Beatrix Potter: Adorable Woodland Creatures or Stuff of Lifelong Nightmares?

When I was young, I was given The Tale of Peter Rabbit as part of an Easter basket, and that was basically all I knew of Beatrix Potter for most of my life. I kept Peter with my other books from childhood for decades, only rediscovering it when I was searching for something new to read to a toddler voracious for books. It went well (although, in retrospect, the whole bit about Mrs. McGregor having put Peter’s father into a pie should have been a red flag), so we branched out to the little shelf of Potter books at the library. Here’s a sampling of what we found.

  • Two mice, attempting to commit burglary, go on a rampage and destroy the property of strangers (Two Bad Mice)
  • A mouse discovers squatters on her property and enlists a friend to evict them by force (Mrs. Tittlemouse)
  • A squirrel loses his tail when an owl tries to make him into dinner (Squirrel Nutkin)
  • A duck is lured to make her nest in a fox’s den, and although some dogs “take care of” the fox, the dogs then go on to eat her eggs (Jemima Puddle-Duck)
  • A rabbit who bullies another rabbit gets karmic retribution when he is shot by a hunter. He escapes with his life, but not his tail or whiskers (A Fierce Bad Rabbit)

Except for the cute animal characters clothed in precious little jackets and shawls, it could be a police blotter, no?

I was horrified; my son was fascinated. He especially wanted to see, over and over, the page on which the fierce bad rabbit is shot. And over time I found myself charmed by Potter’s art (those squirrels look exactly like squirrels, even when they are fishing; that mouse is completely a mouse even when wielding a broom) and her writing. “Tiddly-widdly-widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse,” I often say to Alasdair when I mean “nonsense.” The other day I caught him saying “Jemima Puddle-Duck” to himself repeatedly, and tonight at bedtime he was singing “Hum-a-bum buzz buzz” from Squirrel Nutkin.

After dozens of readings-aloud of several of Potter’s books, I’ve decided it’s the intersection of domesticity, violence, and the natural world that’s so unnerving—and compelling. The animals are practically human, with their little outfits and all, but they’re still enough part of the wild world, and low enough on the food chain, to worry about being eaten. Little kids identify with those small animals, and in Potter’s tales they find affirmed their sense that the world can be a dangerous place.

Oh, but why must it be a dangerous place? Before I had a child, I was one of those annoying people who said, “Why do people tell their children there’s a Santa Claus? They should be honest! Tell them what the world really is! Blah blah blah!” Now, of course, I’ve done a 180 and revere the innocence of the child’s worldview. Why should he know that his beloved owls occasionally eat his equally beloved squirrels? I suspect he’s way ahead of me on this and many other matters, though. He has a more complex sense of the world than I give him credit for, and Potter’s books respect that.

Still, after that first survey, we’re sticking with the more innocuous books in her oeuvre and saving gritty realism like Jemima Puddle-Duck and A Fierce Bad Rabbit for when he’s older, to spare my delicate sensibilities.

Were you traumatized by any books you read as a child?