Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

My very dear readers, yesterday I offered you something simple and perfect: a very pared-down biography.  Basically, I gave you the perfect rice pudding: creamy, smooth, wholesome, and altogether dreamy.  Today, I’m giving you the reverse: I’m giving you ice cream with everything in it and on it, right down to the chocolate fudge sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.  It’s fun, it’s intelligent, it’s beautifully illustrated by one of my very favourite artists working today– it’s Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Charlotte Voake.  (Be careful: that link includes this, along with other art by the genius.  I wantsss it, my precioussss…  One day, one day.)

Actually let’s take this out of the parentheses.  Have I told you my dream?  My dream is that one day I’ll have a study for writing and reading.  A perfect, strong desk for writing and doodling.  A perfect, deep armchair for curling up with a book.  And walls lined with two things: Books, of course, but also art.  Art from Charlotte Voake.  Art from Charles Vess.  Art from Edward Ardizzone.  Art from Steve Light and Liz Wong and Paul O. Zelinsky and all the people who do such marvellous, beautiful work every day out there.  Art is one area where I just never learned the ropes, but looking at it helps me work, and my dream-study isn’t complete without lovingly-framed gorgeous art from the people who inspire me on a daily basis.

Which brings me back to this beautiful ice cream sundae of a book, which is just like my perfect dream-room: it has everything, and something for everyone.

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig.jpg

I mentioned yesterday that I felt the dangers of writing a book about Beatrix Potter aimed at children, particularly one illustrated in watercolours, was that you might end up with something derivative and a little cheap.  I am so impressed by the different ways David McPhail, Deborah Hopkinson, and Charlotte Voake all worked to make their books consistent and individual masterpieces.  In this case, I want to draw an apologetic analogy to Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.  Like The Force Awakens, Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake had to do two things: a) play into a history of nostalgia and affectionate memories; b) create a new story with both new and old characters, good dialogue, and a full, consistent tale of its own.  And, in my humble opinion, like The Force Awakens, they succeeded in both aims extremely well.  As you can see from the cover posted above, the style, font, and format remind readers of the Beatrix Potter books, but the rich story is very much Deborah Hopkinson’s own, and Charlotte Voake’s art is definitively in her own style.

Let’s get into more detail.  The story is aimed a little bit older and has a slightly broader focus than Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box.  Two key differences are: a) It has a richer and punchier narrative, as opposed to the soft and delicate walk through Beatrix’s life David McPhail provides; b) Instead of the very close story of Beatrix’s art, Deborah Hopkinson talks a lot about her more varied interests, including both her art, nature, animals, stories, and her friends.  I’d say that the plushier story gives a more rounded and fuller picture of Beatrix from this book, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The story goes like this: Young Beatrix and her brother lived in a house in London with their family, but also with a complete menagerie of pets.  This complete menagerie is laid out very fully in the first few pages of the book, and just look at these illustrations:

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Now, what Beatrix does not have is a guinea pig.  And she dearly would love to paint a picture of one.  Therefore, she betakes herself to a neighbour’s house to ask for the loan of one of her loveliest guinea pigs so that she can draw it.  The loan is granted, and off goes young Beatrix with the guinea pig.  (Can you guess what’s going to happen?  I bet you can.)  Beatrix sets to work and everything is going along splendidly until she’s called away from her work.  She leaves the guinea pig on the work area, rather unwisely.  The guinea pig looks around, and begins what Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman term a “crude forensic examination” (Good Omens) of the materials on the table.  Paste, paper, everything is nibbled up.  These prove unhealthy for the poor beast, who expires.  Beatrix is shocked and heartbroken, but brings the painting of the poor, dead guinea pig to her neighbour, who is not notably mollified.  The book ends with an appeal to the neighbour to find out whether she has kept the illustration, and indicating that it would have been a very good idea if she had held onto it since it has decidedly appreciated in value since the time it was drawn.

We must all agree that it’s not often that you hear me talking about a funny story where a little girl killed her neighbour’s pet, so you can tell from this that the story is extremely well-told.  What helps here is perspective.  David McPhail had an extremely sympathetic narrator, but it was a third-person omniscient narrator talking about a little girl named Beatrix, for all that.  Talking sympathetically, talking lovingly, but talking about her.  Deborah Hopkinson works differently.  Her narrator is constantly looking through Beatrix’s eyes.  When Beatrix wants a guinea pig, so does the narrator, and so do we.  When Beatrix realizes what’s gone wrong, we’re all horrified together.  It’s an extremely close relationship, and what distance comes into the relationship works like Charlotte Voake’s elegant pen strokes: it’s in the outline.  Any distance is in the author delineating the lines of the story, and giving the historical perspective.  That’s where the affectionate humour comes in, that’s where the bright, dark lines of the story are drawn, and of course these appear in the introduction and conclusion, especially.

I want to conclude with just a word more about Charlotte Voake’s illustrations, which I love almost too much to dare to talk about.  She works in a style uniquely her own, but in a British tradition of pen and watercolour which goes back pretty far.  I mentioned Edward Ardizzone above, but there’s also Marcia Brown, who comes to mind.  I, personally, associate Charlotte Voake with Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep, and thus with Eleanor Farjeon, but her work goes far beyond that.  What I’m saying is that she’s a host in her own right: part of a tradition, but her own unique force.  What her style lends this book?  Oh, Lord.  It brings a softness and a richness at the same time: the warm sweetness of watercolour, much as Beatrix Potter herself worked, bolsters the warmth and gentleness of the tale.  But the pen and ink lends vigour and activity, humour and spirit.  I cannot think of a more perfect accompaniment to Deborah Hopkinson’s text.

I’ve been told I should practice writing pull quotes, and it’s something I’m terrible at, but I’ll try here for once, mostly because I really want to give you all a message to walk away with: For warmth and humour equal to Beatrix Potter’s own, this is a perfect book for parents and children to share.

And that’s it, folks.  One story of Beatrix Potter’s own, and two perfect little gems about her, each for a different age group.  Go forth and read, and have a wonderful weekend!

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One thought on “Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

  1. […] Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig: This might be my absolute favourite book of the month.  A perfect balance of nostalgia and originality, Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake evoke Beatrix Potter’s own tales while presenting a wholly new one which gives readers a flavour of the famous author-illustrator’s childhood and personality.  Children will love the illustrations of animals and emphasis on the pets she kept.  (Parents may be forced to come up with an answer to requests for snakes and lizards!)  Parents and children alike will love the humour and honesty of both the story and the illustrations.  And let’s not forget that it’s just an excellent story. […]

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