The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

“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. Mr. McGregor came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the top of Peter; but Peter wriggled out just in time, leaving his jacket behind him.” (The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Frederik Warne & Co, 1902)

At Bewitched Reads we discuss children’s books that have an element of ‘magic’ to their plot, locations in the story, and/or characters. The tales of Peter Rabbit do not sit neatly in this category – although we could argue that Peter’s multiple transitions between wild rabbit and human-like rabbit, requires some kind of magical thinking – but we are including it here because Beatrix Potter has certainly cast a spell over her readers to keep them coming back to the stories of Peter and friends for more than a century.

So what is this magic? Is it that Peter has the ability to sip camomile tea, like any human can, in the safety of his home, but run wild, just as wild rabbits do, outside the home, causing chaos wherever he goes? Or is it that this world of talking animals, that wear human clothes, is authenticated by the presence of Potter’s narrative voice – we know there are ‘good little bunnies’ and ‘naughty little bunnies’ because she makes that judgment for us, appearing (although limited) with the narrative ‘I’ through the stories.

It could be argued that the ‘magic’, particularly for Potter writing within the restricting times of the Victorian period, is that young rabbits (children) have choices – to wear human clothes and obey the rules of the adult world, or lose the disguise and take some risks, just for the fun of it. In the early 1900s, it certainly would have taken some sort of ‘magic’ to allow Peter to ‘get away’ with disobeying his mother, putting his life at risk, for no other reason than knowing that he can.

Much has been said of the theme of disobedience in Potters stories, but perhaps the reason readers keep coming back to the tales is not because it is fun to see Peter break the rules, but more the exhilaration of a young rabbit – a child – being able to decide for himself whether to do as his mum says or test the boundaries and do the opposite. And what is even more exhilarating is that there is very little judgement that follows his decision or indeed punishment.

The lack of punishment for Peter chasing down vegetables in Mr McGregor’s garden (not for hunger, but just to see if he could) is also a hotly contested subject; is he punished with camomile tea for supper or soothed with tea, tucked up in bed with a cold after hiding in a watering can? Potter doesn’t tell us, but she clearly points out that outside of the home there are consequences; Peter could have been killed, put in a pie, just like his father.

The rather abrupt way in which Potter outlines the threats to Peter’s life, and indeed the fate of his father (very matter-of-fact!), is not something we would normally associate with writing for children. There is no sugar-coating or ‘suggesting’ what might happen, rather it is what it is, and if he dies doing a naughty thing, he dies, and that is life. This, of course, was part of Potter’s insistence that children should not be talked down to, because children, just like rabbits, can be wild and disobedient, and they will be at odds with a rule-governed adult world, and some, for the rest of their lives.

As a naturalist, however, Potter shows us that this is just part of being a normal child, not an abnormal one (as Victorian society would have us believe). Peter loses his clothes in the garden and appears as any wild rabbit does, running away from a human, so in this way, Peter’s actions are perfectly natural to his biology. But even then, there are risks, and any child needs to understand how far they can push their natural instinct for exploring the world before it gets dangerous.

The role of Mrs. Rabbit, as parent, is to point out the dangers in an honest way, and if the risk is taken, hope that they have learnt their lesson, rather than restricting their freedom further. But the ‘naughty’ bunny is still our hero, not the ‘good’ bunnies with their milk and berries for supper, so Potter understands that her readers are always going to opt for adventure over taking safety instructions for an adult.

Of course, this is only the first adventure of Peter Rabbit; in the Complete Adventures, we see him grow into an adult and face similar threats, but this time in the role of guardian to younger rabbits, in trouble not through naughtiness, but by simply being exposed to the outside world. Here, and particularly in The Tale of Mr. Todd, Potter revisits the idea that the home is safe and the outside world is dangerous. The role of parent is not to change the outside world to make it safer, but accept the dangers so that their young will also know of the risks.

Again this means that Peter and friends are not your typical heroes, in fact many of their victories are by happy accident or just good luck, but perhaps Potter is emphasising here that the outcome isn’t what she wants readers to focus on, but the journey – the adventure – and part of that is taking the good and bad, the luck and the accidents, and hoping that by at least being part of it, rather than watching from the sidelines, you come out of it having learnt something valuable.

And there lies the magic – in the unexpected adventure. Naughty or not, we are going to want to explore that garden and see Mr. McGregor frustrated in his attempts to catch us. We want to be scared, knowing that there is safety on the other side of the gate; we want to lose the uniform, knowing that we can put it back on when we need to ‘fit-in’ again. We want to be dutiful at home, but care-free when out from under watchful eyes. Peter and friends give their readers the feeling of freedom, limitation, danger, and safety, conflicting states of being that children need to learn and adults need to balance responsibly throughout life.

It is interesting coming back to the stories as an adult, as in amongst the TV series, films, soft toys, home decorations and much more, you often forget the very grown-up themes of the original stories. A bunny that can talk and wear human clothes, whilst daring to break the rules, is probably what children will most come away with, but to revisit the stories means to understand Potter’s powers as a writer for all ages, weaving her magic through generation after generation.

Recommended for a reading age of nine onwards.

The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, F.Warne & Co, 2013

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn by Beatrice Blue

““Are you ok little horsie?” June asked. “Can’t you fly?” He shook his head. “I can help you,” said June. “We just have to make your fur shake and your tail flutter.”” (Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, by Beatrice Blue, Frances Lincoln, 2019)

The unicorn is often portrayed as the ultimate fantasy ‘pet’ of any young girl, with its colourful horse’s mane, magical (sometimes sparkly) horn spiralling out of its forehead, and its ability to protect from acts of evil. The generally accepted origins of its mythology, however, are somewhat the opposite, with the youthful girl playing the part of a temptress to capture the unicorn, ultimately leading to its death.

In actual fact, it is thought that the 7th century Greek description of a unicorn came from a fantasised reflection on the wilds of India – in particular the one-horned Indian rhino, which couldn’t be further from the beautiful image of the small colourful horse that appears in fairy tales today.

The Greek translation of this creature evolved to depict either a horse, goat, or ass, with a single, long, spiral horn in its forehead, a creature that was extremely fierce and almost impossible to capture, unless a virgin girl should stand in its path, at which point the unicorn would submit to her, laying its head on her chest. Its capture would normally end in a gruesome death, as the unicorn horn was valued for its ability to render any poison harmless.

Some tales tell of the guilt of the young girl for her part in the capture of the unicorn, and perhaps this is where we start to see the start of stories that depict the reverse – the girl that saves the unicorn and the girl that befriends the unicorn.

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn is one of those stories – the girl as saviour. June’s favourite past-time is to make-up stories about the woods near her home; whether it is exploring hidden castles or discovering magic wands, June knows that the woods hold secrets that only true believers in fairy tales can see. Until one day, she falls upon a herd of small horses learning how to fly – all but one.

June sets about trying to find ways to help the small horse fly just like the others in its family, but failure sets her on a different path, one which suggests that perhaps just doing something that would make the little creature happy would be enough to release its magic. One fortunate accident later, and the little unicorn has a horn (in fact an upside down ice-cream cone) and can fly. The horn, from that day forward, is a reminder of the kindness of that one little girl.

The concept is an interesting one; the horn is not part of the horse’s anatomy, but more of an accessory used as a symbol of the species origins. The idea that magic doesn’t have to be potions and the flicking of wands, but acts of kindness is also an important message for young readers; it grounds the fantasy in some form of reality and suggests that every young person has the power to do something magical for someone else.

One of the elements that is particularly appealing about this reimagining of the unicorn’s origins, is the fact that when failure strikes, June doesn’t stumble upon an answer, which is so often the case with these stories, but looks to her parents for guidance.

The parents in question, don’t give her the answer on a plate, but involve her in an imaginative and creative process that allows her to think of the answer herself. So often parents in children’s books are either absent, useless, or a hindrance, so it makes for a refreshing change that the parents here are sensible and treat the child’s concerns seriously, yet with a sprinkling of fun to engage the child’s imagination.

This is the first picture book from artist, illustrator, and animator, Beatrice Blue, and it is supported by her original drawings, which gives the book a very personal feel. The family unit that she depicts here, is one that she says she experienced herself as a child growing up in Spain, with creative parents and a younger sister that she would engage in all of her imaginative play.

It is an exciting literary start for this artist, and one that continues into her second outing, Once Upon a Dragon’s Fire, where she reimagines how dragons gained the ability to breathe fire. It is pleasing to see that the illustrations through her second book are more multicultural than her first, but nevertheless, Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, is sure to appeal to the imaginative abilities of any young female reader and to any girl that has dreamt of a unicorn for a friend.

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, by Beatrice Blue, published by Frances Lincoln, 2019.

Recommended for readers aged between four and seven.

The Savage by David Almond

“Once I started writing the story, it was like I couldn’t stop, which was strange for me. I’d never been one for stories. I couldn’t stand all that stuff about wizards and fairies and “once upon a time” and “they all lived happily ever after”. That’s not what life’s like. Me, I wanted blood and guts and adventures, so that’s what I wrote.” (The Savage by David Almond, Walker Books, 2008)

It is difficult to know what to call this book – is it a children’s novel or a graphic novel aimed at children? It has some of the typical features of a graphic novel in the way that the words and images interact with each other, but minus the usual speech bubbles and boxed images.

It is also interrupted by a traditional narrative in the first person from our main character, Blue Barker. The best we can say, is that it is a book somewhere between a children’s novel and a graphic novel, which is reflective of the conflict that it explores – to be the kind and caring Blue Barker of old, to let an inner darkness, called the Savage, take over, or be something of a mix between the two?

The Savage is a physical manifestation of Blue’s grief and anger over the death of his father, and also acts to remind readers of the power of words, as the Savage, essentially a fictional character of a story written by Blue to conquer his emotional turmoil, eventually makes the leap from Blue’s notebook into real-life situations.

To assume that this book is only about how children come to terms with grief, would be a mistake however, as the creation of the Savage also represents the importance for children to have a private life. This is a common theme in Almond’s books; in modern life children are constantly observed and supervised, but Almond illustrates that this is not always healthy.

Blue decides not to share his stories with his teacher and only reads the more ‘safe’ passages to his mother and sister, but the parts of his creation that are violent and gruesome, he keeps to himself. This is, in part, because he doesn’t think his teacher and mother will understand, but also because he himself has not grappled with the implications of this darkness inside him. To come out of the other side of grief, Blue has to first tackle his demons alone.

His anger eventually becomes debilitating and Blue and the Savage start to merge to the point where Blue feels himself to actually be the Savage. He sees himself standing over the school bully, Hopper, and punching him in the face, but he also sees himself as the Savage standing over his sister and reaching out to comfort her – he is both human and savage. It is at this point that Blue learns to let go of the Savage and in turn his grief and anger.

There is a Savage in everyone, says Blue, and Almond seems to be saying that a little bit of wildness in children is ok, because this is how they learn and develop emotional maturity. Hopper too only realises his own cruelty and vulnerability when faced with someone more scary than he is.

Of course this message might not sit very comfortably with parents, who may feel the violence in this book is a touch too far for young readers. If we place this novel in the realm of fairytale, however – and we could easily do that – then the more gruesome elements are comparable with most of the classics.

The language used to tell the story of the Savage also helps our understanding; with the misspellings and phonetic sounds of the North East, the reader hears the voice of a child and therefore the violence appears more imagined, than brutally real.

These are not mechanisms to legitimise the violent elements of the book, however, it simply puts it into context and allows the reader to mark the difference between what a child can imagine and what they would actually do in reality.

Almond’s sister died when he was a child and his father died when he was 15, and these losses haunt his books, but love and a little bit of childlike imagination always come to the rescue, leaving readers feeling comforted and assured that there is light in dark places. The Savage is no different, as the novel ends with a more mature Blue looking back on his grief, a boy who is from a loving family and a role model for his younger sibling.

So let’s hold onto the ‘wildness’ of imagination for as long as we can, knowing that our good sense and ability to love and care for the wellbeing of others, will not allow us to go too far in the wrong direction.

The Savage by David Almond, Walker Books, 2008

Recommended for a reading age of eight and above.

The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes

“It was alive, glimmering under the rosebush, sitting on its haunches with its one spiralling horn and its long, white, silky mane. It turned its beautiful head and looked at him.” (The Lion and the Unicorn, by Shirley Hughes, Bodley Head, 1998)

Children’s books written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes never seem to go out of fashion. At 93 years of age, she has experienced and witnessed many different types of childhood; from a vulnerable one during the war years and the hardships thereafter, through to the ‘entitled’ generation of the 21st century.

During this time she has carried some of her most popular characters with her, such as Alfie, Lucy and Tom, and her illustrations from Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister series. Unlike the Harry Potter books, however, where the characters grow as the years pass by in real-time, Hughes’ characters remain in their infant phase of life, presenting a challenge seeing as over the space of almost a century, childhood has changed a great deal.

In interviews with the media, regarding a celebratory exhibition of Hughes’ work in 2017, at the age of 90, she argued that the themes of childhood are timeless and therefore her characters, although perhaps painted in a more idealised existence, never read as old-fashioned. Whilst children today may have televisions and iPads to play with – her most popular creation, Alfie, would never have known such a thing when he first made the page back in 1981 – the little crises of children are still the same; they still want to play in the garden and get covered in mud, and they cry if they can’t find their favourite toy.

This is Hughes’ greatest strength, sticking to the simple little things that mean so much to children no matter what age they grow up in, what gender they are, or where in the world they are from. It is said that Hughes finds her inspiration by sitting quietly in her communal garden in Notting Hill with her sketchbook and watching children play, and in this it is easy to understand how she can pick such universal truths about what is important to young minds.

One significant aspect of childhood that is particularly different, she observes, is the speed at which children have to process things due to the volume of ‘stuff’ they have at their disposal. They need to ‘slow down’, she says, in order to fully develop their imaginations.

This is where Hughes’ skills as an artist as well as a writer becomes useful, because her pictures take as much time, if not more, than the text does to explore, enjoy and comprehend. She told journalists in 2017 that she wanted to allow children to take their time and linger over the pages of pictures and guess what might come next.

Feeding the imagination, rather than having everything handed to them in a barrage of flickering images, is at the heart of Hughes’ The Lion and the Unicorn. Set during World War Two, when there was no such thing as tablets and mobile phones, her central character, Lenny, has to find his own amusement as he is sent away from his mother to a large country estate as a child evacuee.

His imagination is both his undoing and his salvation, as his mind fills his attic bedroom with fearful thoughts of lions on the hunt in the shadows of the estate, but also the possibility that a real-life unicorn exists in the walled garden of the house, ready to protect him from harm. It is in the walled garden, a place of refuge from the other evacuee children and the bullies at his new school, that he first encounters the statue of the unicorn, along with Mick, an amputee war hero.

The unicorn reminds him of the badge that his father gives him of the UK’s royal coat of arms – a lion and a unicorn. The lion symbolises bravery, his father tells him before he leaves for the army, and the unicorn is a gentle and magical creature that Lenny comes to realise stands for courage.

These are attributes needed in war, his father says, but Hughes points out that bravery, for a child, is not about facing the bigger adult world, but the little things they encounter everyday, such as the fear of being the new kid in school, sleeping in the dark, and being on your own.

After daily bullying at school, feeling homesick, and lack of friends, Lenny starts to crumble, wetting the bed and running away to the garden to cry in silence. Only Mick seems to understand him, and when Lenny learns his story, he finds that he is not failing in the lion-heart bravery that he promised his father, and that heroes can be scared and upset too.

It is the unicorn, however, that both Mick and Lenny identify more closely with. “There are different kinds of courage” Mick tells Lenny, and when one night after fearing his mother may never come for him, he sees the unicorn in the garden as a real-live creature. His night-fears drive him to a place of sanctuary with the unicorn, and in bringing him to life he finds a calmness that he hadn’t had since leaving his mother behind.

This plays into Hughes’ ambition of giving children that quiet, calm time, to slow down and not be forced to react to every little thing around them, but instead sit and focus on just one thing. Lenny’s ‘unicorn moment’, is just that – it focuses him and washes away his anxiety. Following the experience, he no longer cares what the bullies think, as the safety of his family is more important than anything they can do or say to him.

This magical encounter leads directly to the return of his mother and the realisation that bravery doesn’t mean that you can’t be scared sometimes, it is about finding little pockets of courage when you can and being kind to yourself in moments of weakness.

His father’s badge contained a different kind of magic than perhaps the one originally intended – the power of imagination to bring about real development. The imagined unicorn of the gardens defeats his night demons of a killer lion, but also slows him down and stops him from running away from his adopted home, just in time to see his mother return.

And isn’t this what Hughes wants children to take from all of her books – to slow the mind down long enough to allow for a bit of magic?

The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes, Penguin Random House, 2000.

Recommended for a reading age of six onward.