Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box

The bad news: Remember that poor, shy kitty I got a month ago?  Telemachos by name?  He’s still really shy and hiding under the rather dusty, dirty futon.

The good news: While I was dealing with my writer’s block yesterday, I stood playing with a cat dancer, and he finally batted at it from under said futon.  This is a new development, and I’m delighted.  Then he came out and chased it!  A lot!  My poor, semi-feral cat actually played with me.  This is very, very good news.  Here he is out of the sofa, but not quite being playful yet (ignore the mess, please):

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The burning desire of my heart: To get rid of that blasted futon between me and the cat.  I know it’s unreasonable– the abovementioned futon gives Telemachos a safe space to hide and it’s probably best to leave it for him for a little longer, at least.  (I still hate the damned futon, though, and intend to replace it with a cozy armchair, the kind you can really curl up in, though.  For reading purposes.)

Further bad news: This means I’ve been severely delayed in posting.  I spent my writing time playing with my kitty.  Mea culpa.

Further good news: I did, however, have an enjoyable time socializing a semi-feral kitty and also talking with a charming and intelligent friend who showed me a very good new-to-me book.  (The other distraction yesterday.  Mea culpa again.)

So, lots of quiet but excellent developments in my head and my house– but it does mean I was around here a bit less.  My apologies for that.

Oh, blast it, sorry… wait, no.  I was going to apologize for rambling about my cat for so long, but here are two reasons for me not to apologize: a) This is the internet.  On the internet we ramble about cats; b) I’m about to talk about a lady so obsessed with her pets that she spent her spare time painting them.  If Beatrix Potter had had a smartphone and the internet, she’d have had the world’s most popular Instagram account, or a website called “My Cute Wild Animals.”  The book is Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box, by David McPhail, and it is all about how an ardent admirer of the natural world learned the art to share her vision with her fellow humans.

Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box

If I were to lay my finger on one thing which makes this book distinct from other books I’ve seen about Beatrix Potter, it’s that it’s not just a biography: it’s the biography of an artist, and is focused directly on how Beatrix Potter grew to be an artist.  As such, it’s an inspiration to other children to see how she worked and how she became an artist– a quiet “you can, too.”

The story goes that young Beatrix has always loved art.  One day, her mother gives her her paint box, and Beatrix goes from admiring art to making her own art.  She paints pictures of everything– including, and, perhaps, especially her pets!  (The book doesn’t focus on her pets to any great extent, but if you know about Beatrix, you know that there were pets of all kinds.  We’ll get to the pets in our next book in this series.)  She painted rabbits and mice and even, when she went to the countryside with her family, toadstools and other natural scenes.  As she grew older, she only painted more, and, finally, this transitioned into her career of illustrating her own stories about the animals she knew, becoming the books we know and love so well today.

There are a few elements that make this book special, and I want to single them out briefly:

a) How, very quietly, painting is shown to be therapeutic to the young Beatrix.  The book doesn’t say in so many words that Beatrix was lonely, but it gets it across.  She didn’t see so much of her parents as of nannies and tutors, we are told.  She missed her brother when he went away to school, and then she painted more, McPhail says.  As adults we can fill in the gaps– and children might intuit, or tuck it away to figure out later: Beatrix didn’t have a warm, active family life, except, perhaps, when her family was together in the country.  Painting seems, in the picture we’re shown here, to have been a hobby and a therapy for her, a healthy way of coping with otherwise empty time or feelings that had no other outlet.  I love this.  It’s a “show-don’t-tell” way of indicating to children what they might do if they find themselves in a similar situation.  Feeling lonely?  Make something.  Time on your hands?  Get creative.

b) I admit: I was worried about the art.  Watercolours, to talk about Beatrix Potter?  Was it going to be derivative?  Hah, no!  David McPhail is a highly experienced and excellent artist in his own right, and here he strikes the right balance of capturing the late Victorian spirit you need to illustrate a story about Beatrix Potter without going so far as to be timidly imitative or, on the other side of the risk bracket, too bold to seem relevant at all.  An illustrated story about an illustrator brings up its own difficulties, and what David McPhail does is very wise: he cannot be Beatrix Potter, so he’s simply David McPhail.  He renders beautiful watercolours of Beatrix Potter’s house and surroundings growing up, and shows her at work, painting, in all the places she was likely to do so: her schoolroom, London, and outside in various parts of the countryside where her family spent the summers.  All are softly done in rather dreamy tone-on-tone colours which blur the line between story and history, just as the text draws out the artist without needing to involve every detail of Beatrix’s life.  In other words, the illustrations are perfectly appropriate to David McPhail’s story of Beatrix, to her childhood and upbringing, and elicit all the right tones from the text.

This is a lovely story, and both the illustrations and text charmingly draw out a picture of a young girl growing into an artist, step by step through her life.  I’d venture to guess that this would be a good book for early readers, too.  The words aren’t too difficult, although some (“tutors” for example) would be unfamiliar for modern American children.  The nice thing about it, I think, is that it’s a great accompaniment to the Beatrix Potter stories.  If you can read one, you can read the other.  My Changeling loves this book, for example, and it will only become more relevant to her as she grows older and learns that, oh, hey!  This ties into that, I get it!  (The charm of toddlers is that they have rather fluid notions of history and biography…)

So, forgive me for the lateness of this post, and check in tomorrow (if I don’t get distracted again) for the last installment of this little series…

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