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Review: The Further Tales of Peter Rabbit; Emma Thompson

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit; Emma Thompson, illus. Eleanor Taylor

Published September 2012. F. Warne & Co. List price £12.99

Appropriate for ages 20 months and up

From the cover:

‘Peter Rabbit is in low spirits, what he needs is a change of scene. He squeezes under the gate into Mr McGregor’s garden intending to steal a lettuce – but what happens next is just the excitement that Peter is looking for.

He discovers a picnic basket and before Peter knows it he is in Scotland, and so the further tale of Peter Rabbit begins…’

Beatrix Potter’s series of 24 books, published between 1902 and 1930 are classics, enjoyed in childhood and beyond. Peter Rabbit, who made his first appearance in 1902 with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is undoubtedly the most popular of Potter’s beloved characters. It is testament to the popularity of the naughty little rabbit and his creator that so many adaptations have been produced: from countless animated versions to a ballet, Beatrix Potter biopics, CD-ROMs & other digital media and myriad merchandise, they have been reproduced and absorbed in to our culture and recognised as a significant point in the history of children’s literature. The books are, unusually for the age, child-sized; the illustrations are designed to be read in conjunction with the text; even Potter’s merchandising of her characters was groundbreaking at the turn of the last century.

Peter Rabbit is important as a cultural icon and as a microcosmic lesson in children’s publishing history, which all goes to suggest that Emma Thompson, national treasure, Oscar winner and wearer of excellent earrings, has got a lot to live up to. Whether Thompson’s creation might be considered part of the Potter canon or an addition to the scores of ‘spin-off’ publications (such as Peekaboo Peter) is a question best left for posterity to answer.

Beatrix Potter insisted her books were sized to be comfortable to small hands,  so it’s a little disheartening to see Further Tales produced as so large a book. Still, the F. Warne & Co. logo is like an old friend who has just offered to put the kettle on, comforting and familiar and offering to make good on their public determination to respect the integrity of their product.

Thompson echoes Potter’s  simple, child friendly language and her jolly plots (and, a hair less successfully, her economy of prose), but she does not try to mimic Potter’s voice. This new story is told lovingly, opening with a reverently intertextual reference to Peter’s first adventure. It is, of course, Peter’s prodigious appetite that gets him into trouble.

Thompson’s Peter is a faithful reproduction both physically and psychologically – an impish bunny with a strong sense of fun and adventure, anti-authoritarian, impudent and bold.  As in the original tales Peter’s thievery that sets him off on his journey but we are told that he is good at heart – after winning the radish throwing contest with a non-spec veggie, Peter exclaims, “I didn’t win fair and square!”. Our favourite little bunny may be occasionally dishonest but he is not amoral.

The Telegraph arts correspondent Roya Nikkhah is probably reading a little too much into things when they proclaim The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit to have a political subtext against Scottish independence (though that is known to be Thompson’s personal stance), but Scotland and Scottish culture is certainly embraced – new character Finlay McBurney tells Peter, “no matter where we’ve been or where we’re going, ’tis the hills draw us back.” Scotland is romanticised in both prose and picture: thistle, potato scones and game birds adorn the pages as Peter gets on swimmingly with his Scottish cousins and joins in with their adventures.

Eleanor Taylor’s watercolour illustrations can sit happily beside Potter’s originals. It would be impossible to match Potter’s artwork in anatomical detail or charm, but Taylor is as close as can be. The images fade into the white space around them, inviting the reader in. A soothing palette of  browns and greens are a soothing counterpoint to the text, toning down Peter’s naughtiness and emphasising the congeniality of  Peter’s new friends and making for a delightful tale friendship and heritage, gently funny and seriously heart-warming.

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit deserves an unerring 9.5 out of 10.

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