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The Tale of Peter Rabbit
    by John Cech

C. S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia books, thought that there were three ways of writing for children. One of the better ways (though not the best, he thought) was to let your story "grow out of a [tale] told to a particular child." Alice in Wonderland started this way. So did The Wind in the Willows, and the book that we're celebrating today -- Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which hopped into history a hundred and twelve years ago this month. Her book began as a letter to a child she knew -- Noel Moore, the son of Annie Carter Moore, who had been Potter's governess and friend. Annie had left the Potter household, gotten married, and soon had her own children. Potter wrote letters to them all, but her favorite seems to have been Noel, who was often bed-ridden as a young child. Here is how she began the letter:

My dear Noel,
I don't know what to write to you so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sand bank under the root of a big fir tree. "Now, my dears," said old Mrs. Bunny, "You may go into the field or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden."

Of course, that's the first place Peter goes and gorges himself and, "coming round the end of the cucumber frame," he meets up with Mr. McGregor, who gives chase, waving a rake and shouting, "Stop, thief!" Peter is so green and woozey around the whiskers from everything he's eaten that he nearly gets caught. Potter has yet to add the macabre fact that McGregor had snared Peter's father and put him into a pie. Nor has Potter found that supremely Victorian moment when Peter is caught in the gooseberry net and the birds fly down and with impeccable diction "implore him to exert himself." When her family and friends implore her to publish the story and she turns it into her first book, printed eight years after the letter in 1901, she will add these details and her miraculous pictures. She gave many of the first books away, and in one of these gift copies she remembered her own pet rabbit, Peter, the other inspiraiton for the story, who had just died. She wrote:

"whatever the limitations of his intellect or outward shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his dispostion was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet. An affectionate companion and a quiet friend."

Just like this book.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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Thursday, 29-Sep-2005 12:15:28 EDT

"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."