Lessons from Peter Rabbit by Janet Jones

“Rabbits are brave…rabbits are brave…”

So says Benjamin Bunny, a diminutive little guy with a green knit cap holding down long bunny ears. In the Nickelodeon show, Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny is the personification of the skittish, scared-stiff rabbit, softened by his fierce loyalty to his adventurous cousin Peter. He has an adorable, innate clumsiness and a comically growling stomach that is always hungry for radishes and strawberries.

I adore Benjamin Bunny. And so does my three-year-old granddaughter, Elsie. She and I can sit for hours raptly caught up in the antics of this Nick Jr. adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic children’s stories from the early 1900’s. Potter originally wrote and illustrated her stories in the form of “picture letters” to a sick child—Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie Moore.

I don’t know what to write to you,” Beatrix said, “so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”

Potter’s rabbit tales were modeled after her beloved rabbit pets, Benjamin Bouncer and his successor, Peter Piper. It was Annie Moore who suggested that Beatrix’s picture letters were ideal material for a book for young children. Beatrix sent an illustrated manuscript entitled, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor’s Garden” to six publishers. All six rejected it. So in early September of 1901, Beatrix decided to publish it herself. In the spirit of her brave, adventurous rabbits, she withdrew her savings from the bank and ordered 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit from Strangeways & Sons printers in Tower Street, London.

She happily started distributing her book to family and friends, often personalizing them with a short note, one of which said, “In affectionate remembrance of poor old Peter Rabbit, who died on the 26th of January 1901 at the end of his 9th year…whatever the limitations of his intellect or outward shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet. An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.”

In 1902 she had 200 more copies printed, which were soon sold out. By that time Beatrix’s “little rabbit book” had recaptured the attention of one of the publishers who rejected it originally, Frederick Warne. By October 1902, 8,000 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit with colored illustrations were sold out. It became difficult to keep the book in print. A year after publication, there were 56,470 copies sold, prompting Beatrix to exclaim, “The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter.”

Forty million copies later and still selling, Beatrix Potter’s little rabbit story still appeals to new generations of children. Peter Rabbit, his twin sisters Flopsy and Mopsy, and his little 18-month-old sister, Cotton-tail, are all being raised by a single mother rabbit, who lost Mr. Rabbit when he was caught stealing vegetables from Mr. McGregor’s garden. In the original Peter Rabbit book, Mrs. McGregor made Peter’s father into a pie.  A full-color illustration of Mr. McGregor’s hands, complete with knife and fork ready to dig into rabbit pie, is one of the reasons I have not yet shared the book with my granddaughter.

The politically correct and gentler Nickelodeon version (in cooperation with Beatrix Potter’s publisher F. Warne & Co.) has Peter referring to his late father’s journal—complete with hand-drawn maps of escape tunnels and techniques for avoiding such a fate. This treasured keepsake helps the television version avoid emphasizing the method or result of Mr. Rabbit’s unfortunate demise. The company of Peter’s cousin, Benjamin Bunny, who “is the best digger in the woods” and their friend Lily Bobtail with her “just in case pocket” (reminiscent of Hermione Granger’s endless purse in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter), adds to the fun of Peter’s adventures.

What’s so appealing about this show for both children and adults, is the spirit in which the adventurous Peter and his companions handle adversity. Benjamin Bunny freezes momentarily in fear while reciting “Rabbits are brave…rabbits are brave…” when he and his fellow rabbits are in danger of being caught by a fox, or badger or Mr. McGregor; but he ultimately finds the courage to use his wits, not violence, to outsmart predators. Nobody is made out to be the bad guy. The fox, Mr. Todd, is just doing what foxes do—chase rabbits.  And the rabbits do what rabbits do—take vegetables and fruits from farmer’s gardens.

The world can be a scary and dangerous place when you’re a little kid. And for not so little kids too. Having the courage to forge ahead, especially when we’re scared stiff, is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn in life.

Whether it’s letting go of mom’s hand on that first day of preschool or walking up to the podium to read our prologue to a room full of writers at a writer’s conference, if Benjamin Bunny can do it, we can do it too.

 

3 Comments

  1. Rosemary Boyd says:

    What a beautiful story Janet about Peter Rabbit. You and your sister Pam are great writers. Hang in there and know you will be finishing that Novel that you two are working on.
    Mom

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