Tag Archives: Anthropomorphism

Beatrix Potter’s World-building in The Peter Rabbit Storybook

© Copyright 2017 Abdullah Idrees, Ryerson University

The Peter Rabbit Storybook Front Cover. (c) Bess Goe Willis. Ryerson University Children’s Literature Archive. Public Domain.


The Whimsical World of Peter Rabbit Exhibit examines literary techniques applied by Beatrix Potter to create a world that makes use of anthropomorphism, perennial socially relevant plot points, and a nature based setting to explore the life of Peter Rabbit. The author uses the concept of innocent beings such as animals to create a connection with an audience in an attempt to introduce the pleasant tone of the world, while making sure that the plot lines taking place are associated with common human behaviors. This idea promotes living vicariously through fictional beings, allowing for the reader to learn  morals from these characters. Physical elements of the story’s presentation, such as the size and format of The Peter Rabbit Storybook, contribute to how the story and accompanying adventures are retained by readers. In addition, Potter’s use of subtext and symbolism to signify rebellion and independence interlace the tales with a density that has allowed the stories to stay relevant for years on end and further exploration of her literary prowess delves deeper into the impact they have had on past generations and many more to come.


Implemented by Potter as a major and defining attribution, anthropomorphism creates a connection with readers who view Peter Rabbit as a role model. “Scholars have noted that animals without clothing are less likely to be personified” and Potter’s use of color-coding Peter Rabbit’s sisters with red and Peter with blue gives them relatable personalities because they are making use of human constructs of clothing (Macdonald 185). Furthermore, Peter’s rebellious behaviour, such as when his mother forbids him from going into Mr. McGregor’s barn, is indicative of the transitioning stages between childhood and adulthood, mimicking contemporary values of children testing their limitations within a world they are trying to understand. The rebellion aspect is actually inspired by Potter’s personal life fueled by “controlling and idiosyncratic Victorian parenting,” allowing her to add a timeless factor to her story because for as long as there are parents, there will be children to defy them to explore their own identities (Robertson et. al 177). As a young girl, Potter spent a lot of time with pets in her room whom she used to treat as “companions,” drawing, painting and creating worlds for these friends of hers (Robertson et. al 178). It only makes sense that these same qualities would so easily be understood by her large audience, who similarly have had pets throughout their lives who they treat as friends rather than as animals with little knowledge. By giving life to animals who behave like humans, moralistic values such as 1) listening to one’s parents,  2) taking care of oneself during times of danger, and 3) learning from one’s mistakes, become a learning and/or callback experience for readers. This way, they can live vicariously through the consequences of these characters and avoid putting themselves in similar situations. Peter Rabbit’s tale not only fulfills  this requirement, but it has a long lasting impact because it uses animals to make an analogy about human lives.

The Peter Rabbit Storybook Inside Pages 1. (c) Bess Goe Willis. Ryerson University Children’s Literature Archive. Public Domain.

Character, Plot and Medium Format

In regards to the human connection anthropomorphism makes, another complimenting factor Potter makes use of is the social commentary of her themes. By focusing on simple storytelling with subtext, she creates a world that has a serene tone that mimics daily life experiences, such as making a mistake by eating too much and getting caught in a garden or being in the wrong place at the wrong time (although it is rare to be abducted and then to be given as a gift to a sibling) (Potter and Willis). Peter Rabbit himself is used as a character that is maximizing the potential of his youth, taking in as many adventures as he can. These range from sneaking onto private property, going fishing, being animal trafficked, and getting married while simultaneously hoodwinking hungry wolves in the process (Potter and Willis). His “imperilled” and “daring” disposition makes him a versatile character, one that heightens readers’ curiosity in where an intrepid rabbit can take them on their journey through his otherwise idyllic world (Macdonald 186). In addition, we have his mother who is trying to keep his family together after the death of his father. She is the widowed rabbit who is strict with Peter for losing his clothes because they have one less provider in the family, with Potter using her to comment on poverty in an attempt to bring a sense of realism to her world (Macdonald 186). We also have his sisters shown as law abiding, juxtaposing his disregard for authority with their youthful innocence. Taking the law into consideration, Potter uses her plot to take “the side of law and order” and teach her younger and older readers about the importance of considering their actions from a logical point of view, rather than simply listening to everything their parents say (Mackey 6). Adorning this moral with the storyline of a rabbit’s journey through a garden of unknown, she creates a world that exists outside of the Rabbits’ home that adds to her story’s serenity. By focusing on a character/world study instead of complex plotting, she manages to expose her readers to a world that they would want to live in because of its simplicity and timelessness. This, in part, is helped by the format the story, and accompanying shorts, is presented in.

By making use of an 8 x 10 format for The Peter Rabbit Storybook, the book appears as a photograph album of a solid reddish-dark orange (Potter and Willis). The world that it holds becomes that of memories, nostalgic for old readers and memories in the making for new ones. How Madeline was horizontally longer to make use of the Eiffel tower as a background character throughout the story, The Peter Rabbit Storybook uses a square photo album format large enough to “comfortably accommodate a shared reading audience” (Lambert 5). The album feel is further noticeable with the presentation of each page’s pictures, with white borders similar to those surrounding camera photographs. The colors of the characters, while bright, have a faded layer to them, preventing the drawings from over-stimulating the reader. The art definitely contributes in setting the tone of the contemporarily halcyon feel that involves the ironically mischievous Peter Rabbit.

The Natural Setting

A square trim size is sometimes used to support thematic elements of a given picture book” and Peter Rabbit uses its format to show the world of nature that Potter has created for herself (Lambert 8). Based on the naturalistic styles of the character and surrounding descriptions, it becomes evident that she intends to place her world “in no particular time, and yet in everytime” (Macdonald 185). While today’s world may be heavily influenced by the technology of our time, such as laptops, skyscrapers, etc., Potter makes it a mission to avoid using technological advances of her time and instead focusing on the countryside because of its perennial presence in all forms of society. For as long as there have been cities, there have been untamed countryside areas longer and Potter makes use of the social concept of the nature that surrounds us. The main plot of the story is not even dependent on technology, but instead focuses on social agreements and the violation of said agreements (Macdonald 187). Basically, Potter uses human problems to fuel her stories rather than relying on contemporary McGuffins that would age poorly with time. By catapulting the story of a rabbit into a constant and recognizable setting, Peter Rabbit’s story is further immortalized in the hearts of its readers because it is less a period piece and more of an “ongoing” story (Macdonald 187). This further makes it similar to the real world, especially seeing as how Potter’s intent is to have a “rabbit world as a complete and parallel one to the world of human” (Macdonald 186).

The Peter Rabbit Storybook The End. (c) Bess Goe Willis. Ryerson University Children’s Literature Archive. Public Domain.


By making use of all the literary resources available to her, Potter creates a cohesive world that makes use of analogies, multifaceted characters, simple and relatable plot points, and a natural setting to set the tone. Her use of anthropomorphism sets up the rabbit as a canvas for her own experiences of rebellion and freedom, which she uses to inspire her readers. Her use of easygoing characters and coming-of-age plot points ground her stories in a relatable sphere for any child or adult who has had to pay for giving in to their curiosity. Finally, the natural aspect of the stories prevent from the collection aging terribly, giving the series a quaint, nostalgic appeal instead. By amalgamating all these concepts, she has created a world that keeps on giving with bildungsroman stories about a rabbit that humans can and will continue to relate to for as long as nature stays relevant.



Works Cited

  • Lambert, Megan Dowd. “That’s About the Size of It.” Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See, Charlesbridge, 2015, pp. 3–14.
  • Macdonald, Ruth K. “Why This Is Still 1893: The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter’s Manipulations of Time into Timelessness.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 4, 1986, pp. 185–187., doi:10.1353/chq.0.0594.
  • Mackey, Margaret. “Peter Rabbit: Potter’s Story.” The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children, Garland Publ., 1998, pp. 3–14.
  • Potter, Beatrix, 1866-1943 and Willis, Bess Goe, The Peter Rabbit Story Book, New York: The Platt & Munk Co. Inc., 1931, Children’s Literature Archive.
  • Robertson, Judith P., et al. “The Psychological Uses of Ruthlessness in a Children’s Fantasy Tale: Beatrix Potter and The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Changing English, vol. 7, no. 2, 2000, pp. 177–189., doi:10.1080/13586840050137946.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad: Anthropomorphism and The Great War

© 2014, Joanne Roitman

A copy of the 1918 reprint of the original 1916 edition of The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad is housed in Ryerson University’s Children’s Literature Archive. The book is written by Thornton Waldo Burgess and is illustrated by Harrison Cady. It was published in Boston by Little, Brown, and Company and falls under the genre of nature stories and anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is defined as attributing human characteristics and emotions to non-living things and/or animals.

I wish to connect Old Mr. Toad to the Great War. As America did not get involved until 1917, I will explore the publishing company’s decision to reprint the novel during the final year of the war. Due to the sparse information on the novel’s production and reception, I will be contributing new insights to this topic and will provide future researchers with a thoroughly investigated narrative. As well, my critical approach shall be oriented to the increase in demand for anthropomorphic children’s novels during WWI, in which Old Mr. Toad is an example.

Book Cover of The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad (1918) by Thornton W. Burgess
Book Cover of The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad (1918) by Thornton W. Burgess

Summary of the Novel

The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad begins with the character, Peter Rabbit, who, after hearing Mr. Toad sing rather beautifully, realizes that perhaps he had misjudged his friend. He relied on the inevitable fact that Mr. Toad was not physically attractive and thus could not sing well. Incidentally, he is proven wrong and attempts to get to know Mr. Toad better. He learns about Mr. Toad’s children, his beautiful eyes, his long tongue, and his ability to camouflage within small, dark spaces.

As the novel progresses, so does the narrative perspective, shifting from Peter Rabbit to Old Mr. Toad. He encounters the terrifying Mr. Blacksnake and Buster Bear, but after dining on ants with Buster Bear, he no longer regards him as scary. Believing himself a very important friend of Buster Bear’s, puffed out with pride, Mr. Toad shuns his old friends. He believes himself better than them. In turn, they play a prank on him in order to teach him that he was behaving rudely.

Thornton W. Burgess and The Great War

For unspecified reasons, Thornton Waldo Burgess was unable to participate in active service during the Great War (Burgess 134). However, he found three alternative methods of contributing to the war efforts on the homefront. This was done through the medium he knew best: storytelling.

The Green Meadow Club

“The Green Meadow Club”, a column in the People’s Home Journal, contained entertaining and instructive stories on nature, written by Burgess, with illustrations by Harrison Cady. The club led a campaign during WWI to get children involved in the war efforts through donations (Meigs 33). The hope of this charity was to establish bird sanctuaries. The creation of these sanctuaries was intended to protect birds, as they were valuable in controlling troubling insects. As a result, this would help increase the production of food for the war.

Burgess capitalized on this in his “Bedtime Stories” column, published separately from “The Green Meadow Club”. He offered a certificate of club membership and a button with Cady’s drawing of Peter Rabbit to those who contributed. Through the efforts of roughly two thousand boys and girls, nearly four thousand sanctuaries were erected. They were situated in various parts of America and encompassed nine thousand acres of land.

In 1919, after the war ended, the New York Zoological Society awarded Burgess with a gold medal of the Wild Life Protection Fund (33-34). His service to the protection of wildlife and the war efforts was recognized. As a writer of children’s fiction, it was a great honor to be acknowledged in the natural science world.

Happy Jack Squirrel

Happy Jack Squirrel

A campaign arose in America during the Great War for the sale of war-savings stamps and thrift stamps among children. This was done for school children who could not afford to purchase Liberty bonds. The American government issued the sale of Liberty bonds in order to finance the war efforts in Europe.

The chairman of the War Savings Committee in Sandwich, Massachusetts approached Thornton Burgess and appealed to him to produce five stories geared towards thrift and patriotism (Burgess 134-135). Consequently, the character of Happy Jack Squirrel was created.

Burgess was able, through the stories of Happy Jack, to increase the sale of stamps. Before, school children did not understand their purpose and were uninterested in their teachers’ constant appeals. Thus, such stories of thrift, as told by an anthropomorphic squirrel, were much more engaging. Happy Jack was able to preach what the children could do to support America during the war, without appearing patronizing (138).

Burgess employed a psychology of human superiority in these stories. Children would listen to Happy Jack only because they felt that they knew better than he did. Unlike their teachers who they looked to as their superiors, the children believed that what Happy Jack dictated was something they already took to be known and true. As a result, young readers were able to grasp the importance of thrift and patriotism as taught to them by an anthropomorphic squirrel (139).

As a consequence, it became apparent to Burgess the power of anthropomorphism in storytelling, especially as to its effect on the efforts of children during WWI (140).

The Adventures of Bob White (1919)

In 1919, Thornton Burgess wrote The Adventures of Bob White as a response to the violence that accompanied the end of WWI. In this Bedtime Story-Book, he used the anthropomorphic quail, Bob White, to illuminate the danger of firearms (Connor 127).

Bob White is wounded by a hunter and pays homage to the persecution of innocents during the Great War. Children can identify with the abjectness of the situation, while simultaneously feeling courageous, as someone is in more need than they are (128).

The character of Bob White was being written as Little, Brown, and Company reprinted The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad. It would appear that the publishing company wished to use Mr. Toad to educate children within wartime with a less heavy hand than in The Adventures of Bob White.

Production and Reception… Or Lack There Of

After conducting a thorough investigation into the production and reception history of The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad, I unearthed something most curious. Rather, there are no documented sources on such topics as it relates to the 1918 reprint of Old Mr. Toad.

Thus, I have taken it upon myself to make inferences as to why that is. On the basis of research and educated decisions, I shall deduce why a hole exists in relation to production and reception history.

The Bedtime Story-Books and the Mother West Wind series are the best-known collaborative works between Thornton W. Burgess and Harrison Cady. The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad is a part of the Bedtime Story-Books series, but the titular character was not one of Burgess’s most beloved. Rather, the recurring character of Peter Rabbit, inspired by Beatrix Potter’s character of the same name, was prolific. Eventually, this character was renamed Peter Cottontail.

As well, Cady’s rise to fame was through the comic strip, Peter Rabbit, which ran in a weekly Sunday newspaper (Zipes 243). As a result, much of the research on production and reception history, as it relates to the partnership between Burgess and Cady, is on such a character. In fact, it would appear that Mr. Toad is all but forgotten and dismissed by readers of the Bedtime Story-Books. Interestingly, the story within Old Mr. Toad explores this very once-over: Peter Rabbit and the other woodland creatures realize that they had misjudged Mr. Toad, as they previously never paid him much attention.

Analysis and Conclusion

As Old Mr. Toad was not one of Thornton W. Burgess’s most popular characters, it is no wonder that I could not find any details on The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad. However, I can infer that the demand for anthropomorphic characters within children’s novels was on the rise during WWI, which could be reason for its reprint. Such stories contained morals and Burgess used the animals as instructors to teach children how to behave (Cullinan 131-132). Furthermore, the technique of anthropomorphism was used to arouse the imagination.

Peter Rabbit and Old Mr. Toad, illustrated by Harrison Cady
Peter Rabbit and Old Mr. Toad, illustrated by Harrison Cady from The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad (1918)

Incidentally, Burgess was criticized for humanizing animals and nature, which seems contradictory to the aim of his animal and nature stories (Watson 116). He wished to provide a friendly face to such wild, untamed beings, realizing their value in the sustainability of the environment. As the 1918 reprint of Old Mr. Toad was released during a time of turmoil, it would appear that American children needed to learn how to behave at this time through Mr. Toad.

Similarly to Happy Jack Squirrel and Bob White, Mr. Toad provided a lesson in morals and behaviour to the young boys and girls, as he encouraged them to be humble. Peter Rabbit also taught readers to not be so quick as to judge a book by its cover. These lessons are valuable for children and were regarded as important during the last year of the Great War.

Anthropomorphism was a storytelling technique employed by Thornton Waldo Burgess in his novel, The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad. The increased demand for novels featuring such genre was on the rise during the final years of WWI. As an American author, Burgess’s original 1916 book of the same name was reprinted a mere two years later, in relation to the involvement of the United States in 1917.

Such novels featuring anthropomorphic creatures were very popular at this time as they taught young readers morals and encouraged good behavior. In addition, they were very imaginative and could be enjoyed by both children and adults.

Consequently, I have concluded that the publishing company, Little, Brown, and Company, chose to reprint Old Mr. Toad in 1918, as the titular character was able to instruct children without sounding as though he was preaching. Children are more likely to listen to the lessons being taught by an animal, in which they view themselves as superior, as opposed to parents, teachers, and other adults. This psychology enabled Burgess to become a beloved children’s novelist and provided the basis for Little, Brown, and Company’s reprint of The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad in the final year of the Great War.

link to CLA Omeka

Works Cited

Burgess, Thornton W. Now I Remember: The Autobiography of Thornton W. Burgess. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1960. 134-140. Print.

Burgess, Thornton W. The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad. Illus. Harrison Cady. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1918. Print.

Connor, Kathleen M. Beyond the Words of a Storyteller: The Cine-Semiotic Play of the Abject, Terror and Community in the Anti-Hunting Trilogy of Thornton W. Burgess. Diss. University of Ottawa, 2007. Ottawa: privately published, 2007. 125-128. Web.

Cullinan, Bernice E., and Diane G. Person. “Burgess, Thornton.” The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. New York: Continuum, 2001. 130-131. Print.

Dowhan, Michael W. Introduction. Thornton W. Burgess, Harrison Cady: A Book, Magazine, and Newspaper Bibliography. By Michael W. Dowhan. New York: Carlton Press, 1990. 1-3. Print.

Meigs, Frances B. My Grandfather, Thornton W. Burgess: An Intimate Portrait. Beverly, Massachusetts: Commonwealth Editions, 1998. Print.

Oehlkers, Peter. “Happy Jack’s Thrift Club.” Thornton W. Burgess Research League. N.p. 4 May 2010. Web. 18 March 2014.

Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Print.

“The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad.” Gutenberg. David Newman. 15 June 2004. Web. 18 March 2014.

Watson, Victor. “Burgess, Thornton.” The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 116. Print.

Wright, Wayne W. “The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad.” Thornton W. Burgess, A Descriptive Book Bibliography. Sandwich, Massachusetts: Thornton W. Burgess Society, 1979. 49. Print.

Zipes, Jack. “Burgess, Thornton W.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Vol. 1. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 232. Print.

Zipes, Jack. “Cady, Harrison.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Vol. 1. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 243. Print.