Friday, February 5, 2016

Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

I am re-posting a review from yesterday, with a few changes. This book is a chameleon. Is it a "Perfect" picture book? I found it an unusual read, that brought me back again and again.
     Out this week:

Title: Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate
              Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig
Author: Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrator: Charlotte Voake
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade, February 2, 2016
Intended ages: 4-8
Themes: Literary figures, animals, death
Opening Line(s):
"My Dear Reader,
This is a story about a girl named Beatrix Potter and what happened when she borrowed her neighbor's guinea pig. So if you are about to lend your favorite hamster, snake, cat, turtle, or hedgehog, please wait!"

Synopsis: In homage to Beatrix Potter, a story of good intentions going awry when a young girl borrows a neighbor's pet for an artist's model.

     I'm recommending a book that is more anecdotal than epic. Why? I don't know if my background affected my reading, but in case it did, here are the relevant bits. I lived in England for four years, and am a huge fan of Beatrix Potter's work.  Everyone hears Beatrix Potter and thinks about Peter Rabbit, but The Tale of Two Bad Mice is probably my  favorite. Go read it if you haven't. And I had three childhood guinea pigs (RIP Ginger, G.P., and Ruff). I also write for children, and belong to one particular group that focuses on nonfiction (so I hear Kristen Fulton's voice in my head while reading)
     I enjoyed the matter-of-fact way young Beatrix's life in late 1800's London is portrayed. The reader meets a young girl walking rabbits on a leash and bringing a huge menagerie of wild animals into the house with apparently no adult intervention or repercussions. Her permissive upbringing in a well-to-do home is, from what I know, an accurate reflection of her life. I recently finished Leonard Marcus' biography of Margaret Wise Brown that refers to times when Margaret skinned dead animals, shocking the other children, also shattering the notion that women of earlier eras didn't live rough and tumble lives.
     The pages reproduced (happily, in translated form) from her diary are interwoven seamlessly, propelling the story to the main event. Her picture diaries bring to mind today's books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Timmy Failure and may serve to inspire a new generation of writer/artists.
     While, thankfully, I never killed any of my pets, the reality of such accidents feels realistic and sympathetic. But then I read the Author's Note. It is documented that Potter drew watercolors of guinea pigs around the time that this story is envisioned. However, Potter was 26 years old at the time, not a child. I had pictured a child's mistake as just that, a forgivable mistake borne of responding to her parents' call. The same actions committed by a 26-year old woman? Not as humorous. Would I have the same reaction if the author chose to focus on the death of the bat or family of snails Potter was also responsible for? Perhaps not. But thinking more and more on this plot point, I've decided that it is a great talking point for children.

     The author notes that except for her diary pages, all of the dialogue is invented. Thus the fiction classification. So is this a biography? The publisher says it is. I had to go to my nonfiction experts. The nonfiction group had an interesting discussion about what it means to be a biography yesterday. It's clear to me now that this IS one! It indeed tells a story of a person's life. And the Dewey classification (823) puts it clearly in literature. Because most of the biographies I've read for children purport to be nonfiction, I wonder if kids will catch the distinction and hope the adults in their life will make that clear for them.

     Read Beatrix Potter's books!
     Start a picture/letter diary.
     Discuss the responsibility involved in borrowing something.
     Draw a picture of something you love, and give it as a gift.
     Discuss PROPER pet care!! (Imagine a row of exclamation points here). There are many resources for this, but you can start perhaps with the generic information from the Veterinary Medical Association.
     Compare Beatrix Potter's life to your own. WebEnglish Teacher has lesson plans and teacher resources for grades 3-5. First has activities for pre-school readers.
     I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Note: I received a review copy from Random House in exchange for my honest review. No other compensation was received.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. This is an excellent review, Wendy. I appreciate your candor about what the book is and is not. I'm also a huge BP fan and look at anything by or about her.

    1. Thanks, Jane! I too am Beatrix besotted, so I had trouble deciding if kids would love the book.

  2. Great review... now I definitely want to read it!
    It sounds like historical fiction, or biographical fiction. But maybe we journalism-related NF writers are a bit too focused on "fact" and attribution?

    1. I think you have the biographical fiction label right! I wanted to get it right for Susanna's categorization and I was under the WRONG impression that biographies are generally NF. Count me among the recently educated.