Thursday, March 16, 2006

Honesty pays

Beatrix Potter's letter to a six-year-old fan apologising for writing and pubishing "The tale of Pigling Bland" has been sold at auction for 8,200 pounds sterling. Apparently the author was under pressure to meet a Christmas deadline, was not well, and so submitted an inferior work -- which was duly published. The letter, decorated with pigs, was written in 1913. Apart from the obvious points about authors who produce a book a year after they attain the bestseller charts, irrespective of maintaining quality, the Beatrix Potter letter made me wonder how many children's authors are still so popular 100 years after their books are published. Children in the UK are still bought up on Beatrix Potter. Peter Rabbit and co were my first books. My sisters and I shared my mother's childhood copies. We still have those, which were read by our own children (though my children preferred modern copies). But it isn't just my family: Beatrix Potter is everywhere in bookshops, libraries, people's houses, etc. Apart from their shared Lake District origins, my mother always rated the books because Beatrix Potter did not use simple language: she wrote using complicated words and assumed children would absorb the sense, or be stimulated to ask what the words meant. One reason I liked the books as a child is that the animals were so naughty -- Peter Rabbit and the lettuce, Hunca Munca's faux housekeeping, Tom Kitten's ruining his best clothes, etc. The books are short, beautifully illustrated, and written in such a refreshing, direct style -- the authorial voice treating the child-reader as another sensible adult in a joint observation of the quaint doings of the animals. And unsentimental, too -- Jemima Puddle Duck's eggs being a case in point even though Mr Tod did not get to have them for dinner. Pigling Bland also -- his mother packing her innocent offspring off to the marketplace -- this one is longer than the average, but I quite liked it despite the revealed apology by the author. One child I know was quite obsessed with it. I think Beatrix Potter was right to use the language she did, as when I came to read her books to my own children, not only did I witness their enjoyment, but I found I had remembered them well (though I can't have understood quite a lot of the words), whereas those by most other authors read at a very early age are forgotten. If Beatrix Potter's books aren't a great example of what children are capable of enjoying without receiving patronising, dumbed-down input, I don't know what is. And apart from fairy tales, which don't really have "authors", I can't call to mind other "very young children's" books that have endured on the same scale and over the time period of Beatrix Potter's.