Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter is one of my favorite stories. I love the illustrations, but I also like the way it doesn’t talk down to the child.
For example, when Peter seems ready to give up, the sparrows urge him “to exert” himself. I can’t imagine a modern writer daring to use a word like “exert.” Many, if not most, children’s books these days are written to a prescribed word list, an unfortunate practice that ensures that children develop only the most mundane vocabularies.
Peter Rabbit was not written as a commercial venture. Potter wrote it to amuse five-year-old Noel Moore, who was ill with scarlet fever. The story and illustrations were published later at the urging of friends.
Unlike many animal stories written for today’s children, Peter Rabbit is not “cutesy” or sentimental, When Peter’s mother leaves her four children at home, she warns them not to go into Mr. MacGregor’s garden. It’s where their father “had an accident” and was “put in a pie” by Mrs. MacGregor.
Beatrix Potter was a naturalist. Although she dresses her animals and shows them drinking chamomile tea, they remain true to their animal natures: she never shows cats getting along with mice or foxes with geese.
Parents must decide for themselves what books and films are appropriate for their children. I’ve actually read criticisms of Peter Rabbit that assert that it is “too scary” for children. In my view, many Disney films are more harmful to developing personalities than the realities of Peter Rabbit.
Two sites of interest:
A children’s site that offers slideshows of Peter Rabbit and other stories
A forum thread that dicusses the pros and cons of exposing a young child to the story of Peter Rabbit.