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The Writing Style of Beatrix Potter
by Evelyn Hepburn

The Writing Style of Beatrix PotterWhen thinking of classic children's literature, one of the first names that may come to mind is Beatrix Potter. Her series of illustrated "little books," referred to canonically as the 23 Tales, became very popular upon publication in the early 20th century. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her first book, combined imagination with cruel and realistic situations, whimsical illustrations, and clearly-written language to create an enjoyable, memorable experience for the reader. Potter utilized this combination of techniques throughout her 33 publications, causing her to become the most famous children's author of the post-Victorian era.

Good writers of books for children employ imagination in their prose, and Potter was no exception. She created a world where animals had human-like characteristics. The animals in her books had family structures and expressed human emotions. While this idea seems fantastical to adult audiences, it appeals to children. Stuffed toys in animal shapes—still a relatively new product during the early 20th century—stimulate a child's desire for imaginary play. Potter satisfied this desire by creating literary adventures featuring animals often sold in toy form.

Cover of the first edition, The Tale of Peter RabbitContrasting with this world of imagination, Potter's works provided a cruel, yet realistic balance. Humans were creatures to be feared in Potter's world, as they would often try to harm, ward off, or kill the animal characters. For example, in Peter Rabbit, Mr. McGregor, the antagonist, spends much time trying to capture Peter Rabbit because rabbits are considered to be garden pests. Peter later encounters other evil predators until, after a wild chase, he finally arrives at his family's rabbit hole. These cruel situations are a direct application of Potter's expertise as a keen natural scientist and conservationist—roles that she could not publicly participate in as a Victorian woman.

Another literary application of Potter's scientific knowledge was her ability to illustrate her books with whimsical, charming watercolors. Prior to becoming a children's book writer, Potter drew and painted scientific illustrations. This gave her the skills necessary to create richly detailed pictures, an aspect of Potter's work that is a large part of its appeal to children. The aesthetic used in her paintings was timely for the period and added to the audience's ability to believe in the world that Potter had created within her books. Enhancing the anthropomorphic characteristics of her animals, she depicted them wearing clothing appropriate to the character's social class and role in the story.

Beatrix Potter's signature


The clarity of Potter's prose is another reason why she is considered one of the world's best children's writers. With careful word selection, and emphasis on simple, appropriate language, Potter's works display an elegant style that utilizes rich descriptions. Although her books are illustrated, it is possible to fully understand the action in each scene without the accompanying picture. Potter also utilizes onomatopoeia and short, rhyming verses to break up her prose. These add tonal diversity, making the works more interesting when read aloud to a child at bedtime.

Beatrix Potter employed a number of elements to create popular children's books. By crafting an imaginary world where animals wear clothing, live human lives, and go on grand adventures, Potter's books appeal to a broad, wide audience of young children. This connection with her audience, combined with strong descriptive skills, made Beatrix Potter one of the world's best-selling authors.

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