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Updated 'Peter Rabbit' Loses Its Classic Look

September 17, 1987|DEBRA CRAINE | Associated Press

LONDON — Traditionalists are hopping mad over a new edition of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" that replaces Beatrix Potter's inventive prose with everyday language and her delicate drawings with photographs of portly puppets.

"Beatrix Potter must be turning in her grave. . . . These new books are perfectly horrid," said Bill Latham, administrator of the author's cottage in northwest England, a national historic site. Potter died in 1943.

Ladybird Books, a British publisher of children's educational and fictional books, said Tuesday it had updated and simplified the 1901 classic to appeal to a wider audience.

Just Hops Around

In the original, for example, Potter wrote: "Peter rushed into the toolshed and jumped into a watering can. It would have been a beautiful thing to hide in, if it had not had so much water in it."

The Ladybird version reads: "When he got inside the shed, Peter hid in a watering can. Mr. McGregor couldn't find him anywhere. But the watering can had water in it. . . .

Peter still sneaks into Mr. McGregor's garden, but he just hops around--his feet don't go "lippity-lippity."

The story has been changed, too. Readers of the new edition will find no mention of the tragic demise of Peter's father, who was baked in a rabbit pie by Mrs. McGregor.

It was because of what happened to his father that Peter had been warned not to go into Mr. McGregor's garden.

In both versions, the naughty bunny disobeys his mother and narrowly escapes the clutches of Mr. McGregor, who chases him with a garden rake. But the Ladybird edition leaves out Peter's encounters with the lady mouse, who couldn't talk because she had a large pea in her mouth, and with the white cat, who was too busy eyeing the goldfish to tell him the way to the garden gate.

No Cotton-Tail

Gone, too, are the beloved watercolor images of Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail reproduced on countless baby mugs, saucers and plates.

The new edition "cannot match the originals for style, for language and there is no way you can compare these stuffy photographs with the original hand-painted drawings," Latham said.

Asked by the Daily Telegraph for a comment, Colin MacCabe, professor of English literature at Cambridge University, said: "I'd love to be able to give you an amusing quote, but this depresses me too much."

In Its Defense

But Ladybird Managing Director Malcolm Kelly said the company was proud of its updated edition of Miss Potter's tale and accused critics of "taking a very snobbish attitude."

"They don't know anything about children who don't have a great deal of money and who come from homes where there are very few books," he said.

Sally Floyer of publishers Frederick Warne, which holds Miss Potter's copyright, also defended the modern version, saying people who remember and cherish the original tale make up only 5% of the population.

"This is an attempt to appeal to the non-book-buying public," she said.

Ladybird said photographs of puppets were chosen because children of today are familiar with puppets from television. The company said it was planning to rework other Potter books, including "Squirrel Nutkin," in an effort to broaden their appeal.

The new book went on sale three weeks ago in the book shop of Miss Potter's cottage, despite the administrator's reservations. It will be sold at chain stores throughout Britain, but plans for overseas sales have not been announced.

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