Beatrix Potter’s illustrations are perhaps the most easily recognizable images in children’s literature. Rabbits, foxes, ducks and more appear on the pages of her books living in comfortable homes, nattily attired and well fed. In fact, to look at Beatrix Potter’s illustrations is to gaze upon serenity itself. To read the stories however, is something quite different.
Growing up, my brothers and I were fortunate to have had many of Potter’s small hand-sized books available for bedtime reading. I think I must have spent my time looking at the pictures rather than actually reading the stories, as I was quite shocked by their content when I began reading them to my own children. Most of us are aware of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. We learned early on what would result from eating vast quantities of raw vegetables. Mrs. Rabbit sent Peter to bed without any supper and a cup of Chamomile tea. And we wonder why childhood obesity rates are as high as they are today?
Moving on, we decided to try The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Once again, I was lulled into a false sense of security by the beautiful illustrations. Who could resist a flotilla of squirrels, each on its own raft, pole in hand making their way to an island covered in acorns? Further reading revealed a story about a tyrannical owl that required sacrifices of mice from the squirrels before he would allow them their harvest. Nutkin, an unfortunate animal who suffered from a lack of impulse control ended up losing his tail to the owl. We put that one away for a few years.
The list of books goes on providing readers with lovely illustrations of kittens, ducks and more rabbits learning morality the hard way and often narrowly escaping without all of their body parts. To know Ms. Potter is to love her. To read her is not for the feint of heart.