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.

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.

Swedish author Astrid Lindgren's "Pippi Longstocking" also began close to home – with stories told and eventually written down as a gift for her daughter. Mole, Rat, and the infamous Toad of Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," got their start in bedtime stories that Grahame told to his son Alastair. When he traveled, Grahame continued the story installments in letters.

E.B. White's "Stuart Little" originated as bedtime stories for his nieces and nephews. Virginia Lee Burton wrote "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" for her sons and their friends – one of whom even helped her write the ending. And the inspiration for "Treasure Island" was a detailed map of an island – complete with pirate treasure and cryptic instructions – that Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson drew on a rainy day.

In one of the most famous examples, A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner" borrowed their characters from Milne's son, Christopher Robin, and his menagerie of stuffed animals. J.M. Barrie wrote "Peter Pan" for five young brothers with whom he was friendly. And "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" began as "Alice's Adventures Under Ground," a handwritten and illustrated Christmas gift for Alice Liddell, a child who was a friend of mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).

These books got their start "as the result of a child saying 'More, more, more!' " says Karen Hoyle, curator of the children's literature collection at the University of Minnesota.

But a close relationship with a child doesn't automatically make great children's literature, warns Donna Jo Napoli. A children's book author and teacher of a course on children's literature at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., she says it took years of writing stories for and about her own kids before she learned how to make them relevant to a wider audience.

Most of the stories that adults invent for children they know will never reach beyond a small audience to find the fame and fortune Beatrix Potter did with Peter Rabbit. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"When you share a book with a child, it's as if you've created it," says Ms. Silvey. "For all I knew [as a child], the poetry that my grandmother read to me could have had her name on it – because what I remember is her and her voice. That's the important part."

From bedtime tales to books

These children's books started as stories written specifically for or told to a particular child.

Alice's adventures in Wonderland

By Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)

Peter Pan and wendy

By J.M. Barrie

Pippi Longstocking

By Astrid Lindgren

The Railway series (featuring Thomas the Tank Engine)

By the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, continued by his son Christopher Awdry

The Story of Peter Rabbit

By Beatrix Potter

Stuart Little

By E.B. White

Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson

The Wind in the Willows

By Kenneth Grahame


By A.A. Milne

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