Down the Peter Rabbit Hole: Literary Adventures for Little Ones
When we read books as children, the landscapes and language of those tales sink deep. Here we give a nod to children’s picture books that reward young readers’ sense of adventure. Four members of the CHE community who share a love for children’s literature each describe two books they cherish. These selections delight in the wonder and humor, wildness and tenderness, solitude and companionship we experience in the natural world—and reexperience in such literary adventures.
Brian Hamilton, History
You Are Stardust
Written by Elin Kelsey
Illustrated by Soyeon Kim
Toronto: Owlkids Books, 2012
Recommended Ages: 4 and up
Some years ago at a public reading, the novelist Claire Messud recalled with perfect clarity the moment she, at seven years old, learned that just about all the cells in her body were not the ones with which she was born. Her memory of her hands was older than their flesh, bones, and blood. Here is an extraordinary moment familiar to childhood, when, after expending so much psychic energy on constructing a boundary between the self and all else, we learn the truth: no such boundary exists. This is the thesis of You Are Stardust, a book that revels in blowing the minds of seven-year-olds. Elin Kelsey, who has a doctorate in science education and communication, needs no more words than are in this paragraph to take her readers through the science of the Big Bang, abiogenesis, hydrology, electricity, meteorology, seasonality, microbiology, pollination, sociality, language acquisition—and, yes, cellular reproduction. With each, her refrain is as it is in our bodies it is in the world.
Pushing beyond platitudes about the web of life, the tree of life, and Mother Earth, Kelsey foregrounds the inescapable materiality of all things, which offers a unity of its own. It is not merely that humans move from dust to dust. We are always dust.
Written by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by John Schoenherr
New York: Philomel Books, 1987
Recommended Ages: 3 to 7
When choosing the species for their ark, the designers of Biosphere 2—that quixotic early-1990s experiment in closed-system living in the Sonoran desert—made a peculiar addition: galagos. Providing no material benefits to the mission, these pint-sized primates, with their bat ears, marble eyes, and koala coats, served less-than-obvious functions. At twilight, they drew laughter with their antics in the canopy of the rainforest biome. At night, they shocked crew members breathless by stealing up beside them and letting loose the shrieks of a much larger beast. The biospherians had decided that the nature they needed to bring with them through the airlock was not just that which would provide oxygen, heat, and calories, but also that which would delight and terrify. It is this enchanting, hair-raising nature that a girl and her father go tramping into the Berkshires night to find in Owl Moon. Jane Yolen gives the starring animal, a Great Horned owl, no human qualities, assigns it no moral lessons. Here is wild nature as we most often encounter it in life: startling, inscrutable, silent. The human principles are mute, too, though we have the daughter’s thoughts, pitch-perfectly rendered in an elementary-school lyricism. This is the children’s book Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold would have coauthored.
Kara Cromwell, Zoology
Written by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Charles Vess
New York: HarperCollins, 2009
Recommended Ages: 4 to 8
“Ladies of light and ladies of darkness and ladies of never-you-mind,” begins Gaiman’s benediction for a girl’s journey through childhood. “This is a prayer for a blueberry girl. First, may you ladies be kind.”
Gaiman first penned the poem “Blueberry Girl” as a personal gift for his friend, musician Tori Amos, before the birth of her daughter (nick-named “Blueberry”). Almost a decade later it was published with paintings and hand-lettered text by Charles Vess, Gaiman’s collaborator on the acclaimed Stardust. Although aspects of the rhythm and imagery in Blueberry Girl may recall other work by Gaiman and Vess, it is free from the uncanny aspects of fantasy that often trouble their art. It keeps light—a loving incantation for the protection of innocence from uncertainty and multiplicity. “Words can be worrisome, people complex, motives and manners unclear. Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right, free from unkindness and fear.”
Vess’ paintings animate the verses with whimsical, chaotic nature images. Trees and trails are winding and alive. He renders girls in motion – wandering, climbing, diving, soaring, discovering, growing, in postures both airborne and grounded. They are exuberant, independent, but encircled by a menagerie of benevolent animal familiars to attend them through their coming-of-age. Blueberry Girl celebrates girlhood as an adventure that unfolds in delight and kinship with the natural world.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Written by Eric Carle
New York: Philomel Books, 1969
Recommended Ages: 2 to 5
In 1968 the artist Eric Carle found inspiration in a hole punch. Charmed by the tunnel his punch drilled through a paper stack, Carle mused that the tiny aperture could be the journeywork of a bookworm and, reimagined, could set the stage for a children’s tale of adventure and discovery. And so the gluttonous bookworm was reincarnated as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was published near the peak of the American environmental movement, a time when environmental themes burgeoned in children’s literature.
What explains its enduring popularity? One key may be the lovability of its protagonist. As a metaphor, the caterpillar’s power usually comes from a sense of embodied potential. At first glance pedestrian and chubby, it hides a winged beauty within. The caterpillar is the husk to be stripped away. But there is no free ride to metamorphosis—getting there takes growth. Carle’s caterpillar is about the business of growing up, but he approaches his task with imagination, whimsy, and an indefatigable taste for sweets. (In a day’s work he samples chocolate cake, ice cream, cherry pie, and a lollipop). This character’s romp through caterpillarhood is so joyful that when, on the last page, the “beautiful butterfly” emerges, it opens us up to a surprising question: beautiful as the butterfly is, has something has been lost in the transformation? Might the caterpillar be missed?
Sarah Dimick, English Literature
By Barbara Cooney
New York: Viking Press, 1982
Recommended Ages: 5 to 8
When little Alice tells her grandfather that she hopes to travel the world and eventually settle beside the sea, he insists that she also “do something to make the world more beautiful.” Alice’s search for what this might be is illustrated in vivid acrylic paintings overlaid with colored pencil.
Like Georg Eberhard Rumphius, the seventeenth-century German botanist remembered for his classifications of Indonesian flora, Miss Rumphius spends most of her life in “faraway places.” She scales alpine glaciers, she befriends the Bapa Raja of an Indonesian fishing village, and she treks through deserts until she injures her back while climbing off a camel in Djerba.
Recuperating by the seaside in Maine, Miss Rumphius finds solace in the patch of lupines growing beside her bedroom window. When her back heals, she bikes the countryside, seed bombing the hills with five bushels of lupine seed. Her guerilla gardening project brings color to the landscape and fulfills her promise to her grandfather.
Miss Rumphius is remarkable for its portrayal of a feminist cosmopolitan traveling solo in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s also a story that beautifully intertwines aesthetic, moral, and environmental commitments.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
By Beatrix Potter
London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1902
Recommended Ages: 3 to 7
The currant buns and chamomile tea that Mrs. Rabbit procures for her little bunnies may distinguish this as an English children’s story, but the pastoral environmentalism of Potter’s tale also marks this book as particularly English. As Peter Rabbit first threatens Mr. McGregor’s garden, nibbling through “some lettuces and some French beans,” and then finds himself chased out by the angry gardener, classic themes of pastoral literature are evoked: the pleasures of rural life, the threat of eviction, and the vexed question of who labors in the English countryside and who benefits from that labor.
With the profits from The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other children’s books featuring small animals, Potter purchased Hill Top Farm in the English Lake District. Living out the pastoral ethos of her stories, she became an avid breeder of indigenous Herdwick sheep, eventually purchasing much of the farmland surrounding Hill Top Farm. As she became increasingly immersed in rural life, she advocated for open access on English footpaths crossing private property. Potter bequeathed her farms to the National Trust, an English conservation group focused on preserving the landscape of the Lake District.
Spring Greeney, History
Dorrie and the Weather-Box
By Patricia Coombs
New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1966
Recommended Ages: 4 to 7
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Written by Judi Barrett
Illustrated by Ron Barrett
New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1978
Recommended Ages: 4 to 8
“This is Dorrie. She is a witch. A little witch. Her room is mixed up, her socks are mixed up, and her hat is always on crooked.”
Dorrie and the Weather-Box (Patricia Coombs, 1966) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Judi and Ron Barrett, 1978) are ostensibly books about weather: about thunderstorms flooding witch towers, hamburger downpours crashing through suburban roofs, and kids with cats and pudgy grandpas extricating themselves from these meteorological catastrophes. The books are filled with unexpected twists, qualities we as readers would hope to find in any story.
“Oh Gink,” said Dorrie. “We’ve got the storm inside the house.”
But these books reward re- and re-re-read because they are built out of loving detail: declarative sentences, deliberate language, and fine ink illustrations capturing spunky Dorrie, her black cat Gink, and the town of Chewandswallow in vivid, visceral form. How’s this for a trick to keep you reading? Into the illustration of “Ralph’s Roofless Restaurant”—of course a town raining meatballs features a roofless restaurant—the artist Ron Barrett tucks a pair of customers feuding over a stretchy hotdog, an elderly woman literally losing her false teeth in surprise, and a child sporting Groucho Marx glasses that mimic the profile of the greasy-looking maître d’.
These types of loving detail—textual and visual both—explain why we can return to these books decades after our children’s library cards expire. Don’t they, after all, exemplify what the best books do? Pull us in, pull us along, and linger long enough to reward revisit when we inevitably crack them open again.
The authors are all graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kara Cromwell, from the Zoology Department, studies the ecology of host-parasite interactions in aquatic animals. This summer her six-month-old daughter will assist her doing field work in the Rocky Mountains. Contact. Sarah Dimick works in the Department of English. Her interests span contemporary American and global literature, concentrating on environmental writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her research explores representations of climate change and the Anthropocene. Contact. Spring Greeney, in the History Department, is working on an environmental history of American domesticity from Catharine Beecher to Betty Friedan. She is also the aunt of a Manhattan-living new nephew. Contact. Brian Hamilton researches and writes about the environmental history of the American Civil War era (when his five-month-old son is sleeping). Twitter. Contact.