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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. (Penguin Young Readers Group)

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."

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."

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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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Emma Thompson is not just an Oscar-winning actress, she's also won an Academy Award for her writing, adapting Jane Austen's novel for the film "Sense and Sensibility."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now Emma Thompson has taken on another period piece, reviving the classic children's book starring Peter Rabbit. It was the writer Beatrix Potter who first brought the mischievous bunny to life in 1902...

MONTAGNE: ...With tales of stealing lettuce and generally getting up to mischief in Mr. McGregor's garden. Thompson's new version takes Peter Rabbit to the Scottish countryside. Not surprisingly, it opens with our furry little hero contemplating an adventure in which he's sure to break a lot of rules.

EMMA THOMPSON: (Reading) I have not seen many rabbits moping, but when they do, their ears droop. Peter Rabbit was in low spirits. It had been a rainy summer. His blue coat had been torn by briars and his shoes were hurting. What I need, he said, is a change of scene. Benjamin Bunny advised against it, too many carts on the road, he said, too many owls and too many foxes.

MONTAGNE: Regardless of the warnings from his timid cousin, Peter Rabbit soon finds himself bouncing around in a cart, heading out in yet another misadventure. "The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit" is the bunny's first foray into the publishing world in a century. It's also the first authorized Peter Rabbit story to be written by someone other than Beatrix Potter. And the publishers took a novel approach when approaching Emma Thompson with a proposal to bring back the bunny.

THOMPSON: 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.

MONTAGNE: Now, when you were a child, your father narrated a children's show called "The Magic Roundabout." And for people who might not know this, you come from an acting family, both your mother and father. And, of course, he would read you Peter Rabbit books when you were a child, right?

THOMPSON: Yes, yes, he would. I mean, 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, being, 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 bowdlerize and cut like crazy, 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.

MONTAGNE: So why don't you read us another passage from your book, because I want to talk to you about the language of the book. And this illustrates it a little. It's where Peter finds a very, very large radish.

THOMPSON: Yes. (Reading) It must have measured three rabbits round. It also smelled delicious and Peter was very hungry. He thought no one would notice if he took a little nibble off the end. Accordingly, he scratched his way under the willow fence and took a bite. And then, another and another. By the time Peter had stopped eating, he was inside the radish. Feeling cozy, he fell asleep.

(Reading) When he woke up, the radish was joggling. Not again, thought Peter.

MONTAGNE: Joggling. Now there are other words: bog cotton, skepes-wool(ph).

THOMPSON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: The words seem made up. I mean, they're quite magical sounding. They sound like they're from another magical world.

THOMPSON: And it's, sort of, also, the combination of words, isn't it? Like inside, wrapped in brown paper, was some excellent sandwiches of cheese and pickle. It's not the kind of construction that you get anymore, where 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.

(Unintelligible) it's an old form, and I find it draws me into the books, still, and so I wanted to hold on to that.

MONTAGNE: I'm sorry to hit you with this, but could you please turn to page 31. I just love this little page, because it has different voices.

THOMPSON: Very good. So Peter's arrived in Scotland and having had a good night's sleep - this is just preamble - he wakes up (unintelligible). (Reading) When he woke, Mrs. McBurney had made potato scones for his breakfast. Hurry now, dearie, she said. Today's the big day. Fenley's defending his title. Oh, good, said Peter, not wishing to appear ignorant, even though he had no idea what defending his title meant.

MONTAGNE: Now I would want to hear that page at least 20 times before I fell asleep. Do you, by chance, have any tips for parents, you know, aiming to make the most of reading "The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit"?

THOMPSON: Yes. 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.

MONTAGNE: Also, the picture. He has - you see his little rabbit tail and, of course, he's scrambling underneath the sign.

THOMPSON: Underneath the sign which says Keep Out. It's his disrespect for authority, you see. Peter's sort of anarchistic, which I love.

MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson, it's been a pleasure.

THOMPSON: Yes, thanks so much. How lovely to talk to you.

MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson, actress and now author of "The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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