I think I must have English vocabulary on my mind since my children are in the SAT taking years. We have many resources to augment our own vocabularies and those of our kids. One such treasure trove is the work of Beatrix Potter. Over one hundred years ago, an English gentlewoman named Beatrix Potter pioneered in the field of children’s literature as both an artist and storyteller. Miss Potter brought animal characters to life with exquisitely detailed watercolor illustrations that gave them unique anthropomorphic personalities and quaint, creative little outfits. Her stories pulse with gentle humor, vivid word choices, and complex plots, all of which are elements of children’s literature that we still need to treasure and emulate today.
Our children and children’s children will benefit from each tale with its moral lesson and rich English vocabulary. I chose my five favorites and furnish an illustration, quote, and moral lesson for each.
#1 The Tale of Peter Rabbit (published by Frederick Warne in 1902) – Peter disobeys his mother and ventures into Mr. McGregor’s garden to filch vegetables. The suspenseful chase through the garden patch is designed to strike terror into the heart of the child reader, but the intensity is mellowed by the help Peter receives from other animals, as well as his eventual escape.
“Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.”
Implore (v.): to make a very serious or emotional request to someone
Moral lesson: Listen to those wiser than we are about danger. Disobedience has consequences.
#2 The Tale of Jeremy Fisher (1906) – Jeremy Fisher the frog faces danger after he punts out on his lily pad boat to fish in his pond for minnows to offer to his dinner guests. A predatory trout swallows him whole but spits him out again after tasting his macintosh.
“And while Mr. Jeremy sat disconsolately on the edge of his boat – sucking his sore fingers and peering down into the water – a much worse thing happened; a really frightful thing it would have been, if Mr. Jeremy had not being wearing a macintosh!”
Disconsolately (adv.): dejectedly or in a downcast manner
Moral lesson: Dangers lurk, but we are often spared. Be careful when taking risks, think things through, and be grateful for the safety of home.
#3 The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) – Mrs. Tittlemouse keeps an exceptionally tidy house as a result of her diligent, slightly obsessive effort. Her cleaning day is disrupted by several uninvited guests who dirty her house and cause her distress. After she shoos them out, the little mouse creates an environment in which to offer hospitality on her own terms, treating even her most impolite intruder with kindness.
“Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors.”
Particular (adj.): having very definite opinions about what is good or acceptable Moral lesson: Having boundaries in one’s personal space and with belongings is very important, yet one can set boundaries without being harsh or unkind.
#4 The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908) – Jemima Puddle duck is very naive and foolishly trusts the “foxy gentleman” who offers to help her achieve her heart’s desire to lay and hatch her own eggs. (The farmer keeps taking them away.) Jemima even allows the gentlemen with the whiskers to arrange a duck feather bed in his shed as her nest.
“He led the way to a very retired, dismal-looking house amongst the fox-gloves.”
Retired (adj.): secluded
“Jemima Puddle-duck was a simpleton: not even the mention of sage and onions made her suspicious.”
Simpleton (n.): a person lacking in common sense Moral lesson: Choose carefully who to trust and pay attention to warning signs of untrustworthiness in the behavior of others.
#5 The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909) – Peter Rabbit’s cousin, Benjamin Bunny, grows into an irresponsible adult and starts a large family he cannot support. Benjamin takes his hungry children to Mr. McGregor’s rubbish heap to eat a charity meal of old vegetables. After the father and children fall asleep, Mr. McGregor discovers them and captures them to give to his wife as the ingredients for a rabbit pie. With the help of Mrs. Tittlemouse, they are rescued.
“They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.”
Improvident (adj.): not providing or saving for the future : not wise or sensible regarding money
“The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.”
Soporific (adj.): causing or tending to cause sleep
Moral lesson: Being sensible about money and planning for the future have great value because irresponsibility has clear negative consequences. However, we often have second chances and the help of others even after we have made poor choices.
Did you receive an education from author Beatrix Potter in both imagination and English turns of phrase? I contend they are not out-dated, even though they may be old-fashioned. Let’s enjoy these timeless tales and pass them on to the next generation. I welcome your comments about your favorite Beatrix Potter stories and the lessons you see embedded in them.
I recently discovered Apply Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes and Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes, two little volumes of charming poems.
Movie Moment: I enjoyed the 2006 film, Miss Potter (PG), starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor about the author’s personal and professional life. Her love of the Lake District in England led to land conservation efforts that have preserved thousands of acres. All of Beatrix Potter’s cherished animal friends still have their holes, stream banks, forests, and meadows to inhabit.