Beatrix Potter has captured the minds and hearts of generations of children by creating a magical world for her readers. Her twenty-three little books are full of memorable characters, as well as unforgettable incidents. In her stories, she couples well-crafted text with exquisite illustrations to draw children in, keeping them mesmerized throughout the tale.
Yet most of us only read The Tale of Peter Rabbit and stop there, having finished a mere fraction of Beatrix Potter’s works. We did slightly better in our family, but still managed to read together only five out of the fifteen books we recommend below. We began with The Tale of Peter Rabbit and read it over and over again. Once that story was exhausted, we continued with The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. After that it was The Tale of Jeremy Fisher. We read each of these stories several times before finally moving on to Appley-Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes. This book of short rhymes continued to be a family favorite for a number of years. And — with their harmonious marriage of illustrations and text — reading Beatrix Potter's tales brought the adults in our family as much joy as it did the younger listeners.
We do recommend that you eventually read all fifteen tales showcased here to your children. But it's important to start with a simpler tale, no matter at what age you begin.
The Tale of Tom Kitten is a fine one to start with, as is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, there is a greater element of suspense, so some do prefer to read that story first to ensure their child's engagement. You may want to wait to introduce The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies until later, as both are sequels to The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
If you wish to select a book based on the animal(s) your child is most interested in at the time, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle features a hedgehog and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse a wood mouse. Appley-Dapply Nursery Rhymes includes poems about mice, rabbits, and hedgehogs, as well as moles, and guinea pigs.
Diggory Diggory Delvet!
A little old man in black velvet;
He digs and he delves—
You can see for yourselves
The mounds dug by Diggory Delvet.
This next group of tales offers lots of action-packed drama for children who are ready for it:
This final group of Beatrix Potter books have stories that are considerably longer and more involved. Many readers, however, consider these stories to be her best.
Children will find the unfamiliar words and phrases they encounter in the Beatrix Potter titles to be delightful. For instance, take the well-known passage in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, where “Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.” The words “implored” and “exert” both contain elements of onomatopoeia, a literary device which children can intuitively understand. You can almost hear the begging in “implored” (which takes an eternity to say with the long “o”). And the great effort in the first syllable in “exert” followed by the sudden push in the final “t”.
Children can frequently grasp the meaning of such words and phrases from the context and soon use them in meaningful settings.
Annis Duff reports in her “Bequest of Wings” that a couple of days after reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit to her young son, she “found him one morning, crouched on the rocks by the water, peering anxiously at one of his little boats that had got washed in under a log, and saying ‘I implore you to exert yourself.’ ”
In the following chapter, Duff affirms her belief that “all words belong to children. They choose them for their own use by the simple process of taking possession of the ones they need to express what they want to say. If children do not hear speech that has variety and liveliness, and if their books do not have unfamiliar words tucked in like bright surprises among the everyday ones, how in the world are they ever going to accumulate a store of language to draw on, as new experiences and sensations increase the need and desire to communicate with the people they live with?”
Beatrix Potter sprinkles polysyllabic words sparingly in her prose but frequently enough that young listeners will find plenty of new words to make their own!
Purchasing a copy of The Classic Tales of Beatrix Potter may be tempting. After all, it contains all 23 stories in 384 pages in an 8.5 x 11 volume weighing 3 pounds. But, we do recommend that you buy the little individual volumes instead.
In these smaller volumes, there is typically text on one side of each page spread and an illustration on the other. At approximately 4" x 5 1/2" and weighing 4.6 ounces, each little book fits easily into small hands, so your youngsters can scrutinize the pages to their heart's content. And with such stunning illustrations, the odds are high that they will want to!
NOTE: Beatrix Potter had a sheltered childhood, schooled only by governesses. The one bright spot in the year were the summer holidays spent in Scotland and the Lake Country. Each year she and her older brother Bertram brought home with them plants, including flowers and leaves, as well as insects and other animals. These she then sketched in nature notebooks. With so much time at her disposal, she was able to attain a high degree of excellence in drawing and painting. Among the pets she had in London were a pair of mice, a rabbit, and a hedgehog, allowing her to render them from life. No wonder her illustrations of those creatures are so life-like!
Children who take the opportunity to examine the illustrations closely will discover lots of additional details. These details often supplement the story, perhaps by showing an action not described in words. Alternatively Beatrix Potter might have drawn a look that sheds light on a character. No doubt children are also implicitly absorbing some sense of what good art is, a yardstick by which they can measure other works of art later.
One sure mark of a book resonating with a child occurs when ideas from it surface in his imaginative play. This mark may be evident in his drawings, or when language from the book appears in his speech. The Beatrix Potter books frequently have such an effect on children who experience them over and over again in their early years.
Did we omit any of your favorite Beatrix Potter books from our list of recommended titles above? Or do you have a story to share about how a Beatrix Potter book affected one of your children? Please share in the comments below.
The criteria we use in selecting books for children varies depending on the age of the child. However, since we've recently been focusing on criteria for choosing books for children in the early years, we wanted to share a passage on this very topic that we found to be thought-provoking, as well as instructive. The passage is from the first chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller" (1913) in which she lays out just one essential criterion for selecting stories to tell to children of kindergarten age.
Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to "stories" here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.
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"Apperception is a formidable and sometimes confusing term for a very simple and easy-to-understand mental process. I once told Seumus MacManus' deliciously humorous story of Billy Beg and his Bull to a group of foreign boys and girls in one of New York's East Side Settlement Houses. The children listened with apparent appreciation, but, halfway along in the story, it occurred to me to ask them if they had ever seen a bull. No one answered me at first. Then Pietro, a little dusky-eyed son of Italy, raised a grimy hand.
"I seen one last summer when we was on a fresh-air," he said. "It's a bigger cow, a bull is, with the bicycle handle-bars on her head."
Pietro's description of a bull was an example of apperception, the method by means of which a new idea is interpreted, classified, "let into" the human mind. He knew the class, cows. He also knew the class, bicycles. He did not know the class, bulls—at least vividly enough to be able to put the idea into terms of a verbal explanation and description. So he did the most natural thing in the world, the only possible mental process in fact by means of which children or adults classify the new. He interpreted it in terms of the old, explaining the unfamiliar idea, bull, by means of the familiar ideas, cow and a bicycle.
This, then, is apperception. It is the involuntary mental process by means of which the human mind makes its own the strange, the new, the unfamiliar idea by a method of fitting it into the class of familiar ideas already known. Apperception is a means of quick mental interpretation. It is the welcoming of strangers to the mind-habitation, strangers who come every day in the guise of unfamiliar names, terms, scenes, and phrases, and determining in which corner of the brain house they will fit most comfortably. The most natural process is finally to give these new ideas an old mind corner to rest in, or an old brain path in which to travel.
A child's mind at the age when he is able to concentrate upon listening to a story, three or four years of age—kindergarten age—is not a very crowded house. It is a mind-house tenanted by a few and very simple concepts which he has made his own through his previous home, mother, and play experiences. He is familiar with his nursery, his pets, his family, his toys, his food, his bed. If he is a country child he knows certain flowers, birds and farm animals, not as classes—flower, bird and animal—but buttercup, robin, and sheep. If he is a city child his mind has a very different tenantry, and he thinks in terms of street, subway, park, fire engine, ambulance. These to the city child are also individual ideas, not classes. He knows them as compelling, noisy, moving ideas which he has seen and experienced, but they do not at all appeal to him as classes."
"The story of "The Three Bears" is an obviously interesting one to children upon entering school. It has its basis of interest in its apperceptive quality, and it illustrates better than almost any other story for children those qualities which bring about quick mental interpretation on the part of the listener. The unusual, strange, hazardous characters in the story, the three bears, are introduced to the child in old, comfortably familiar terms which catch his interest from the first sentence of the story. It is extremely doubtful if the story of three bears set in a polar or forest environment would ever have been popular so long or made so many children happy as has the story of the historical three bears who lived in a house, ate porridge from bowls, sat in chairs and slept in beds. Nor are these the only apperceptive links between the life of the bears and that of the child. There is a tiny bear in the story, the size, one may presuppose, of the child who is listening to the story. The to-be-classified idea, bear, is presented to children in this old folk tale in terms of already known ideas, house, porridge, chair, bed, and tiny. Very few story tellers have appreciated the underlying psychologic appeal of the story of "The Three Bears," but it illustrates a quality in stories that we must look for if we wish to make the story we select a permanency in the child's mental life."
"The apperceptive basis of story telling consists in study on the part of the story teller to discover what is the store of ideas in the minds of the children who will listen to the story.
Has the story too many new ideas for the child to be able to classify them in terms of his old ideas? On the other hand, has it one or two new thoughts so carefully presented through association with already familiar concepts that the child will be able to make them his own and give them a permanent place in his mind with the old ones?
A child's mind is an eerie place for an adult to try and enter. Teachers, kindergartners [what we now call kindergarten teachers], and story tellers are a little prone to think that a knowledge of one child's mental content gives them the power to know the mind of the child-at-large. Our psychologists have given us studies of child mind, not child minds. This mind hypothesis is, perhaps, sufficient for the general working out of systems of teaching, but success in the delicate art of story telling means a most critical study and observation of the minds of the special group of children who will hear the story. The story teller must ask herself these questions:
"What do these children know?"
"Have they any experience other than that of the home on which to bank?"
"Do they come from homes of leisure or homes of industry?"
"Have they had a country or a city experience?"
"Have they passed from the stage of development when toys formed their play interest to the game stage in which chance and hazard interest them more deeply?"
"Are they American children, familiar with American institutions, or are they newcomers to our land, unfamiliar with and confused by our ways?"
When she has satisfactorily answered these questions, the story teller will select her story having for its theme, atmosphere, and motif an idea or group of ideas that will touch the child's mental life as she has discovered it and by means of which it will find a permanent place in his mind through its comfortable friendliness and familiarity."
"The child who has come directly from his home and the sheltering arms of his mother or nurse should not, at first, be taken far afield through the lands of fairies and giants. If he is told a fairy story, it should have for its content the sweet, homely qualities that characterize the home.
I am using as a good example of the apperceptive story, "The Cap that Mother Made." The child listeners are carried, it is true, to the palace of a King and are formally introduced to a Princess, but this is brought about through the familiar symbols of the home: mother, brothers, the farmer, and the queer little cap with its red and green stripes and blue tassel. Although Anders, the story hero, spends a happy hour at the Princess' ball, he finally finds his way home again, and the story has an apperceptive appeal which is unusual. It is full of precious, familiar concepts that establish an association in the child's mind between fairyland and home. After hearing the story, he will be very apt always to remember a palace as a very charming place to visit, but not to stay in, when one may go home to mother."
"Once upon a time there was a little boy named Anders, who had a new cap. And a prettier cap you never have seen, for mother herself had knit it; and nobody could make anything quite so nice as mother did. It was altogether red, except a small part in the middle which was green, for the red yarn had given out; and the tassel was blue. His brothers and sisters walked about squinting at him, and their faces grew long with envy. But Anders cared nothing about that. He put his hands in his pockets and went out for a walk, for he wished everybody to see how fine he looked in his new cap. The first person he met was a farmer walking along by the side of a wagon load of wood. He made a bow so deep that his back came near breaking. He was dumbfounded, I can tell you, when he saw it was nobody but Anders. "Dear me," said he, "if I did not think it was the gracious little count himself!" And then he invited Anders to ride in his wagon.
But when one has a pretty, red cap with a blue tassel, one is too fine to ride in a wagon, and Anders walked proudly by.
At the turn of the road he met the tanner's son, Lars. He was such a big boy that he wore high boots, and carried a jack-knife. He gaped and gazed at the cap, and could not keep from fingering the blue tassel.
"Let's trade caps," he said, "I will give you my jack-knife to boot."
Now this knife was a very good one, though half the blade was gone and the handle was a little cracked; and Anders knew that one is almost a man as soon as one has a jack-knife. But still it did not come up to the new cap which mother had made.
"Oh, no, I'm not so stupid as all that; no, I'm not!" Anders said.
And then he said good-by to Lars with a nod; but Lars only made faces at him, for he had not been to school much, poor boy; and, besides, he was very much put out because he could not cheat Anders out of his cap which mother had made.
Anders went along, and he met a very old, old woman who courtesied till her skirts looked like a balloon. She called him a little gentleman, and said that he was fine enough to go to the royal court ball.
"Yes, why not?" thought Anders. "Seeing that I am so fine, I may as well go and visit the King."
And so he did. In the palace yard stood two soldiers with shining helmets, and with muskets over their shoulders; and when Anders came to the gate, both the muskets were leveled at him.
"Where may you be going?" asked one of the soldiers.
"I am going to the court ball," answered Anders.
"No, you are not," said the other soldier, stepping forward. "Nobody is allowed there without a uniform."
But just at this instant the princess came tripping across the yard. She was dressed in white silk with bows of gold ribbon. When she saw Anders and the soldiers, she walked over to them.
"Oh," she said, "he has such a very fine cap on his head, and that will do just as well as a uniform."
And she took Anders' hand and walked with him up the broad marble stairs where soldiers were posted at every third step, and through the beautiful halls where courtiers in silk and velvet stood bowing wherever he went. For no doubt they thought him a prince when they saw his fine cap.
At the farther end of the largest hall a table was set with golden cups and golden plates in long rows. On huge silver dishes were piles of tarts and cakes, and red wine sparkled in shining glasses.
The princess sat down at the head of this long table; and she let Anders sit in a golden chair by her side.
"But you must not eat with your cap on your head," she said, putting out her hand to take it off.
"Oh, yes, I can eat just as well," said Anders, holding on to his cap; for if they should take it away from him nobody would any longer believe that he was a prince; and, besides, he did not feel sure that he would get it back again.
"Well, well, give it to me," said the princess, "and I will give you a kiss."
The princess was certainly beautiful, and Anders would have dearly liked to be kissed by her, but the cap which mother had made he would not give up on any condition. He only shook his head.
"Well, but see," said the princess; and she filled his pockets with cakes, and put her own gold chain around his neck, and bent down and kissed him.
But he only moved farther back in his chair and did not take his hands away from his head.
Then the doors were thrown open, and the King entered with a large number of gentlemen in glittering uniforms and plumed hats. The King himself wore a purple mantle which trailed behind him, and he had a large gold crown on his white curly hair.
He smiled when he saw Anders in the gilt chair.
"That is a very fine cap you have," he said.
"So it is," replied Anders. "Mother knit it of her very best yarn, and everybody wishes to get it away from me."
"But surely you would like to change caps with me," said the King, raising his large, heavy crown from his head.
Anders did not answer. He sat as before, and held on to his red cap which everybody was so eager to get. But when the King came nearer to him, with his gold crown between his hands, then Anders grew frightened as never before. If he did not take good care, the King might cheat him out of his cap; for a King can do whatever he likes.
With one jump Anders was out of his chair. He darted like an arrow through all the beautiful halls, down all the marble stairs, and across the yard.
He twisted himself like an eel between the outstretched arms of the courtiers, and over the soldiers' muskets he jumped like a little rabbit.
He ran so fast that the princess's necklace fell off his neck, and all the cakes jumped out of his pockets. But his cap he still had. He was holding on to it with both hands as he rushed into his mother's cottage.
His mother took him up in her lap, and he told her all his adventures, and how everybody wanted his cap. And all his brothers and sisters stood around and listened with their mouths open.
But when his big brother heard that he had refused to give his cap for the King's golden crown, he said that Anders was stupid. Just think how much money one might get for the King's crown; and Anders could have had a still finer cap.
That Anders had not thought of, and his face grew red. He put his arms around his mother's neck and asked:
"Mother, was I stupid?"
His mother hugged him close and kissed him.
"No, my little son," said she. "If you were dressed in silver and gold from top to toe, you could not look any nicer than in your little red cap."
Then Anders felt brave again. He knew well enough that mother's cap was the best cap in all the world."
"Successful story telling means, then, a careful consideration of the apperceptive basis of the story, first of all. This, reduced to very simple terms, means studying the mental life of a child and selecting for his first stories those that have a well-defined association through their word pictures, dialogue and plot with the child's own previous experience. When the story teller makes the question of apperception the first consideration in selecting her stories, she will find that her appeal to the children will be an active and successful one."
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This concludes this excerpt from the first chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller."
When selecting books for children you have spent a lot of time with, it's easy to identify objects and ideas that will be familiar to them. After all, you share so many of their experiences. However, once your child moves out into the world, or you adopt a child, or you begin reading to children in the broader community, it will take more effort on your part to choose books they resonate with, based on what they already know. Thinking about the questions Carolyn Sherwin Bailey posed above may offer some guidance.
To give you more practice in thinking about the apperceptive elements in a story, here are fourteen stories (all, incidentally, great to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of the chapter as having exceptional apperceptive appeal:
Do you have a memory of reading aloud where your child or student made a striking comment based on their apperception of the story? (E.g. Pietro's observations about the bull). We'd love to hear all about it in a comment below!