When I looked back on my childhood for the purposes of this post, I realised that the single most influential book I read was The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter.
My mother read it to me when I was four. For those who don’t know, Peter Rabbit is about a young rabbit – dressed in a blue coat but nothing else – who tries to steal carrots from the MacGregor farm. He is very cute. He has siblings: Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, who are all much better behaved. Peter is the risk taker. Generations of children have loved Peter Rabbit.
I hated him. You have to remember I’m an Aussie girl, and in Australia rabbits are vermin. I was taught, very young, that the only good rabbit was the one simmering deliciously on the stove, so when it came to the Peter Rabbit stories, I was firmly on Farmer MacGregor’s side.
But worse than that, I was a very literal child. Peter Rabbit is a story where humans act like humans (that is, they try to kill thieving rabbits) but rabbits also act and dress like humans – Potter was having her anthropomorphic cake and eating it, too. I was four. I kept asking: why is he in a blue coat? why does his mum wear an apron? That’s stupid, I said.
And my mum, clearly fed up with all of this, handed me the book and said, ‘You can read, read it yourself.’ She never read me another book. Which is why I still hate Peter Rabbit… but she also stopped choosing my books for me at the library, no doubt reasoning that if I could read I could pick my own stories.
So from the age of four my main reading influence was my librarian, Mrs Woods, who loved folk tales and myths and fantasy and science fiction…. and that’s why I think Peter Rabbit was the most influential book I ever read as a child, because without it I would never have found the stories I needed, the stories which fed my soul, about which I never said, ‘But that’s stupid.’ Speculative fiction got hold of me young and never let go – all thanks to Peter Rabbit.
Pamela Freeman writes for both adults and children. Her most recent adult fantasy, ‘Ember and Ash’ (Orbit Books, 2011), is set in the universe of The Castings Trilogy. She is best known in children’s literature for her award-winning junior novels ‘Victor’s Quest’ and ‘Victor’s Challenge’. Her most recent children’s novel is ‘Lollylegs’ (Walker Books, 2011). For more, see Pamela’s website.