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Children’s Books: 14 Reasons The Tale of Peter Rabbit Should Be Banned

54 Comments

children's books peter rabbit

Let’s just get this out here right now: I found certain children’s books disturbing as a child. Some children’s books I still find disturbing as an adult.

Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit is one such book.

It is possible my children—one now an adult and one dangerously close—have never heard the story. I certainly didn’t read it to them. One received a baby quilt with illustrations from Beatrix Potter’s books, when he was born. Wrapping him in it was cause for inner debate: illustrations to the inside where I couldn’t see them, or on the outside so they wouldn’t touch and frighten him by osmosis. Usually I picked up another blanket.

This week I unexpectedly received independent confirmation that I was not alone in the deep discomfort I experienced as a child with this book. Support came unsolicited from a reasonable individual who is both highly intelligent and extremely well read. Of course, during the same conversation I was introduced to an alternate reading of the tale, a deeply satisfying association with the young rabbits who earned a bowl of blackberries for their good behavior from another reasonable individual, also highly intelligent and extremely well read.

Perhaps it just goes to show: one man’s nightmare is another’s tale of triumph. Okay, so maybe the book shouldn’t really be banned. But…

Let me explain why the Tale of Peter Rabbit is distressing. Perhaps you’ll see it my way.

1. Your father was baked into a pie

I don’t think the story could start off any worse than with four sweet, furry bunnies being shuffled out the door by a mother with a daily reminder to stay away from Mr. McGregor’s garden: “Your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

children's books peter rabbit 32. An immediate sense of foreboding: Peter was on his way to big, big trouble

Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail were, reportedly, “good little bunnies.” Peter was “very naughty.” He was set up for failure. For a sensitive young reader, it was just a matter of time and the waiting (and page-turning) was nearly unbearable.

3. He lost his shoes

I’m told the sense of security that comes from snugly laced shoes is not universal. But I don’t believe it. Potter has the hapless little rabbit losing his shoes before the reader can count all ten toes. One here in the cabbages, the other there amongst the potatoes.

4. The gooseberry net!

Gooseberry nets belong in a B horror film. I’ve never eaten a gooseberry. The very sound of the word leaves me frozen in fear of being caught in a gooseberry’s net. Without shoes.

5. Brass buttons on a navy blue coat

Beatrix Potter may as well have snagged me in the gooseberry net along with Peter. Maybe I owned a similar coat. Or had brass buttons on some item of clothing. I had the sensation when reading the story of being inside the blue jacket with the brass buttons. (Writers, a tip: use detail. Over 40 years later and I’m still not over the brass buttons.)

children's books peter rabbit 26. He gave himself up for lost

Peter gave up and shed big tears. A boy only did that when he felt completely hopeless. It was devastating.

7. Peter lost his clothes

As though losing his shoes were not bad enough, now he lost his clothes. He was naked (always upsetting in a children’s story, unless it involved the Emperor, in which case it was hysterical) and pursued by an angry gardener with a rake. Now he couldn’t run; he just had to hide.

8. Mr. McGregor had huge feet

The only image of Mr. McGregor that I recall is of his boot about to crush a terrified little bunny. Peter has no shoes and Mr. McGregor has an enormous boot. 

9. Beatrix Potter is a villain from the wizarding world

Beatrix sounds suspiciously like Bellatrix. And her last name is Potter. I think it’s pretty clear who we’re dealing with here, and it’s more than a little Lestrange.

10. It keeps getting worse

Just when I would feel relief that Peter was about to escape, another hopeless disaster presents itself. He couldn’t get out under the door in the wall because he was a “fat little rabbit.” A “good rabbit” wouldn’t have eaten so much lettuce that he couldn’t get under a door. (Name me one person who ever got fat eating lettuce?) This may somehow relate to my never liking the youth camp stuff-one-more-marshmallow-in-your-mouth game called “Pudgy Bunnies.”

peter rabbit blue jacket

11. There’s a field mouse with a pea in its mouth

I don’t know why that matters but there’s something very bad about a field mouse holding a pea. Whatever it is runs deeper than the mouse’s lack of compassion.

12. Mr. McGregor turned Peter’s jacket and shoes into a scarecrow

Holy hell. Who does that?

13. His mother was cooking turnips

I was never comfortable with turnips.

14. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail got their blackberries

You know what? Don’t even get me started on these goody two-shoes who always did the right thing and never had to run for their lives from Mr. McGregor’s rake. Bet you a dime and a donut that Mopsy put Peter up to it.

I’ll bet she got his blackberries, too.

Photo by Jim the Photographer, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Illustrations by Frederick Warne, public domain. Post by LW Lindquist.

Your Comments

54 Comments so far

  1. Sharon O says:

    Totally cute writing. I loved it. But I also love the Peter Rabbit stories and also the ‘show’ now on Nick Jr.
    I needed something light hearted to read this morning. Thank you.

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Thanks, Sharon. :) The person I was talking to about Peter Rabbit (the conversation that led to the post) really liked the story and didn’t experience the angst I did with it. But I associated more with Peter, and she with the bunnies who got the blackberries at the end, not the belly ache.

      So I don’t suppose we can really ban it… ;-)

  2. Dea says:

    Well, on a positive note, at least there are no wolves in the story eating grandmothers alive and finding their end in a pot of boiling water. Just saying…

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Which is so funny, because Red Riding Hood didn’t bother me. ;) I did think her plight was very predictable — I mean, who couldn’t see some disaster coming when she was sent off into the woods alone? But it didn’t scare me. Peter Rabbit? 101 Dalmatians? Oh, yeah. Oh my. :)

      Was just having a conversation here about how fairy tales help children learn and face frightening situations, and I wonder if the writers of them knew this on some level.

  3. L. L. Barkat says:

    The Beatrix Bellatrix thing totally made me laugh.

    I love the style of this piece. It takes a good head to get back into the child’s mind and assume the more limited perspective (like the wonderful thing about the turnips). Quite smart. Quite amusing. :)

    • LW Lindquist says:

      That was a late addition — attesting to the benefit of letting a piece sit a while and coming back to it. Trying to learn how to keep revising a “funny” piece to make the funny funnier. ;-)

  4. I wish Katherine Paterson would come over and read this. She’d like it. Some of her books were banned.

    One thing about these disturbing things? I think I could have come up with them (and worse) myself, when I was a girl. That’s probably why I like this book so much and read it over and over again to my young kids. (Confession: I always had the most fun reading the part about the father in a pie. I always did it with a certain tone of voice and facial expression—dispassionate, aloof, the way I imagine certain Jane Austen characters.)

    And you know, it never occurred to me that Mopsy put Peter up to it, but now that you mention it…

    Totally agree with LL’s comment about the style. “…and it’s more than a little Lestrange.”

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Honestly, Monica, I don’t even *remember* the line about baking father rabbit in the pie. When I pulled the story up to look at it, I was even more horrified than I was when I was small. Apparently it was traumatic enough my memory was seared.

      What did me in was the one-thing-after-another and knowing he was going to be in more trouble and/or danger with every page. Like the person who can’t make a single good choice to save his life. Reading the book was an exercise in dread. :)

  5. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    There is so much violence in Mother Goose too. Wow. It is a wonder we all made it through childhood unscathed. Or maybe we didn’t :)

    Four and 20 black birds baked in a pie
    All the Kings Horses and All His Men couldn’t manage to heal the poor soul who tumbled off the wall
    Jack scorched his bum on a candle
    Who lives in a shoe?
    There were bare cupboards and broken crowns and well it goes on and on.

    Poor Peter though may have had it the worst.

    This is delightful, Lyla. I want more of this sort of writing. Brilliantly funny.

    Or should I cry. It’s a hard call to make.

    • LW Lindquist says:

      I don’t know if you remember when we did the Ordinary Genius book club, but I talked about the sick feeling I had when I read the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, too. :) But Addonizio talks in her book about this idea that fairy tales are important in our development because they give children a manageable framework in which to confront fears. I’ve always found this fascinating, almost the idea that children need the chance to rehearse these things in a benign environment in order to be able to confront them when the dangers are real.

      http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2012/10/17/ordinary-genius/

  6. My children, especially my oldest, loved this book. But have you ever read her other stories? Talk about disturbing – we have a whole collection of them. Also have you noticed what high level of vocabulary she employed? Everything from the sparrows who “implored him to exert himself” to the use of terms like “soporific” in other tales. Perhaps Potter should be required reading for students studying for the vocabulary portion of the GRE!

    • LW Lindquist says:

      I have to say I haven’t read her others. (Peter was enough. ;-) ) I love what you’re saying about her vocabulary, though. Maybe I should pick up those other titles and learn a few new words. ;-)

  7. Jon Lewis says:

    mmmmm…turnips…

  8. So cute. I was not nurtured with books before I could read, so I wasn’t even familiar with Beatrix Potter and the Story of Peter Rabbit until I was an adult with children of my own. I’ll have to ask them if I frightened them with my enthusiasm for the story. =)

  9. Glynn says:

    And Peter was a thief, too, who believed in instant gratification!

    Lyla, you are a rabblerouser!

  10. Donna says:

    Wow… I need to go back and read this story – I don’t remember any of this! I cracked up at the reference to Harry Potter… thanks for the Hyperlink … I needed it!

    The violence in Fairy Tales has always been a big topic of discussion in my former life in Early Childhood Education. I agree with Addonizio, but they’re not for every child that’s for sure. Like Sweet Little Lyla with a heart so big and a keen ability to feel deeply and even take the perspective of others at a young age! Although, now that I think about it this adventure in rabbit living may have helped you learn about yourself… to maybe see how absolutely kind hearted and sensitive you were/are, and maybe taught you about speaking up for the little guy as well as yourself? so even still I wonder if it served a purpose?

    • LW Lindquist says:

      You give me too much credit, Donna. ;-) It’s more likely I the type of personality that felt guilty about everything (though my parents will tell you I was a fairly compliant child so it wasn’t that I actually *was* guilty of everything), so identifying with Peter was no-brainer. :)

  11. Gah!

    There is far too much weird scariness in children’s stories. Like Patricia, I never knew of these tales until adulthood. Oh, I’m so glad because I already have enough emotional distress with clowns and dolls.

  12. Linda says:

    I understand – completely. We had a big record with this story on it (Do you remember records?), and it was just really kind of creepy.
    And another thing…..we had a big “Pinocchio” book. It smelled funny and the illustrations were frightening. I was afraid to open the silly thing when I was a little girl. I don’t think I’d want to open it now.

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Yes, Linda, I remember records. Grew up with them, including a set of fairy tales on records with books to follow along. I loved them (in a love-hate sort of way since more often than not the stories creeped me out but I couldn’t seem to resist their pull). Parts of Pinocchio were okay. I had to skip other parts. If the book had smelled funny that probably would have been a deal breaker for me. ;-)

  13. I love it for the horror.

  14. Heather Eure says:

    I’m snort-laughing. “Holy Hell. Who does that?”

    The Hannibal Lector of the gardening club, that’s who.

  15. Heather Eure says:

    Lyla, you should check out the dactylic delights of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an ABC book by Edward Gorey. Terrible.
    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/01/19/edward-gorey-the-gashlycrumb-tinies/

    Like I said… Terrible.

    • LW Lindquist says:

      The Tinies are so cool. ;-) If you ever have the chance, be sure to stop at the Gorey house on Cape Cod. http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2013/08/21/edward-gorey-house/

      That kind of thing I actually really enjoy, and did then. It was the idea of Peter getting in trouble with such dire consequences (capture, death by pie, belly ache, no blackberries — that kind of stuff) that I think made Potter’s tale such a traumatic read for me.

      One of my favorites from Gorey:

      edward gorey doll in window

      • Heather Eure says:

        Yes! Of course you’re familiar with him. I now remember the feature on the Gorey house come to think of it.
        I understand the distinction you make between the two. Peter kept making choices that inched him closer toward the middle of a flaky pie crust, or worse, the wrath of his overwrought mother. The Tinies fate was certain… and rather quick.

        The picture! Alas, is that poor Yorick? ;)

  16. Marcy says:

    I’m sitting here reading all this, really, I have the entire collection of Peter Rabbit Books & the movies. They were my favorites and the grandchildren loved them. Having worked in a Library for ten years I can think of far more worst. These stories were told before they put Chuckie the doll under the bed, now that was a nightmare. These were sweet poems, stories of Mother Goose and the only things out there that were available to read to our kids at the time. Your right about the big bad wolf and the fact he liked to blow your house down. Didn’t care for that one bit but sweet little Peter Rabbit was like a little boy always getting in trouble. I do hope it taught many a child how to stay out of mischief. Yes, I do remember good ole Dad being eaten in a pie and let’s not forget Peter’s Mom always being courted by the heavy set older Rabbit. What a tale we could make from that one.

  17. I never read Peter Rabbit, I was raised on the Yarn of the Nancy Bell, about cannibalism at sea. But this piece is hilarious nevertheless and makes me want to go out and get a copy. Every section had me laughing, but I’m with Heather about “Holy Hell. Who does that?” Perfect!

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Oh my. I just read Nancy Bell.

      Holy hell. ;-)

      • OK. This is becoming a thing in and of itself: Holy Hell…LOL!

        • Heather Eure says:

          I’m with you, Richard. Searching for a Holy Hell emoji. :O

          *googles Nancy Bell* How have I not heard of these books?! Hmm.
          Our house enjoyed Lemony Snicket and the Series of Unfortunate Events.

          • The Yarn of the Nancy Bell by W.S. Gilbert was a take off of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, or so it seemed to me. http://www.jsward.com/shanty/poems/NancyBell.html

            I still have it committed to memory after more than 50 years. So it must have impressed me. Although I never felt compelled to cannibalism, even when I was poor.

          • Marcy says:

            Heather,
            I’ve never heard of Nancy Bell either but your books you talk about my ten year old grandson has read. Grandmommy makes sure all her grandchildren get the best of what’s available and first editions of course. Heather you must be the age of my last child, still stuck in the 30′s. Wait until your children really get grown and you will wish you had baked one or two in a pie and ate it. Just saying, none are alike and one is always in trouble like Peter.

  18. Paul W says:

    Lyla:

    I’m with Glynn. You are a rabbitrouser!!!

  19. I missed out on the honey of Winnie the Pooh. It scared the wits out of me. I never got over Eeyore’s tail hanging on a tree.

  20. Marcy says:

    You guys, we are being completely silly about this, right? I still on my favorite book & none of you have heard of it. The Red Tops in the big North Woods, it’s in great shape and the kids wear red & white mushroom hats & live in a tree. I read Holly Hobbie & The Little House to my daughter’s but to my last child it was books by Gyo Fujikawa because of the adorable pictures and then Puff the Magic Dragon to my now 10 year old grandson. My collection of children books numbers more than 200 plus and growing. If I haven’t read it then something is very wrong. Oh, by the way, don’t forget about the duck sisters in Peter Rabbit, there large behinds just might put someone under water. (:

  21. Marcy Terwilliger says:

    LW, you just never know, I rather be silly & funny all the time but there r times when the serious side is needed. My secret dream was 2 b a clean stand-up comic, most the time I am that funny, that’s how life should b. I have been to your state & that’s wonderful where u live. I’ve bought the newer Little House books that have pictures & r an easy read. Came out about 14 or more years ago & saved them 4 my granddaughter. Dayona Marie is 6 and loves them, she likes to talk like them also. The prices have really gone up & to complete the set I need 2 more. I’ll do silly real good now.

  22. I never heard of Peter Rabbit until I was an adult. And even then, I didn’t read it – I saw a video! And I so loved the drawings, that I bought baby dishes for grandkids, etc. I have a love/hate relationship with being scared by books/visuals. Cannot stand horror movies. Detest them. But murder mysteries – oh, yeah. By the bushel basketful. So maybe we could just see Beatrix as an early purveyor of good mystery?

  23. JLYate says:

    Yes, the fear and privations are there, but so is Mother Rabbit’ excellent diet sense – lettuce, carrots, peas, berries and Peter going for chamomile. Get the kids eating fruit again!

  24. Marcy says:

    Then those sweet little rabbits leave behind their poop, yes, there little pellet poop in my yard. From eating all the good stuff in my garden. They love to eat the heads right off the tulips, behead them they do. Then they hop into a clump of flowers, you walk over and look down on them. They think they are hidden, quiet as a mouse, I do believe you could really scare one to death by saying “Boo.”

  25. Laura Brown says:

    In my worst dreams, I’m barefoot and without my glasses. Terror. It was only a few years ago that I was able to get on an airplane wearing only sandals, and if we didn’t have to remove them to fly, I probably never would have, um, taken that step.

    Somewhere I have a wee book telling “The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit.” Today he would be called a bully.

  26. I missed this the first time around and now am HOWLING! Great writing, LW! I have this same discomfort with a lot of children’s fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella. Heck, I used to have actual nightmares each April when we would watch the broadcast television airing of Wizard of Oz. But you are right about one thing, Peter Cotton Tail and Beatrix Potter are portrayed as ethereal, water-colored, pastel story pictures, and oh boy, is that a ruse!

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Let’s not get me started on the flying monkeys… ;-)

      Wizard of Oz was excruciating.

      • Marcy says:

        Really, you guys are blowing the house down with the big, bad wolf. I can’t get over it. Would love to walk up behind you all and go BOO! Not one Fairy Tale Book ever gave me the spooks.

        Once we get to “Movie Themes” I can tell you stories that will scare you to death. This has been a gas.

        • LW Lindquist says:

          Marcy, you make me laugh. :) Yeah, I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, and those images stuck with me.

          You probably won’t be impressed to know that when I was small there was this local restaurant called the Jolly Troll. The troll in the tv commercials scared the stuffing out of me, so I could hardly bear to eat there. Still not a fan of restaurants with creepy mascots. ;-)

  27. Angela says:

    Laughed out loud reading this! Last year I opened a Peter Rabbit collection to read to my seven-year-old daughter and was surprised by the stories. I found myself fighting the urge to sugarcoat, as her eyes became saucers. In the end, I decided the realities of his bunny life held some good lessons.

    I remember reading through various fairy tales in a university lit class. Afterwards, we read through “cleaned up” versions and laughed. They certainly lost something in translation.

    Thanks!

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Seems like a lot of stories have been made much more benign. It’s fascinating to read some of the fairy tales if you go back closer to their original versions.

      So even while I was frightened by some of them, I find their modern iterations rather insipid. :)


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Children's Books: 14 Reasons The Tale of Peter ... - May 29, 2014

    […] Beatrix Potter's 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' is a disturbing book. Here are 14 tongue-in-cheek reasons it should be banned.  […]

  2. A Few Places I’ve Been Lately - May 31, 2014

    […] way we remember them, I suppose. We’re having a fun discussion over at Tweetspeak about the 14 Reasons the Tale of Peter Rabbit Should Be Banned. Come weigh […]

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