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.”
2. 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.)
6. 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.”
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.