Best-selling bunny got his start in a letter
He thought it would never happen. That day in Mr. McGregor's watering can, Peter Rabbit had every reason to believe he'd be baked into a pie at a tender age.Skip to next paragraph
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But this year, fans worldwide are celebrating the hundredth birthday of the long-eared radish thief. Available in more than 35 languages and reprinted at least 250 times since its first publication, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" has been read and reread to generations of children.
The story of how Beatrix Potter came to write and illustrate the story of Peter's "naughty" escapade is less well known. It began not as a book but with a tale told to a single child.
In 1893, 5-year-old Noel Moore, the son of Potter's former governess and good friend, was in bed recovering from an illness. To help keep him entertained, Potter sent him a letter that began, "My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits...."
The subject of the letter was based on Potter's own pet rabbit, Peter Piper. She was so fond of him that she taught him to play the tambourine and let him sleep in front of her fireplace like a cat.
Over the years, Noel entertained many others with his Peter Rabbit letter, and in 1900, Potter wrote and illustrated another version of the story, which she sent to publishers. They all rejected her manuscript, so she printed the book herself and gave copies to friends.
When a copy came to the attention of Frederick Warne & Co. in London, the publisher agreed to print the book. It became an immediate success in England, selling 50,000 copies its first year. Potter went on to write 22 more children's books; Peter Rabbit made appearances in three of them.
"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" is by no means the only classic children's book that began this way. Other popular titles also started as letters, and still more originated as bedtime stories. But a surprising number of stories widely considered classics of children's literature were written for particular children.
Anita Silvey, author of "Children's Books and Their Creators," an encyclopedia of children's literature, believes these connections may explain, at least in part, the popularity of such books.
"[Children's books] that stand the test of time often start with a relationship of a writer and a child," she says. "If you're going to create a great book for children, you have to be in touch with them.... In some way, [authors have] to be touching a child. Otherwise it winds up being a book for adults. And you'll never be able to fool kids they know a book that's for them."
"The Railway Series," featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, began whenChristopher Awdry was in isolation recovering from a serious illness and his father told him stories of talking locomotives. Christopher demanded them again and again, so his father scribbled them on scraps of paper. When his father died, Christopher continued writing what had become an extraordinarily popular series.