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Golden oldies?

Benjamin Bunny

Is it best to preserve the golden oldies of children’s literature, in their original form? Or should we edit them, and take out the bits we now find shocking?

I was recently offered the chance to review books from The Works. I chose a compendium of classic Beatrix Potter tales.

Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit is big these days, especially now CBeebies have beamed the little mammal into the households of children everywhere. But even though my two-year-old, Gwen and four-year-old, Austin don’t watch it as often as their favourites (Melody and Scooby Doo), Gwen in particular insists on frequent readings of the handful of Beatrix Potter-inspired books in the house.

It probably helps that our complement of Beatrix Potter books includes pop-ups, finger puppets, and a set of teeny-tiny versions of the old classics Jemima Puddleduck, Tom Kitten, Jeremy Fisher, Mrs Tiggywinkle etc. They’re not the best quality (the main character in Mrs Tiggywinkle morphs from ‘Lucy’ to ‘Lucie’ at one point – poor, poor editing). But our children’s enthusiasm for the world of inter-related talking animals made me hopeful that the new set of Beatrix Potter books would bring some fresh excitement to our evening storytimes.

Beatrix Potter libraryThe Peter Rabbit library would make a good gift. The covers are more colourful than the originals (in a tasteful kind of way), and they’re larger than the familiar pocket-sized versions, but the stories and illustrations are pretty much the same.

Beatrix Potter library

Having all ten books on our shelf meant that, eventually, all of them were read. I don’t think I managed to get to them all when I was young and, as an adult reader revisiting Potter’s world of kleptomaniac rabbits and impoverished tradespeople, I was struck by how grown-up the books are. The Tailor of Gloucester, in particular, is like a journey into a David Lynch film (without the sexy rudey bits). A man who sends his cat out to the shop to pick up some groceries? And mice who sew a lavish waistcoat for him, while he lays feverish in his bed? All very trippy.

The Tailor of Gloucester

Despite the uniform presence of her distinctive illustrations, Potter’s tone – and the content of the books – varies immensely across the ten volumes. Tom Kitten, Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle, for instance, are all charming and whimsical. But things take a menacing turn in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.

Benjamin is characterised as an idle layabout who won’t visit his poor widowed aunt. Instead, he sets about leading his cousin Peter astray, and when they are held captive by a cat, his ultra-violent father beats up the feline, then punishes Benjamin and Peter by whipping them with a switch.

Benjamin Bunny

Benjamin Bunny

This was all a bit much for me. I skipped across this page when reading the story to Gwen.

I’ve had similar problems while reading some classics from an old compendium of children’s tales, which was a favourite when I was a kid. Every other story seemed to involve something I found ‘difficult’. Death, murder, child abduction (Pied Piper of Hamelin), fathers forbidding their sons orΒ  daughters to marry, husbands relegating their wives to the kitchen as punishment, and everywhere the mocking of the ugly, old or disabled.

I’m sure that most of the stories in my compendium would be ‘cleaned up’ if they were re-published for modern readers. And I expect there are versions of Benjamin Bunny out there without the child-beating passage. I know it’s rabbit-on-rabbit whipping, not a human father beating his child, but I still wouldn’t want to try to explain what Benjamin senior is doing to his son and nephew, to a two- and a four-year-old.

But……

Last weekend, we celebrated my Grandmother’s 90th birthday, and she bought each Great-grandchild gathered there a copy of a Beatrix Potter classic. Here she is, reading Peter Rabbit to Gwen.

Peter Rabbit

The edition given to Gwen as a gift was even more like the original than the one in the Peter Rabbit library. Somehow, that made it a more exceptional gift. Grandma had written an inscription to Gwen in the front of the book, and it’s now sitting on top of a shelf, out of the reach of sticky hands and only to be brought down at special times.

Ok, it’s Peter Rabbit and not the nastier Benjamin Bunny, but even if it were the tale of Benjamin, we would still treasure it the same, whip and all.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that some books are good, everyday fodder for children to be let loose upon, while others are markers of history, written for people long-gone, but still held as classics. They might include scenes or storylines that are now considered distressing. But, many years ago, these books were loved, and they can (within reason) still be appreciated today.

You might just need to skip the occasional page or two.

Disclosure: we were sent a Peter Rabbit library from The Works, for the purpose of this review. All views are my own.

16 Comments

  • Michelle Murray
    June 18, 2014 at 6:16 am

    Aww I love peter rabbit. They are classics. We went to Beatrix Potters cottage in the Lake District a few years ago. Was lovely. Popping over from http://www.mummy2monkeys.co.uk #LAB

    Reply
  • Emily G
    June 18, 2014 at 6:30 am

    Interesting question. My initial reaction is “no! We can’t change classics! ” and that children should not be hidden from issues we find difficult. As I am only 16 months into being a mum, I know my opinions are based on what I used to think. If I had to actually read these things, such as death or Benjamin bunny getting beaten, I think if find it difficult to explain! I also then start to think at what age is best to broach these subjects and are stories a good way to do it. Lots of food for thought! X

    Reply
  • Rosie @Eco-Gites of Lenault
    June 18, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Definitely food for thought. I think children should read them as they were written. I know I did and to be honest I just took it as that was what a rabbit father, for example, would do to his rabbit son and did not equate it with human behaviour. It also gives the chance for you to talk to your children about these issues – was he wrong? What would you have done? and so on and so forth.

    Reply
  • The Diary Of A Jewellery Lover
    June 18, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Such lovely illustrations. Books like these last through the years.

    Reply
  • Vicki - The Free From Fairy
    June 18, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I love this post! I have struggled over the years with reading some of the ‘classic’ kids books. My eldest went through a phase of loving Peter Rabbit and various of the other stories but I always found them somewhat challenging and I too skipped certain bits! My youngest got the complete set of Thomas books…the old versions…they are very tricky too!!!

    Reply
  • Joana_JW
    June 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

    I think the essence and impression of golden classics in kids is profound. They derive moral connotations, vivid imagination and sense of right and wrongdoing this way. Change them or not, but this basic purpose is needed to be served. I still remember some of the stories because of the impression they created in mind and soul. This is what we need I guess πŸ™‚

    Reply
  • older mum in a muddle
    June 18, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    I loved reading this. Peter Rabbit is timeless, although some of the stories need a little ‘PC’ twist here and there when I read them to Little A. Her Granny bought her the entire original compendium for Christmas and we haven’t looked back. I remember all the stories from my child hood, and the original illustrations are gorgeous. Love that Great Grandma gave all her children a copy each.

    Reply
  • Phi @ The Sweetphi Blog
    June 18, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    Awe, what a beautiful overview. You’ve made me want to go out and purchase these books for my friends with children and read to them πŸ™‚

    Reply
  • Kate Williams
    June 18, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    I love the cbeebies Peter Rabbit (magazine is also ace) but I’d struggle reading my kids the originals too, and of course now they’ve seen it on tv I think they’d question about where is Lily rabbit etc. if it makes you feel any better my son wanted to read through al the evacuation stuff in a plane today. Should we hide death from kids? No. Did I explain plane crashes to a three year old while in a plane? No. Sometimes you have to read around stuff.

    Reply
  • City Coastal Lifestyle
    June 19, 2014 at 11:46 am

    We have these, but they are already 22 years old for our first child, now with the latest who is 3 we’ve brought them out again and she loves them.

    Reply
  • Emma T
    June 19, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    N loves Peter Rabbit. He prefers the tv show to the books, although we have read a few (including benjamin bunny – like you, I was surprised as I didn’t remember that from my childhood – but N didn’t bat an eyelid. Maybe because it’s just a story to them and they don’t relate it to real life?

    Reply
  • agatapokutycka
    June 20, 2014 at 10:23 am

    I love these books. The illustrations are so pretty!

    Reply
  • Ickle Pickle
    June 20, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    I love watching CBeebies Peter Rabbit. I haven’t read the books yet πŸ™‚

    Reply
  • Aly
    June 24, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    My son was born in the year that Peter Rabbit became 100.He had a Peter Rabbit room and we read the stories together for many years.I never skipped any of the pages as it was something to discuss, how children have been brought with more respect today.Well, on the most part but you know what I mean.

    Reply
  • Michelle Twin Mum
    June 24, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    The library looks lovely but what a fabulous gift from your Granny. Mich x

    Reply

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