science

New Beatrix Potter, or: The Tale of the Wrong Illustrator

As soon as I read that an unfinished Beatrix Potter story would be released this week, I emailed my mother a link to the news story I had seen.  When I was a very little girl, it was my mother who read me all the tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and so on.  She also made a point of driving me to Cleveland for the day to see an exhibit of Potter’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  I remember this trip clearly, even though I was only a small child then.  My mom knew that I loved wild animals, and I think we both loved Beatrix Potter’s illustrations because the animals looked like the ones that ran amok all over our yard.  Peter Rabbit, for example, looked exactly like the bunnies perpetually causing my father anxiety over the state of his garden.  And, if these creatures truly needed to wear clothes, they at least looked quite dignified in their Victorian fashions.  So that is why I immediately sent my mother the news article discussing the upcoming posthumous release of The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots

The response I received was one word: “Interesting.”

I can’t be sure if the skeptical response of “interesting” was geared toward the posthumous condition of the new release or the part where Kitty-in-Boots is, apparently, a female cat with an aristocratic-seeming name who crossdresses and leads a double life during the night.  That plot, potentially unfinished, seems a touch more convoluted than the usual Potter capers.  The other complication with the posthumous publishing is that Potter never finished her illustrations.  Only one watercolor illustration of her own survives, and it is clearly a sketch, lacking the clean lines and clear finish of her other creations.  The publisher, seeking to “complete” the book, commissioned Quentin Blake, an English artist most famous for illustrating the Roald Dahl books, to do illustrations for Potter’s text.  Blake, a tremendously skilled illustrator in his own right, is, in truth, an “interesting” choice.

One of Blake's illustrations for  The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots .

One of Blake's illustrations for The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots.

Blake’s characteristic style is frenetic.  The lines in his drawings don’t connect to make concrete forms, and the colors go past their lines or blotch and bleed within their spaces.  The eyes of his characters look anxious.  All of this is perfect for the sinister Dahl stories—the macabre and sadistic fates of the children in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, for instance, benefit from and are smoothed over by Blake’s brightly scattered drawings.  For Potter, however, the style complicates the near revolutionary simplicity of her approach.

The World of Peter Rabbit, as drawn by Beatrix Potter.

The World of Peter Rabbit, as drawn by Beatrix Potter.

Potter’s drawing style resembles that of a scientist more than a children’s book illustrator, which makes some of her illustrations seem quaint in their attention to substance over style.  Before I reached adulthood, I did not entirely understand what it meant that she was, in fact, a naturalist driven to document flowers, animals, and other aspects of the landscape near her home in England.  Naturalist drawings and watercolors, like Audubon’s images of birds, for example, are meant to capture every precise detail of the specimens they portray.  A good naturalist illustrator will produce drawings so precise that they could be passed on to scientists to study.  This mattered considerably, even through Potter’s lifetime and into the twentieth century, since photography had not yet reached the point of being able to produce reliable documentation in full color.

The effect of Potter’s naturalist illustrations on her books for children—the act of dressing actual rabbits in tiny clothes—is that they feel more real to the children who read them.  Scholars have often noted that Potter's stories are based on the actual observed behaviors of the animals they represent, and they are not so much charged with communicating a moral as they are with providing a little bit of mischief appropriate to nature.  As if the children who read them are entitled to make a little mischief themselves.

And so I am glad to see another Potter tale.  I may even buy it for my adult self to examine.  But I wish the illustrations matched the whimsical precision in the ones that Potter herself might have provided.  I’m sure, however, that The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots will be, at minimum, “interesting.”

Bringing out historical thinking

Tutoring often has the benefit of putting me in the way of assignments designed by teachers devoted to helping their students think creatively.  These assignments interest me especially when they do two things: 1) ask students to apply skills and knowledge across disciplines and 2) allow for choice and ingenuity in application.  Because students and educators alike resist memorizing dates and events as ways of learning history, these types of assignments mobilize historical thinking skills that allow students to develop sophisticated understandings of historical information.

I recently encountered two of these smart assignments that I will summarize briefly here.

The first came as a question on a forum, with a student asking for advice on a question her teacher had posed.  She asked: “Is it possible to apply Newton’s Laws of Physics to interpreting history?”  I thought about this for awhile—though I certainly understood these scientific laws at some point during school, I was never the most intuitive of science students.  It seemed to me that the question must be metaphorical, asking something more like: how can we use the relationships that Newton posed between forces, actions, reactions, and so on to understand the forces that guide how historical events come into being?  In that sense, for example, the Third Law, in which “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” suggests a particular way of looking at cause-and-effect relationships to determine how events beget other events and multiply outward into historical memory. 

The second came during an in-person tutoring session, where I was asked to help a student write a paper that required him to choose a historical object.  The student was then asked to use this object to stand in for an entire historical era.  By discussing the characteristics of the object, its uses, and how it came into being, a well-chosen object could therefore explain the most important trends in thought during its era and present an argument about how that era’s historical events transpired.  The example provided by the teacher used signs from nuclear fallout shelters in the 1950s to illuminate the events of the Cold War—by describing the circumstances in which it became necessary to build fallout shelters and label them with those signs, a student could make an argument about how the threat of communism actively influenced daily life for Americans during that era.  This assignment was, in fact, a research paper for an English class—but one grounded in the object-based inquiry that characterizes Museum Studies or Art History courses and which students usually don’t encounter until much later in their educations.

With assignments like these and careful guidance, students naturalize so many useful thought processes.  They begin to understand not only the nuts-and-bolts elements of history (the people, places, things, and dates), but also how events reach across time and bleed into each other and create influence.  They learn how arguments can be crafted through evidence and logic.  Consequently, they (hopefully) come to understand which sources are better than others, how to extract information from them, and also how to vet this evidence to make sure it is reliable.  These are skills that cross far beyond disciplinary boundaries, and when arguments are made about the importance of the humanities in any society, these broadly applicable skills bolster those arguments.  By moving between specific details and broad issues, by learning to make decisions and interpret information, these are the kinds of assignments that assert the necessity of historical thinking for all students.