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Emma Thompson Revives Anarchist 'Peter Rabbit'

In Emma Thompson's new book, Peter Rabbit decides he needs a change of scene to cure his mopey mood.
Eleanor Taylor
Penguin Young Readers Group
In Emma Thompson's new book, Peter Rabbit decides he needs a change of scene to cure his mopey mood.

Emma Thompson isn't just an Oscar-winning actress; she's also an Oscar-winning writer. Thompson authored the 1995 film adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and now she's taken on another period project — reviving the classic children's book character Peter Rabbit.

Beatrix Potter first brought the mischievous bunny to life in 1902 with tales of stealing lettuce and making trouble. Now, Thompson's version takes Peter Rabbit across the Scottish countryside. Not surprisingly, it opens with Peter Rabbit contemplating an adventure in which he's sure to break a lot of rules.

"Peter is sort of anarchistic, which I love," Thompson tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit is the bunny's first foray into the world since 1930. It's also the first authorized Peter Rabbit story to be written by someone other than Beatrix Potter. Thompson shares her childhood memories of reading Peter Rabbit and discusses how she went about preserving Potter's singular writing style.

Interview Highlights

On how publishers asked Thompson to write a new Peter Rabbit book

"It wasn't a formal letter as such. It wasn't a 'Dear Ms. Thompson, would you consider blah' from the publishers. It was a little box with two half-eaten radishes in it and a letter from Peter Rabbit. And the child part of me, I think, actually believed it had come from Peter Rabbit himself. And that got past my defenses and my fear for long enough for me to say, 'OK, well, I'll have a go.' "

On being read Peter Rabbit as a child and reading the books to her own daughter

"The Potter oeuvre consists of lots of different kinds of books. Some are very much for the younger child, because they've only got about two or three words on each page. And then there are the much longer, sort of novel versions. So Dad, of course, ... essentially wanting to get back to the football or a beer, would try to read just the very short ones. And we would beg for him to read The Tale of Mr. Tod, you know, which in bedtime story terms is only a little bit shorter than The Satanic Verses, you know, it's a lot to read at night. And I know that now because I read them to my own daughter and started to ... cut like crazy, edit like mad, until suddenly, she stopped me. A little tiny voice said, 'You left out the part about the bones.' And I had! I had been cutting shamelessly because I wanted to get downstairs to my glass of chardonnay. I admit it, I freely admit it. And from then on I had to read the whole thing."

Emma Thompson won a Best Actress Academy Award for her role in 1992's<em><em> Howards End.</em> </em>
Nick Haddow / Penguin Young Readers Group
Penguin Young Readers Group
Emma Thompson won a Best Actress Academy Award for her role in 1992's Howards End.

On channeling the voice of Beatrix Potter

"I think it was a question of just allowing her influence upon me as a child to speak to me as I worked. I was in Scotland when I was writing, and she was very much influenced by Scotland, and I believe that landscape enters you when you're little in a very particular way, and very much affects your development. And I think that language is the same. I think the first words that enter you when you're very small have a hugely powerful, potent impact on your relationship with language. And to have had Potter as a child did me — not to make her sound like spinach or anything — a lot of good because she's such a brilliant writer."

On Potter's made-up words and unique writing style

"Like, 'inside wrapped in brown paper were some excellent sandwiches of cheese and pickle'; it's not the kind of construction that you get anymore. What, now we say, 'cheese and pickle sandwiches.' But there's something about 'excellent sandwiches of cheese and pickle' that's very Potter-esque. It's Victorian, you know? ... It's an old form, and I find it very charming. And I find it draws me into the books still. So I wanted to hold on to that."

Thompson preserves Peter Rabbit's reputation for breaking the rules.
Eleanor Taylor / Penguin Young Readers Group
Penguin Young Readers Group
Thompson preserves Peter Rabbit's reputation for breaking the rules.

On tips for parents reading her book to their kids at bedtime

"Take it slow, much slower than you think. Give them plenty of time to look at the pictures and sort of extrapolate from the pictures. And with this book, you can do things like — there's a page where he comes up on a sign which reads, 'Keep Out,' and I've written, 'I imagine it will not surprise you to hear that Peter did not keep out. He ...' And then you can pause and most children say, 'went in.' They just do, because I've tried it, I've tested it out on groups of children. He didn't keep out, what did he do? He went in because it's the opposite of keep out, which is lovely for kids, so they can guess what he did."

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