someone breaking in to some fierce creature’s house and accidentally falling asleep in their bed. But the forest and the trickery would be at home in almost any European fairytale.
Mr Tod’s shortcoming is also his strength, as explained above:
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.
(He has ‘foxey’ whiskers because he is an actual fox, which is an interesting way of telling us that.)
I love the thumbnail character description of Tommy Brock:
Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.
Only from the illustrations do we know for sure that Tommy Brock is a badger, though brock is a British name for a badger, so if you know that you didn’t need the illustration.
Does the badger really mean to kidnap those tasty little bunnies? I don’t think he meant to until he saw the opportunity. Remember he’s high on something potent — whatever ‘cabbage leaf’ cigar stands for. Ditto ‘seed cake’. I mean, he goes to the fox’s house, probably thinking it’s his own home. He sleeps and doesn’t move even when a fox comes into his house, probably thinking it an hallucination. He doesn’t give a shit, does he. He’s put the bunnies in the oven but forgot to turn it on. He’s off his face.
That fox isn’t off his face though. He comes home after a bad night of hunting and he’s wanting some breakfast. When he finds the badger in his bed, he only means to wake him up with a cold water surprise.
Potter was familiar with the dietary requirements of a badger:
They can eat several hundred worms each night. But being omnivorous, they will eat almost anything, from flesh and fruit to bulbs and bird eggs. … They will eat nuts, seeds and acorns along with crops like wheat and sweetcorn. Badgers are known to eat small mammals mice, rats, rabbits, frogs, toads and hedgehogs.
When Potter’s narrator tells us that badgers only occasionally eat rabbit pie and only when there’s nothing else around she is setting up a hierarchy of opposition, with the fox as the most dangerous of all.
But even the rabbits have their own conflict. It strikes me what an absolute asshat Peter Rabbit has turned into — the returned and bereft Benjamin Bunny is worried sick — as you would be — that his babies are about to be consumed, the entire lot of them. But what does Peter do? Constant deflection and circumlocution. He’s in no hurry whatsoever. In fact, Peter Rabbit almost gives one the impression that he’d like the bunnies to be eaten. That experience in Mr. McGregor’s garden ruined him for empathy.
Look at how deliberately unhurried he is. Who cares how many? Who cares how hard caterpillars kick? I mean, under the circumstances!
“Whatever is the matter, Cousin Benjamin? Is it a cat? or John Stoat Ferret?”
“No, no, no! He’s bagged my family—Tommy Brock—in a sack—have you seen him?”
“Tommy Brock? how many, Cousin Benjamin?”
“Seven, Cousin Peter, and all of them twins! Did he come this way? Please tell me quick!”
“Yes, yes; not ten minutes since … he said they were caterpillars; I did think they were kicking rather hard, for caterpillars.“
“Which way? which way has he gone, Cousin Peter?”
“He had a sack with something ‘live in it; I watched him set a mole trap. Let me use my mind, Cousin Benjamin; tell me from the beginning.” Benjamin did so.
“My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years;” said Peter reflectively, “but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep, and keep them for breakfast.”
Ben’s plan is to chase the dude with the sack full of bunnies. This is a classic thriller chase, with near misses, hazards on the way (Mr. Tod’s house), snags (the sack has gotten caught on twigs, leaving bits of thread).
The second half of this story mainly comprises the elaborate scheme the fox gets up to — a prank, basically, designed to rouse the badger, who has accidentally fallen asleep in his bed. The fox is scared of the badger’s teeth, so doesn’t want to do anything violent at close range.
The badger is onto him and replaces himself with the fox’s rolled up dressing gown, safely escaping a wet fate. But he’s not going to get out before enjoying the look on fox’s face when his prank fails.
(The badger is a proxy for the baby rabbits. The baby rabbits never genuinely come near death. It was always the badger who was for the chopping block.)
Peter and Benjamin have spent the night digging a tunnel under the house, hoping to rescue Ben’s children that way. This plan is interrupted when the fox returns home after a night hunting.
Notice how Potter depicts Benjamin and Peter on both sides of the window — once from their point of view, once from the point of view of the bunnies in the oven.
When they came near the wood at the top of Bull Banks, they went cautiously. The trees grew amongst heaped up rocks; and there, beneath a crag—Mr. Tod had made one of his homes. It was at the top of a steep bank; the rocks and bushes overhung it. The rabbits crept up carefully, listening and peeping.
This change in pace, the emphasis on detail at the life-and-death moment, that is typical of a thriller.
The fox’s house itself is the set of a horror or a thriller:
This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.
The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.
But this is still a children’s book, after all. Potter does lighten the tone in several ways.
First, it happens Peter Rabbit is right. (I don’t think this absolves him of his sociopathy) and the young reader will sympathise with Peter Rabbit from having read Potter’s initial story starring him. So we are meant to believe him when he says don’t worry, the bunnies will be fine, just fine.
Second, the comical snoring. The description of Mr. Tod’s snoring seems designed to provide comic relief, though I’m not sure it works much.
If I didn’t know this video had been dubbed over with a woman’s snoring I would’ve assumed the snoring was a part of the original foley.
The Battle scene includes a tantrum, as children’s stories often do — the fox seems to want to control his temper. He takes a moment to go outside and have a bit of a meltdown. He decides a coal-scuttle and walking stick won’t do for weapons. The badger has quite fearsome teeth. (This reminds me of Little Red Riding Hood.)
Peter and Benjamin come near death when the fox trips over their shallow burrow.
While the fox and badger are having an actual fight, the bunnies escape.
Now everything is cosy again. Well, sort of. Things will never be the same now that Mr. Bouncer has proven himself a totally irresponsible grandfather, letting in a monster, getting high together, basically handing over his own grandbabies.
But when the men arrive home with the rescued babies, Flopsy forgives her father-in-law and he is rewarded with a pipe, even though the misdemeanour of negligence hasn’t changed. (I wouldn’t hire him again, would you?)