ONE OF THE great passages in children's literature occurs on the second page of a little book conceived in England a century ago and published privately in time to be given as a Christmas present in 1901:"'Now my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden. Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.'"
Millions of readers know, of course, that Peter Rabbit, brother of the better-behaved Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, ignored his mother's warning and came perilously close to meeting the same fate as his father.
"The Tale of Peter Rabbit," the first of 23 "little books" written and brilliantly illustrated by the English author, botanist and environmentalist Beatrix Potter, is one of the most widely read books in history. It's still in the classrooms and libraries of hundreds of thousands of schools, and on the shelves of millions of homes around the world.
You can read it in Latin ("Fabula de Petro Cuniculo"). You can read it in Afrikaans ("Die Vaerhaal van Pieter Konyntjie").
"It's absolutely a perfect piece of literature," says Mary Taylor, 83, a teacher, book collector and former United Nations consultant who has traveled the world from her home near Lake Roland. "It has all the elements exactly right - plot, character, action, setting and all the rest. It's a marvelous cautionary tale."
Stationed in Beijing in the mid-1980s, Taylor had "Peter Rabbit" translated into Chinese and presented to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited June 1, the Chinese Children's Day. "Before she came, I had to role-play the queen so we could get it right," Taylor remembers.
A unit on Beatrix Potter leads off the third-grade academic year at Baltimore's private Calvert School. "It always gets us off to a good start," says Sally G. Carr, the school's assistant head. She and Friends School first-grade teacher Bronwen Hall are co-authors of a course guide to Potter that includes a children's biography and strategies and items ranging from suggested nature walks to pencils, rulers and a pencil sharpener.
The course can be purchased from Calvert's worldwide correspondence school, with or without 10 of the author's most popular little books. With the little books, the cost is $95, without the books, $45.
Carr says Potter is best taught as a supplement to reading instruction and that her books are particularly suited to home-schooling. (Were Potter a parent today - she died at 77 in 1943 - no doubt she would be teaching her children at home.)
"What Potter does so well is entice children to read more," says Carr. "She's also a wonderful springboard to writing. We have our children write their own tales."
Here's the kind of influence Potter can have on children: Between the ages of 15 and 30, she kept a diary in a secret code. The journal, written in paper-covered exercise books, wasn't discovered until 1952, and it wasn't "cracked" until 1958 by Leslie Linder, a dedicated Potter specialist and collector. Carr says she gets long notes from former pupils written in the Potter code.
Some of the vocabulary in the little books can be tough for young children, and Potter is very British. In the delightful Christmas yarn "The Tailor of Gloucester," the tailor dispatches his feline assistant Simpkin with a groat, "which is our last fourpence," to buy a "penn'orth" each of bread, milk and sausage.
In "The Tale of Samuel Whiskers," an "old man rat" takes snuff while ordering up a dinner of "kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding." Until he is rescued by a dog, the pudding is to be poor Tom Kitten.
But Potter's language is no impediment to enjoyment, Taylor insists. She advises that the Potter stories are best read to young children before they tackle them on their own.
Potter also sets up a target for the politically correct. Her girl animals wear long dresses. Most of them cook and clean house and are less adventurous than the male animals. Carr forgives Potter, who, after all, was a product of her times. I forgive her, too. Potter's humanity and humor are timeless, more than compensating for her Edwardian prejudices.
Foundation donates $1,000 worth of books
Last winter, JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, established a charitable foundation whose purpose is to get quality children's books into the hands of Baltimore schoolchildren.
Fruchtman's Children's Bookstore Educational Foundation raises funds and buys the books, for which city teachers apply. When the books are no longer needed in schools, they become the property of children and their families.
As of this month, Fruchtman's foundation has donated or promised about $1,000 worth of books to teachers in six schools.