Monday, February 1, 2016

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

This year is Beatrix Potter's 150th birthday, and so it's fitting that she has been in the news. A long-lost story featuring a black cat will soon be published with illustrations by the delightful Quentin Blake. Can't wait!

Another reason to rejoice is a newly released picture book about Potter the animal lover written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Hopkinson sets young Beatrix in Victorian London and introduces readers to her many animals. There are the rabbits she takes for walks, assorted birds, reptiles, amphibians, and hedgehogs. Hopkinson is also upfront about the misfortunes that befell some of the critters. These sad events are told in Potter's own words, from the many journals the naturalist kept. Despite the horrors, it's hard not to smile when reading Potter's entries. Here is her account of what happened to a bat left dozing in a wooden box:

The very next morning that horrid old jay, being left alone to bathe in a wash basin, opened the box and destroyed the poor creature. I fancy he found it ill-favored, but he pulled out its arms and legs in a disgusting fashion.

These sad anecdotes, though, are but mere appetizers to the main story--the guinea pig. As the title  foreshadows, there will be no happy ending. Wanting to sketch a guinea pig and having none at hand, Beatrix borrows the squeaking rodent from her neighbor, a Miss Paget. And not just any guinea pig. She borrows Queen Elizabeth, a descendant from "a long line of distinguished guinea pigs." But when Beatrix is called away from her sketching to attend a dinner party, Queen Elizabeth devours a good deal of the art supplies, including paste, and that night succumbs to a case of extreme indigestion.

The next day Beatrix has no recourse but to tell Miss Paget what happened to her beloved guinea pig. Miss Paget does not take the news well, not even when Beatrix gives her a watercolor of her late pet.

Hopkinson's tongue-in-cheek recounting of the tale is similar to Potter's droll style in her journals. And Voake's soft watercolors evoke her illustrations. My one quibble with the book comes in the entertaining postscript. Hopkinson admits that she made up some parts to her story and changed others, including that Potter was actually twenty-six when she borrowed Queen Elizabeth and not a young girl as portrayed in the book. This strikes me as not playing fair with the reader and casts an entirely different light on the incident. You can forgive a child for being careless with another's pet; you judge an adult more harshly.

Still, all in all, this well-told story will entertain and inform young readers, many of whom no doubt have their own "unfortunate tales" regarding pets. (I know I do.)

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig
by Deborah Hopkinson
illustrated by Charlotte Voake
Schwartz & Wade    44 pages
Published: February, 2016



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