Peter Pan

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

1911

Illustrated by John Hench and Al Dempster

Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up saw its wildly popular stage premiere in London in 1904.  The book, not published until seven years later, was something of an afterthought.  It has that feel – a careless air, a rambling casualness.  The play itself, finally brought to print in 1928, is tighter and makes for a more exhilarating read.  For  this is a story that belongs on the stage, drawn with bold theatrical strokes. It needs an audience to gasp as Peter Pan flies across the stage or to clap wildly as Peter asks for believers to bring Tinker Bell back to life.  It needs the inspired music and lyrics of the Broadway musical – with such songs as “I Won’t Grow Up” and  “Never Never Land”.  Even on film, the Disney version is a pleasure, with its extravagantly mustached pirate captain – better for his character to be deliciously and comically evil than weirdly nuanced as he is in print.

However it is experienced, the story sparkles with imaginative brilliance.  There is Peter Pan himself – cocky and conceited, but also a merry vibrant life force to be admired.  He navigates by the stars and gives his address as “Second to the right and then straight on till morning.”  He is a stickler for fairness, but is strangely amoral in other respects, especially when it comes to murder and mayhem – he is “frightfully happy” as he prepares for his fight to the death with his nemesis.  For all his bravado, he is a poignant figure, for his eternal childhood comes at the price of memory and growth and the reassuring comforts of family and home.  When Peter returns to the nursery to visit Wendy a year later, he has no recollection of either Captain Hook or Tinker Bell.  He is ready to start over at the beginning again.  And again.  And again.

J.M. Barrie, if not a polished writer, was a wizard when it came to creating memorable characters and set pieces. Who else has come up with a situation as bizarre as that of the dashing Captain Hook brought sniveling to his knees by the tick tocking crocodile (a female, as unlikely as it seems), forever in pursuit after having had a taste of him?  And how about Neverland itself, populated (excessively) with pirates, lost boys, redskins (of the Piccaninny tribe – what?), wild beasts, fairies, and mermaids?  Is it not inventive that the beautiful Indian princess is named Tiger Lily, an appellation that evokes the exotically wild and the English country garden simultaneously?  And then there is the Darling household back in Kensington Square where Nana, the Newfoundland, is nursemaid and the father, as penance, takes up residence in the doghouse. 

The book is filled with oddities.  But J.M. Barrie, himself, was odd.  A tiny (5’3”) Scottish man, married for a time but asexual by most accounts, devoted to his mother, about whom he wrote a biography, devoted also to the Llewelyn Davies boys, all five of whom he supported after their parents died in quick succession of cancer, and for whom he invented the Peter Pan story.  One can feel his own strange longing in the pages.

The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

1908

Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

The Wind in the Willows is one of the treasures of childhood.  Start with the memorable Toad: shamelessly boastful, maddeningly conceited, extravagantly self-indulgent while at the same time affectionate, well-intentioned, and good-natured.  Leaving the grand Toad Hall, he indulges a whim for the open road by procuring a gypsy caravan, painted canary yellow with green trim and red wheels.  When a brilliant motor-car whizzes past, spooking the horses and leaving the caravan up-ended in the ditch, Toad is disastrously smitten.  He sits in the road in a trance murmuring “Poop-poop!” and then proceeds along a magnificently self-destructive path fueled by his obsession with motor-cars.  After smashing seven and stealing another, he is sentenced to 20 years.  Aided by the gaoler’s daughter, he disguises himself as a washerwoman and makes his escape.  There follows an exhilarating train ride with the warders hot in pursuit, an interlude with a barge woman that culminates in Toad absconding with her horse, a horsetrading scene with a gypsy who offers “Shillin’ a leg”, and a last hair raising ride in a motor-car. 

The adventures of Toad, the reckless, the incorrigible, provide the excitement and the humor.  But The Wind in the Willows is really two interwoven tales, each of which is essential to the other.  Playing Penelope to Toad’s Odysseus are Rat, Mole, and Badger, who prefer to stay home – where they cultivate an Arcadian vision of home as haven of tranquility.  Enter their sanctuaries and find a fire in the hearth, armchairs before the blaze, a simple meal shared with friends, an inviting coziness.  The book is a hymn sung in praise of the English countryside and a carefree life of bucolic domesticity.  Kenneth Grahame, a child of the Industrial Revolution, sought in his writing to return to the pristine rural ideal that was the antithesis of a mechanized age.  The Victorian era saw the flourishing of a number of eccentric cults, one of which was a neopaganism devoted to Pan and a pastoral spirituality.  Hence the strange mysticism in the bizarre chapter, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  How audacious that Grahame could transition from a surreal scene in which Rat and Mole are bowing down before Pan on a holy island to the dungeon where Toad is histrionically indulging in self-pity and transitory remorse before effecting his escape.

The Wind in the Willows has been graced by illustrations by such famous artists as Arthur Rackham, Tasha Tudor, Michael Hague, and Michael Foreman, but the truest images are those by Ernest H. Shepard who did equal justice to Toad’s humorous escapades and Mole’s cozy burrow.

The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

1954

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

When Lina, a young schoolgirl in a tiny Dutch fishing village, wonders why the storks no longer nest in Shora, she and her five schoolmates (all boys) resolve to fasten a wagon wheel onto the roof of the school to tempt their return.  Gently encouraged by their teacher, the children each take one of the roads radiating like spokes from the village, in search of a wheel.  Along their meandering and intersecting journeys, they are joined by a small and eccentric cast of characters, including Janus, the misanthropic and grumpy double amputee who spends his wheelchair-bound existence protecting his cherry tree from predatory birds and children.  Lina, exploring along a dyke, discovers a wagon wheel in the most unlikely of places, under an overturned fishing boat that had been beached by a storm eighty years before.  Aided by Old Douwa, who as a boy had saved his shipwrecked father – trapped beneath this very boat, she works to retrieve the wheel, racing against the incoming flood tide and an approaching storm.  Their subsequent rescue presages the later rescue of a pair of exhausted storm-battered storks, marooned on a sand bar, threatened by the rising tide – storks who become the first to nest on the wheel on the school.

The book quietly celebrates the power of children, ever resourceful, to change the world.  The book is also a quiet celebration of the European white stork (Ciconia ciconia), which has largely disappeared from many of its traditional breeding grounds in western Europe.  The population of breeding pairs in Holland at the advent of the twentieth century was over 500: by the time DeJong was writing The Wheel on the School, the number was in the 50’s, and nests which had seen continuous occupation for hundreds of years were empty.  Most Dutch today are more likely to see a stork, symbol of fertility, deliverer of babies in a sling, on a birth announcement than in the sky overhead.  The storks still fly north to breed but they now head for eastern Europe, particularly Poland.  Theirs is a remarkable migration: in flocks of 10,000 or more, they make the journey from their wintering grounds in Africa, splitting east and west at the Mediterranean Sea to avail themselves of the warm thermals that rise from the land.  The roundtrip is over 10,000 miles.  With their stark tuxedo plumage, impressive stature, and bizarre bill clattering (they cannot sing), it is easy to imagine how their miraculous return to a rooftop year after year came to be considered an auspicious sign.

Maurice Sendak illustrated six of Meindert DeJong’s books, including The Wheel on the School.  Their shared spirit of humanity made for a harmonious marriage of talents.  They also shared the honor of each being a recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition for creators of children’s literature.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

1876

In one of the most famous scenes in American literature, Tom Sawyer is condemned to whitewashing the front fence as a Saturday morning punishment inflicted by Aunt Polly.  Taking stock of his pocket treasures, he realizes he cannot buy his way out.  Desperate for freedom, he has a sudden flash of inspiration.  Combining an acute understanding of human nature with masterful acting skills, he soon finds himself seated on a barrel in the shade eating an apple, his first booty, while his friend Ben paints away.  Tom “planned the slaughter of more innocents.  There was no lack of material…”  By the end of the afternoon, Tom has amassed a fortune (including a dead rat and a string, twelve marbles, a one-eyed kitten, and four pieces of orange-peel.)  And the fence has been whitewashed thrice over.

There is a reason that classics are classics.  The delight in discovering Mark Twain’s droll wit, pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech, acerbic social commentary, and deft portrayal of boyhood along the Mississippi River is reason enough to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  There is also the imperative of reading a common literary canon.  Families are bound by shared memories, and cultures are bound by a common vocabulary of images.  Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Tom Sawyer should be a familiar icon to all.  Every child can benefit by Tom’s epiphany that Saturday morning.  “He had discovered a great law of human action – without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Among literary characters, Tom is one of the greats.  He is a good-natured adventurous romantic who combines ingenuity, courage, humor, honor, and a strong penchant for mischief.  Consider the following.  Spurned by Becky Thatcher, Tom takes to the Mississippi River where he leads a pirate’s life on Jackson Island with Huck Finn and Joe Harper.  The boys watch the townsfolk search the river for their drowned bodies.  That night, Tom slips away, thinking to leave a note for his Aunt Polly to ease her anguish.  Overhearing plans for the impending memorial service, he desists, and the three runaways make their triumphant return at their own funeral.  Tom is a prankster, but a lovable one, and the feelings between the boy and his guardian aunt run deep.

There is more.  For anyone who gets hooked on Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the incomparable sequel. The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can follow.

The illustrations above are by an unknown artist from the Association of Illustrators, True Williams – the wonderfully-named illustrator for the original edition, and Richard Rogers.

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection selected by Michael Rosen

1998

Illustrated by Paul Howard

Many of us may be philistines when it comes to poetry, but children are not.  They delight in the musicality of meter, the humor of limericks, the wordplay of rhyme.  They are adept at memorization – poems are easily engraved in memory in the young and, once owned, are there for a lifetime.  A poem memorized in childhood can be recited on a deathbed.

There are countless anthologies, many excellent, none exhaustive.  It is good to have a number on hand.  Classic Poetry has a particularly rich selection with stylistically diverse illustrations to accompany the poems along with portraits, both visual and text, of the poets.

Some are silly, as only Edward Lear can be.

Far and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Some are musical, none more so than Banjo Paterson’s lyrics that were written as a bush ballad.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, 
Under the shade of a coolibah-tree, 
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled, 
‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?....’

Some celebrate the exoticisms of language, as in John Masefield’s “Cargoes”.

Quinquireme of Ninevah from Distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

We should never underestimate the intelligence of children. They might not know a quinquireme from a Spanish galleon on first pass, but they will figure it out.  Their ears will respond even in the presence of nonsense.  Try a poem a day.  Or sit down with an anthology and read it from start to finish. 

Home For a Bunny

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Home For a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

1956

Illustrated by Garth Williams

 

“In the Spring a bunny came down the road.

He was going to find a home of his own.

A home for a bunny,

A home of his own,

Under a rock,

Under a stone,

Under a log,

Or under the ground.

Where would a bunny find a home?”

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Home For a Bunny chronicles the search for home. A bunny passes a robin’s nest, a frog’s bog, and a groundhog’s log, before meeting another bunny and finding his rightful place in a cozy burrow. Garth Williams, the illustrator of Little Fur Family, Stuart Little, and Little House in the Big Woods, among others, provided the naturalistic illustrations – in his hands, the natural world awakening to springtime becomes the essential backdrop to the story.

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Home For a Bunny was one of fifteen stories by Margaret Wise Brown that were published as Little Golden Books. Launched in 1942, the Little Golden Books revolutionized the publishing world by creating a populist mass market for children’s books. Instantly recognizable with their gold binding and distinctive end plates, they were displayed prominently in metal racks and sold in grocery stores, five and dimes, and drug stores. They cost 25 cents. They continued to cost 25 cents for the next twenty years. Among the initial set of twelve books was The Poky Little Puppy which became the best-selling picture book of all time. Janette Sebring Lowry, the author, received a flat fee of $75.

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This Little Golden Book belongs to …

 

Before 1942, a popular children’s picture book might sell 10,000 copies. During the heyday of the 1940’s and 1950’s, one third of Golden Book titles sold a million copies or more. Part of this was because of affordable cost and accessibility and part because of a pool of extraordinary artists who created iconic illustrations that are instantly recognizable. Take The Shy Little Kitten, The Tawny Scrawny Lion, or The Saggy Baggy Elephant (Gustaf Tenggren), I Can Fly (Mary Blair), The Three Bears (Feodor Rojankovsky), Scuffy the Tugboat (Tibor Gergely), Little Boy With a Big Horn (Aurelius Battaglia), Chicken Little (Richard Scarry, who began his career as a Golden Books contract artist) – the art was eye-catching, highly original, surprisingly sophisticated, and nostalgia-inducing. The texts, in general, played second fiddle to the art. An exception to this was the writing of Margaret Wise Brown, whose poetic words were displayed in equal partnership with the illustrations. Among the most striking were The Color Kittens (Alice and Martin Provensen), The Whispering Rabbit (Garth Williams), and The Train to Timbuctoo (Art Seiden).

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

1971

Illustrated by Judith Kerr

A rabbit features in the title of two exceptional books that chronicle the Jewish diaspora occasioned by Hitler’s anti-semitism. In one, the rabbit is a scruffy stuffed animal left behind by a nine year old girl when her family flees Berlin. Anna’s parents are comfortably well-off members of the assimilated German intelligentsia. They celebrate Christmas and Anna’s best friend is unaware that she is Jewish. But her distinguished father has been targeted because of his anti-Nazi writings and on the eve of Hitler’s election in 1933, the family escapes to Switzerland, leaving all their worldly goods behind. They settle in a village on Lake Zurich, then spend two years in Paris, before making their final move to London. As Anna adjusts to displacement, the rabbit becomes the symbol of all that has been taken away – language, culture, friends, home, sense of belonging.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is autobiographical. Judith Kerr uses a light and knowing touch as she describes the world through the eyes of a young refugee. Anna rises to the challenge of a French school and an impecunious existence and finds pleasure in a new coat sewn from a wool remnant donated for needy children or the novelty of French onion soup at dawn during 14th July celebrations. French anti-semitism finds voice through the concierge who fears she will be cheated out of the rent money and the atrocities in Germany are alluded to through the fate of the dear and gentle Onkel Julius, ex-curator of the Berlin Natural History Museum, who commits suicide when his pass to the Berlin Zoo is rescinded. But the focus of this book is not on the horrors of the Holocaust but the experiences of a young girl who is uprooted from her country. It is a story of resilience that is particularly timely given the scope of displacement in the 21st century.

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The Hare With Amber Eyes has a broader historical sweep. Edmund de Waal traces the journey of a collection of delicate Japanese netsuke through five generations of the Ephrussi family – from Paris to Vienna, England, Japan, London. When the family palace in Vienna was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1938, the family members scattered. Their vast wealth, art collection, priceless library disappeared, but the netsuke were safeguarded by a family retainer known only as Anna, hidden until 1945 in her straw mattress. The hare with amber eyes survived the war, a symbol of artistic beauty and enlightenment quietly triumphing over demagoguery and prejudice.

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Little Women

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

1868

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

For a book the author dismissed as “moral pap for the young”, Little Women has had an enduring hold. A slew of writers (Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling, Susan Sontag, Jhumpa Lahiri, among them) claim this book as inspirational to their careers. The book is over 150 years old – it continues to attract new adherents.

In this one brilliant novel, Louisa May Alcott gave full rein to the contradictions that defined her. Born into a talented literate family, her father was a visionary transcendentalist philosopher (Emerson and Thoreau were family friends), an idealist whose “experiments” rarely put adequate food on the table. Her mother was “ballast to his balloon”, the pragmatic matriarch who sustained her daughters’ earthly needs. The father co-founded Fruitlands, a doomed utopian commune about which Louisa later wrote Transcendental Wild Oats, a satirical and very funny commentary – the diet was vegan, the shoes canvas, the showers cold, and the men urgently engaged in philosophical discussion in advance of any storm, leaving the mother and children to hastily harvest the meager crops (no root vegetables because they reached down rather than up towards the heavens). Louisa grew up in genteel destitution and was determined to avoid this fate as an adult. She wrote Little Women, a family story for girls, reluctantly, for money, and she channeled all of her own rebelliousness into Jo, her autobiographical double.

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Little Women is a family story in which not much happens, except for the transformation of four girls into young women. Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth – each has a distinctive persona and each is given time and a voice – grow up under the wing of Marmee, their wise and loving mother – the moral compass. Jo is the heroine, but the book’s richness is due to the quartet. Jo, the tempestuous willful one, chafes against the constraints imposed upon her sex and her writing aspirations, yet she is sustained by the cocoon of family with all the moralistic goodness it borrows from its Concord surrounds. She can rebel, as Louisa herself did, but she is never far from the sisters and parents who nurture her. Cozy domesticity around the hearth and a turbulent writing life in the garret – those are the opposing poles.

What Louisa preferred to write was in stark contrast to her famous novel. Under a pseudonym, she wrote gothic pulp fiction – lurid melodramatic tales featuring strong willed heroines, deceitful, intent on exacting revenge, with titles like Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. They featured sex, spies, and hashish, a far cry from the family tranquility of her books about the March family. She never made public her dual writing career lest it scare off her followers. Little Women was an immediate success and the royalties assured her (and her family) a comfortable living. Yet she disdained her readers and delighted in sabotaging their conventional expectations.

jo-and-beth-by-Jessie-Willcox-SmithLouisa was not without her share of sentimentality.  One of her three sisters died at the age of 22. She had Beth, the fictional sister, follow suit. Beth, the impossibly kind, shy, selfless girl who Jo loves deeply. Her death would wring tears from a stone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babe: The Gallant Pig

 

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Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith

1983

Illustrated by Mary Rayner

Dick King-Smith arrived late at writing, having exhausted prior careers as a soldier, a farmer, and a teacher. As though he needed to make up for lost time, he was remarkably prolix over a 30+ year stint, and turned out over one hundred books, most inspired by his knowledge of the barnyard. In his banner year, he published almost a book a month. No need to read all these. Pick one, and make that one Babe: The Gallant Pig, and you will have found the silk purse.

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Farmer Hagget goes to the village fair and wins a piglet in a “Guess my weight” contest. His voluble wife, whose defining characteristic is the run-on sentence, finds pleasure in the prospect of ham for Christmas. Babe, forever ignorant of his intended fate, is taken in by Fly, the black-and-white collie who teaches him the rudiments of sheep herding. Through his friendship with Ma, the aged ewe, Babe decides to adopt politeness as his modus operandi (“’If I might ask a great favor of you,….could you all please be kind enough to walk down to that gate….’”) rather than the snapping rudeness practiced by sheep dogs (“’Move, fools!….Down the hill. If you know which way ‘down’ is.’”)   The sheep, never before addressed with respect, are only too pleased to do Babe’s bidding. Using this approach, Babe saves the herd from sheep rustlers, thus saving his own neck from any future chopping block. He later takes on two dogs who have been worrying the sheep, and in the case of Ma fatally so, and he comes close to being summarily executed when Farmer Hagget believes mistakenly that Babe is the culprit. In the climactic final chapter, when he appears at the Grand Challenge Sheep Dog Trials, he is assured a place in the annals of sheep dog (or sheep-pig) history, to the cheers of spectators and readers alike.

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Few books are honored by the films that are ostensibly made in their image. Think of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh empire as a particularly egregious example. Babe is an exception. Read the book first (needless to say), but then it is fine to see the movie. King-Smith’s animals are realistic (his pigs eat swill, his dogs snap at sheeps’ hocks, his sheep get foot rot) in all but their speech. The movie is faithful to that premise – the animals are real, but they can talk. The cast has been swollen to include a few invented characters (a dog, a cat, a duck) to round things out, and the Hagget couple has lost a bit of their nuanced complementary relationship in favor of a more stereotypic humerous bond, but these adjustments work well for the screen. And then it is a pleasure to return to the book to appreciate its more subtle workings.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

1902

Illustrated by Beatrix Potter

With characters named Jemima Puddle-duck and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, you might think that Beatrix Potter’s tales are fluff and whimsy. But if you read the 23 little volumes in the boxed set, you will find surprising sophistication and subtle wit. There is a dense richness – of language, of nuance, of humor. Beatrix Potter wrote with a no-nonsense matter-of-fact edge, for she was familiar enough with the natural world to realize that lyrical romanticism is hardly the apposite tone. The animals in her world are very aware of their position in the food chain. Peter Rabbit’s father ended up in Mr. McGregor’s meat pie. The foxhounds, after saving the clueless Jemima Puddle-duck from the wily fox, proceed to gobble down her eggs. Squirrel Nutkin lays three dead mice (a shocking image) at the foot of the old owl as a propitiatory offering in exchange for nuts. The stories are rich because Beatrix Potter, like the best of children’s authors, understood that children are not really as sentimental as some might hope.peter57

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her masterpiece, is a perfect story. It is an allegorical tale of the explorations of childhood, with Mr. McGregor’s garden being the delicious and dangerous world that any spirited bunny would want to experience. The story is beautifully balanced with its rise and fall structure, beginning and ending with the quiet comfort of home and mother. In between, Peter Rabbit experiences the pleasures of the forbidden feast, the fright of the chase, the despair of isolation. There is beautiful pairing of text and illustration, as can only happen when writer and artist are one and the same. What could better convey Peter Rabbit’s aloneness than the delicate image of a forlorn shoe lost among the cabbages? Where has a child’s desolation been better portrayed than in the picture of Peter Rabbit leaning against the locked garden door, one foot resting on the other, a single tear falling?peter44

Beatrix Potter’s exquisite watercolor illustrations convey the artist’s deep understanding of the natural world. Her appreciation began as a child – raised by governesses, sheltered from other children, she observed and sketched her menagerie of animals who would peter08later people her stories. As a young adult, she developed a passionate interest in mycology and her botanical illustrations of fungi and lichens were highly regarded by other naturalists. In her children’s books, her illustrations of animal characters have become iconic, but her tree trunks, leaves, rocks, and dirt are as beautifully rendered as her velvety soft bunnies.

Aside: The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, one of several image015-thumbnailstories set in Mr. McGregor’s garden, begins with an imaginative premise: “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’”.

 

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