Reading & Literacy Opinion

Peter Rabbit Goes Downtown

By Lawrence R. Sipe — January 31, 2001 5 min read
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The Tale of Peter Rabbit—what is the secret of its continuing appeal.

A hundred years after it first appeared, children and parents continue to read it. Teachers use it during story time, engaging their students in the adventures of the literary world’s most famous rabbit. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit shows no sign of waning in popularity. How could this story, written by a member of the British Edwardian upper-middle class and redolent of a rural culture, still retain relevance for children today? What is the secret of its continuing appeal?

To answer these questions, I asked teachers in 15 urban kindergarten and 1st grade classes to do a “read aloud” of this classic children’s book, recording and analyzing children’s responses. The experience was extraordinary: The 346 city kids were able to bridge the enormous cultural divide that separated their world from the world of Peter Rabbit.

Start with Potter’s sophisticated language. According to some educators, today’s urban youngsters might have difficulty making meaning of the following segment. Peter is enmeshed in a gooseberry net. " ... [H]is sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.” With little guidance, the children quickly made sense of the language. “Implored him to exert himself” was converted to “It means stop crying. Be tough!” “Try to get yourself out!” “And get yourself purpose—give yourself some purpose.” This last response was especially interesting, because the setting for it was an Afro-centric school, where teachers and parents accentuated the idea of “having a purpose” in life. The children applied this powerful idea to Peter’s situation.

Children placed themselves in the story alongside Peter. They reacted with predictive warning when Peter squeezed under the garden gate (“Uh-oh, he’s gonna be in real trouble now!”); encouraged Peter along with the sparrows (“Don’t give up, Peter! You can do it!”); echoed Peter’s wariness about Mr. McGregor’s cat (“I wouldn’t trust him—some cats is mean”); and rejoiced at Peter’s escape from the garden (“Thank God he didn’t get killed!”).

They related the story to their own lives in many ways. They wanted to talk about disobeying parents and the consequences of doing so: “When I’m bad, my dad tells me that he is going to ‘get into my world!’ ” When the children heard that “it was the second little jacket and pair of shoes that Peter had lost in a fortnight,” and found out that a fortnight meant two weeks, one child exclaimed, “I lose my clothes a lot more times than that!” Food, ever an important nursery topic, also figured largely in the children’s responses. A number of children had eaten rabbit, leading to a less-than-sympathetic commentary about Peter’s father having been made into a pie: “They killed him, and then they chopped him up and took the skin off and they cooked him, just like a chicken.” As Peter is chased in the story by Mr. McGregor, the children also wanted to talk about being chased by brothers and sisters, bullies, and dogs.

In a time when institutional and political rhetoric is emphasizing what urban children lack in literacy knowledge, the experience of talking about stories is often considered a frill

Relating this story to their lives went further, however, than associations with specific events. The children also used their developing reflections on life in interpreting Beatrix Potter’s tale. For example, they discussed how Peter was a “chip off the old block” because his father had also gone into Mr. McGregor’s garden. This led to speculation about Peter’s father as a ne’er-do- well whose actions had hurt his family: “Well, his dad didn’t care—he was bad and he got into trouble and got killed, and then Peter’s mom had to take care of all of ‘em. My dad’s in jail, but my grandma takes care of us, too.” It had not occurred to me to think of Mrs. Rabbit as an example of a modern, beleaguered single parent, trying to raise four youngsters, but these children did. In contrast to Mrs. Rabbit’s isolated situation, though, the children pointed out the strong extended-family supports in their communities.

One of the most creative responses to Peter Rabbit was to use it as an invitation to tell one’s own story. One child told of stealing a neighbor’s carrots, and jumping into a swimming pool in order to escape: “She caught me ‘cause I was allergic to pool water, the chlorine that they put in the water, and I sneezed.” From the story, this child appropriates the idea of stealing vegetables and being chased. She transforms Peter’s jumping into a watering can into a leap into a swimming pool. Whereas Peter sneezes as the result of getting wet, the child says she sneezed because of her allergy. In her story, this child displays her facility in weaving elements of the tale with imaginative interpolations and changes.

These lively responses demonstrate that The Tale of Peter Rabbit has great appeal for contemporary urban children, so far removed in time, space, and culture from the milieu of the story. We usually say that stories such as Peter Rabbit are “timeless,” having universal appeal. For the children, the appeal was primarily “time-ly” because it provided the opportunity to reflect on the realities of their day-to-day lives. We usually think of “culturally relevant” literature for city children as comprising books that mirror the urban experience. In this case, however, Peter Rabbit became culturally relevant to these children: They made it relevant for themselves through their interpretation and critical perspectives.

For children, the appeal is “time-ly” because it provides the opportunity to reflect on the realities of their day-to-day lives.

In a time when institutional and political rhetoric is emphasizing what urban children lack in literacy knowledge and prescribing sterile skill-and-drill approaches, the experience of talking about stories is often considered a frill. A principal visits a classroom, sees the teacher reading a story aloud, and says, “I’ll come back when you’re teaching.” This perspective ignores the power of constructing, through talk, an understanding of how stories work and the ability to interpret stories and their relationship to life. It also ignores the very great strengths that urban children bring to the classroom in terms of rich and complex oral language. Stories can both inform us and transform us. If children are to become more than mere decoders of text, they need rich engagements with powerful stories.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Peter Rabbit Goes Downtown

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