Discuss the role of playfulness in the picture books The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Voices in the Park by Beatrix Potter and Anthony Browne.

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Two children’s picturebooks published almost a century apart are bound to have literary and artistic differences that reflect the evolution of the society from which they spring.  Such is the case with Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park.  While Potter’s artwork is imaginative, humanizing animals without losing their unique physical characteristics, her broader approach to illustrating her story of a mischievous rabbit who ignores his mother’s admonition about getting into trouble is fairly straightforward.  Her images illustrate each page of text, with the reader’s attention drawn to the subject of that text, whether it is the mother rabbit talking to her bunnies or, as the image below shows, Peter cowering in the watering can to avoid being captured and killed by the farmer whose carefully tended garden he has invaded.  Contrast that with Browne’s text and artwork, both representing what is called the “postmodern” approach characterized by nonlinear storytelling and multiple narrative voices.  In fact, Voices in the Park adopts what film students recognize as the “Rashomon” effect, named for the groundbreaking 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  Kurosawa’s much-referenced film tells the story of the same crime, the alleged rape of a woman, from multiple perspectives, allowing for the viewer’s independent interpretation of which competing perspective represented reality.  Such is the case with Browne’s book, which provides multiple perspectives of the same events and interactions.  Browne’s artwork reflects the less-conventional approach he took to telling his story.  For starters, his images are busier than Potter’s, with multiple activities occurring within a single frame, including activities that have little or nothing to do with the story.  Browne’s artwork, as the image below illustrates, provides multiple opportunities for the young reader to divert his or her attention away from the central characters, as with the dancing Santa Claus and romantically-entwined Renaissance-era lovers. 

Specific to the role of playfulness, the distinctions between the two books could not be more apparent.  Peter Rabbit is depicted sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden and proceeding to steal vegetables for his own consumption.  There’s not a lot of playfulness to be seen in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, especially since one factor is the very real threat to his existence posed by the angry, vengeful McGregor.  Potter’s story is deadly serious.  In contrast, Voices in the Park is full of playful images, including the aforementioned Santa Claus, dogs running through a park in the deep background, statues, children playing, a gorilla flying over the city dressed as Superman, and small detailed images targeted more at parents than at children, particularly references to prominent works of art.  The playfulness of Browne’s images, however, takes a backseat to the more foreboding and threatening images that comprise much of his book, such as the mother chimp’s frantic calls for her child, dark clouds, the mother chimp walking past the open gates to the park, and many other frightening images.

Both Potter’s and Browne’s picturebooks deal with serious subject matter.  Potter’s rabbits are cute and harmless, but, Peter’s mischief aside, there’s no real playfulness evident.  Browne’s chimps, in contrast, represent a broader spectrum of “humanity,” including both the ups and downs of childhood experiences.

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