Happy Birthday, Peter!

Peter Rabbit turns 100
"'Now, my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor."' - From "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," by Beatrix Potter.

Peter Rabbit, the naughty bunny who creates havoc when he steals into Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden, remains a charming mischief-maker after 100 years.

Written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" has been reprinted more than 250 times since 1902. "Peter Rabbit" and the 22 other itty-bitty books about Peter's misadventures with bunny-siblings Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail - and friends Jemima Puddle-Duck, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs. Tittlemouse and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle - are sold in 35 languages at a rate of 5 million copies a year.

On the centenary publication of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," Frederick Warne & Co., a division of Penguin Putnam, is reissuing all 23 booklets in a more elegant but classic edition. The itty-bitty format is unchanged.

Potter "sized the books for a child's hand, for a more intimate experience," said Jessica Levinson Giat, Penguin's director of marketing.

The author's motto was "little books for little hands," said Sally Floyer, managing director of Frederick Warne, the 1902 publisher of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."

Barbara Kiefer, associate professor of children's literature at Columbia Teachers College, explained Peter Rabbit's century-old popularity this way: "It's a classic story, it's almost mythological. The hero leaves home, goes into the wider world, faces danger, comes back chastened, but still a hero." His only punishment is that he's sent to bed with a dose of chamomile tea.

Four original watercolor illustrations that had been dropped for lack of space in the 1904 editions of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," and two other drawings prepared for the book but never printed, have been added to the new collection. The new release has different distribution dates around the world - September in the United States, March in the United Kingdom.

Modern technology produced brighter and more detailed images, giving the impression that the watercolor "has been directly poured on the page," said Floyer.

"We spent an enormous amount of time to come up with an edition which reflects the original feel and the original intention of the author, but which looks much nicer, has a fresher feel after 100 years," she said.

Those changes include a creamier paper stock more closely resembling the original books, a bookplate and redesigned endpapers and jacket.

Born in London in 1866, Potter lived the conventional life of a girl growing up in Victorian England. She was educated at home, providing her little opportunity to make friends. Her many and unusual pets - rabbits, hedgehogs, tortoise, lizards and frogs - became her constant companions and later the basis for the characters in her books. Summers werspent on a family farm in England's Lake District.

This abundant but lonely existence left her with plenty of time to closely study her pets and natural environment. She filled sketchbooks and journals with painstakingly detailed and skillful drawings of animals, flowers, fossils and landscapes. That meticulous detail was later applied to the watercolors for which she became famous.

Michael Cart, author of "What's So Funny? Wit and Humor in American Children's Literature," called Potter's books "absolutely revolutionary." They were one of the first picture books "to match the elegance of the text with the quality of the pictures."

"For many, many years, 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' was the second best-selling book of all time," Cart said.

Potter first conceived the character and drawings of Peter Rabbit in 1893 in a letter to Noel Moore, the 5-year-old son of her former governess. It was a story of Potter's pet rabbit, Peter, who often enjoyed stretching out in front of the fire like a pet cat or dog. Young Noel loved the story and shared it with many of his friends.

Encouraged, Potter decided to expand the story into a small picture book with several black-and-white illustrations. After several publishers rejected it, she had 250 editions published at her own expense and distributed them to family and friends. Before long, Frederick Warne agreed to publish "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" if Potter supplied original color illustrations.

After its 1902 publication, Potter produced an average of two books every year over the next eight years.

At Books of Wonder, a New York City shop specializing in children's literature, assistant manager Enid Esmond said that all of Potter's book sell well with "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" being "the most notable." First editions are highly collectible, Esmond said, ranging from $2,000 to $20,000.

Kiefer, the Columbia professor, said that Potter never wrote down to youngsters.

"The stories are beautifully written," she said. "Her sentence structure is remarkable and rich. It's filled with the sound of wonderful words."

"Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself."

Kiefer said she read passages of the Potter tale to her graduate students. "They love listening to it," she said. "The mark of a good children's book is if you can read it aloud over and over again. And the pictures are so exquisite."

Centenary tributes to Beatrix Potter are planned around the world this year. A major multimedia exhibit opens Saturday and runs through May 26 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, before traveling to major cities in the United States, Southeast Asia, the Netherlands, France, Japan and Canada. Designed to give children a rabbit's-eye view of the artist's world, it includes a virtual walk throgh a 360-degree digital landscape based on places and events in the books.

Included will be 50 original Potter watercolors - rarely traveled due to their fragile nature. The exhibit, minus the original watercolors, will be shown at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, June 15 through Aug. 28.

The exhibit also will highlight Potter's many other, lesser known accomplishments - as an amateur scientist (she studied the germination of spores) and a conservationist (she adopted new methods of agricultural preservation).

When she died in 1943, she left a 4,000-acre estate of 15 farms and cottages in the Lake District to the National Trust of England, which protects and preserves land and buildings of historical importance and beauty.

Peter Rabbit is also scheduled to make an appearance at this year's White House egg roll.

Penguin Putnam also is partnering with Wal-Mart on a new line of Peter Rabbit infant products under the Seedlings brand. The licensing and merchandising of her characters would not surprise Potter, as she showed an entrepreneurial streak early on. In 1903, she secured a patent for a Peter Rabbit doll, jigsaw puzzle, wallpaper and a Peter Rabbit game.

"She was a very, very savvy business person, who understood very well what she had with her little books for little hands," Cart said. "She knew how important it was to control her creative product."

By Ula Ilnytzky
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