Those slender pocket-sized animal tales by Beatrix Potter certainly had a place in my childhood but I don’t remember having a strong attachment to them. Of course by the 1980s Peter Rabbit was an established icon so it’s difficult to remember a true impression of these books without being influenced by what is already known about these stories.
Fast forward 30-odd years, more than a century after Potter’s first book was published professionally, and my five-year-old is discovering joy in these stories from himself (thanks to someone giving us a second-hand edition of a Beatrix Potter collection). Despite the old-fashioned, sometimes clumsy language (that I really don’t enjoy reading aloud), Toby was quite taken with the antics of Peter Rabbit et al. I, too, discovered a Potter story that I’d not previously heard of, The Tale of Mr Tod, which earned countless re-tellings at bedtime. He still enjoys these stories now, two years later.
So I was delighted to learn that a previously un-aired Potter story, discovered in the archives two years ago, is to be published 150 years after the author’s birth. Better still, Kitty in Boots (because that is what it is to be called) is to be illustrated by none other than Quentin Blake – someone who I hope will be as memorable as Potter 100 years in the future. Blake’s illustrative style is of course very different to Potter but his gift for interpreting stories and characters visually will certainly help this tale resonate with contemporary audiences.
This new book, coupled with the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the achievements of Potter, who rose to prominence in an era that conspired to suppress female successes.
With any successful children’s publishing phenomenon, it’s tempting to think that luck is involved, and that anyone could run off some tales about cute animals and a children’s hit is made. However, there is no magic formula to writing children’s books, and a peek into the life of Potter thanks to the screening of More 4’s Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge reveals why.
Here’s how to become one of the world’s best-loved children’s authors the Beatrix Potter way:
- Be ignored by your parents
Potter’s childhood was possibly typical of wealthy children reared in Edwardian times and she spent a great deal of time in her nursery with her nanny and her brother. This allowed her to nurture her imagination, spending time playing with the mice that scuttled beneath the floorboards and the eclectic range of pets the children looked after. Who knows what stories were formed observing and playing with these animals?
- Develop a scientific curiosity
Potter’s interest in animals extended beyond seeking cute companions. With her brother, she would boil their creatures once dead and study their bones. This curiosity about living things surely played a role in how she conceived and illustrated her stories.
- Develop your drawing skills
Illustrations play an important part in children’s fiction and many of most memorable works feature striking imagery to match. Potter’s watercolours are particularly iconic – works of art in their own right but also detailled enough to tell the story without the words. Her artistic talents were also used for scientific purposes. She collaborated with natural historian Charles McIntosh to illustrate the specimens of fungi he collected.
- Fail at a first career
Potter’s collaboration with McIntosh led to her writing her own scientific paper on fungi. It was considered good enough to be read at the Linnean Society but since women were barred it had to be read by a man on her behalf. She received feedback on the work in order to prepare it for publication but perhaps sensitive to the criticism she turned her back on science, thankfully for us, and was drawn to her creative endeavours instead.
- Don’t give up
Potter struggled to find a publisher so she self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit, a fruitful decision that led to Frederick Warne snapping it up and publishing it with huge success. Frederick Warne became her long-term publishing, although that didn’t stop Potter self-publishing when she disagreed with her publisher’s decisions about her work.
- Do your research
Potter’s great scientific mind was always in operation, striving for accuracy. When she wrote the Tailor of Gloucester, she visited a tailor shop to get a real sense of what the place looked like in order to capture it accurately with her trademark illustrations.
- Experience heartbreak
One of Potter’s great loves was Norman Warne, who was part of the family business that published her books. Although they got engaged, her parents disapproved of the union and Warne died of lymphatic leukaemia aged 37 before they had the opportunity to wed. Heartbroken Potter through herself into creating her books.
- Escape to the country
After losing her love, she fled to the Lake District purchasing a house with the earnings from her books. Her love of animals and nature was rejuvenated in the countryside and here she was inspired to write many more stories. Her connection with the Lake District has been a lasting legacy and there you can visit her home and visit the World of Beatrix Potter, a family attraction celebrating her work.
- Get savvy with merchandise
Ahead of her time, Potter created spin-off products representing her characters, which were perfectly designed for the transition from drawing to cuddly toy or doll. She also created a board game. Even today Peter Rabbit crockery and chinaware is a popular gift for new-borns.
- Bail out your publisher
Potter was the star author for her publisher Frederick Warne and without her they would have faced bankruptcy after facing a family fraud scandal. The author could have walked away but stayed loyal to them until she called time on her writing career, perhaps to acknowledge their contribution to her success and maybe out of loyalty for the man she once loved.
If you’d like to revisit the life and work of Beatrix Potter in more depth, you can watch Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge here.