Reading Beyond “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”

by Lisa Ripperton
April 4, 2019

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. 

Titles recommended for younger children (ages 2-6)

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.

Titles recommended for slightly older children (ages 4-7)

This next group of tales offers lots of action-packed drama for children who are ready for it:

Titles recommended for older children (ages 5-8)

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.

Taking delight in unfamiliar words and phrases

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”.

All words belong to children

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!

Books designed especially for small hands

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.

Signs that a book resonates with a child

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.

Share your experience

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.

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