On September 4, 1893, Peter Rabbit was “born” in a letter written by Beatrix Potter to a sick child. In the first paragraph, she wrote:
“My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names are Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sandbank under the foot of a big fir tree. …”
In 1902 the story became a book called The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Not many books for children can equal the popularity of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It has endured for eighty years and will, no doubt, continue to be popular for generations to come.
Beatrix Potter was born on July 6, 1866, in London. Her parents were strict and had little understanding of children. She had no brothers or sisters until she was six years old. Instead of attending public school, her wealthy parents hired a governess and tutor to teach her. Timid and lonely, Beatrix spent most of her time in the top-floor nursery of her home. Here she created a fantasy world. Rabbits, toads, and frogs were her friends. When her brother, Bertram, was born, he became her playmate.
Beatrix did enjoy the family holidays in Scotland every summer. It was here that her creative ability grew. She loved to see the frogs leaping, rabbits hopping, and little wood mice playing. She would hide in the fields for hours at a time, sitting in tall weeds as she watched and dreamed. The simple cottages where the Scottish families lived appealed to Beatrix. She was amazed at the love and affection Scottish parents showed their children.
Farmers allowed Beatrix to feed their small animals. She gave bread to the ducks, corn to the chickens, lettuce and carrots to the rabbits. It was as though she suddenly lived in a magical world, and Beatrix was spellbound. She and little Bertram sketched everything in sight.
The fantasy world mixed with the real world for Beatrix. In the pictures she drew, rabbits walked upright like humans. They wore clothing and carried umbrellas. Some of the female rabbits wore hats that looked like the girl’s mother’s.
Beatrix enjoyed inventing stories about small animals and drew pictures to illustrate them. She used a paintbrush or pencil like a magic wand. And the many animals that were kept as pets became her models.
While still living at home, Beatrix began sending illustrated letters to Noel, the son of a former governess. He read the letters with such delight that Beatrix decided to make a book. She lengthened the Peter Rabbit story and submitted it to Frederick Warne & Co., a London publisher. Although it was rejected, Miss Potter had faith in her rabbit story. She felt so strongly that children would like it that she had it published privately. The book sold quickly for one shilling and twopence a copy. During the next eighty years, over twenty million copies were sold!
The Tale of Peter Rabbit has been translated into thirteen languages. Sightless children can also enjoy the book in Braille.
After Miss Potter published her own book, she again showed it to Frederick Warne & Co. The editor now saw possibilities in publishing it, and he accepted the Tale of Peter Rabbit. Its success gave Miss Potter encouragement, and in the next eight years she wrote thirteen children’s books. In all, twenty-three were written and published, the last one in 1930. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books are enjoyed today just as much as when Noel received his first illustrated letter in 1893.