The rediscovered Beatrix Potter book "The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots" is out Tuesday
Potter influenced the entire genre of the picture book
The cast of beloved children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s iconic characters like Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs. Tiggly-Winkle welcomes a new family member today: Kitty-in-Boots.
After it was rediscovered by Penguin Random House Children’s editor Jo Hanks while working with actress and author Emma Thompson on “The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit” two years ago, the 102-year-old manuscript, “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots,” is finally landing on bookshelves in honor of Potter’s 150th birthday. Her books have been entertaining readers since 1902.
Although Kitty’s elderly owner thinks her cat is “serious” and “well-behaved,” the young black cat has a taste for adventure. At night, she sneaks out in a jaunty jacket and boots to go hunting while her friend Winkiepeeps takes her place in the shed and pretends to be Kitty. They look just alike, so Winkiepeeps benefits from the attention and food Kitty’s owner unwittingly gives him.
But it turns out that Kitty isn’t very good at hunting and gets herself into quite a bit of trouble. Along the way, the sassy feline runs into characters Potter fans will remember from other tales: Mrs. Tiggly-Winkle, Ribby, Tabitha Twitchit, Mr. Tod and, even though he is never identified, an older rabbit in a familiar blue jacket who looks like a grown-up Peter Rabbit.
“I felt as though it’s one of her best-written tales,” Hanks said. “It’s a brilliant story; she is a fantastic storyteller, and her characters are always good fun. They never fail to thrill or delight or make you laugh, and Kitty does all of those things. But she is also relatable. These are the hallmarks of Potter’s tales, and those leaped out at me when I was writing.
“Cats like to sneak out and go hunting, and Potter is good at writing to the true primal nature of an animal. The beauty of Potter’s writing is that she wasn’t about a strong moral message, but she wanted children to understand that these things happen in nature and that animals aren’t that dissimilar from us.”
Hanks discovered through Potter’s correspondence with her publishers at Frederick Warne & Co. that Potter had reworked the text, but life got in the way of her illustrating it. “She stepped away and almost forgot about it herself,” Hanks said.
Potter left behind only a sketch of Kitty as well as Mr. Tod the fox, so Hanks brought in famed children’s book author and illustrator Quentin Blake to complete the story by adding colorful depictions of each scene to the book. His artwork is almost synonymous with the books of Roald Dahl.
“We wanted to find someone who would really get Potter and understand her humor and writing style,” Hanks said. “There is a lot of similarity in how she wrote and drew and how he writes and draws. They are both witty and create charming characters, and don’t write down to children.”
This is the first new “tale” since the 1930s, and although Potter died in 1943, her legacy lives on. More than 2 million of her books are sold globally each year in more than 35 languages. As author Susan Wittig Albert points out, “her ‘little books’ are often the first books that children read.”
Albert, a mystery writer who wrote Potter-inspired “Cottage Tales” series, read the books as a young child and has read them to her own children.
“They’re part of my childhood, a glimpse into a miniature, magical world, seen and imagined through a child’s eyes,” she said. “I think those stories come to us at a time in our young lives when we are eager to listen and learn. We ‘imprint’ on them. The remembered images are evocative, and still powerful, years later.”
Potter’s work also influenced the entire genre of the picture book, according to Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries.
Potter had specific ideas of what a children’s book should be. She wanted her books to be small enough to fit in a child’s hand, put the words and illustrations on facing pages, crafted a lean sentence structure, spoke directly to her readers in the narrative, and paced her books with rhythm and page-turning excitement, Von Drasek said.
She also drew very natural-looking animals who happened to be upright and in clothing without creating cartoons out of them, “a gift she gave generations of children’s book artists,” Von Drasek said.
Those traits are all alive and well in this latest tale. Von Drasek’s impression is that it’s “a true handshake with history.” Indicative of the time it was written in 1914, it is reminiscent of “Downton Abbey.” And it’s personal to Potter. The class differences between the feline characters reflect the divide between Potter and Norman Warne, the man with whom she fell in love but of whom her privileged family disapproved.
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Although Potter’s art in her well-known tales feels old fashioned, it doesn’t feel dated. Blake’s illustrations capture the feeling of Potter’s writing, and the two share a “lighthearted liveliness,” Von Drasek said. And no matter the passage of time, Potter’s books continue to speak to the age group for whom they were meant and they remain “terrific read-alouds,” she said.
In November, a collection of art and letters by various children’s book author-illustrators will publish to celebrate Potter’s legacy as one of the first. They all offered their own artistic takes on Potter’s characters to show how she inspired them.
“Think how hard it is to be a writer and an illustrator,” Von Drasek said. “It’s two very unique talents: the talent to hear the music of the language and to understand the page turns. Picture books are a unique form of art. Like music, it’s one of those few things that make you say, ‘I want to hear that again.’ ”