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December 7, 2009

Meg Waite Clayton on the Tales of Beatrix Potter

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Though giving birth to her first child three days before Christmas is, without question, the best holiday present she's ever gotten, Meg Waite Clayton --- author of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS --- describes her close second, which she finds as rewarding to give to others as it was for her to receive.

My favorite holiday gift ever --- one impossible to top --- was my oldest son, Christopher, born on December 22 (my father’s birthday!) 20 years ago, and brought home on Christmas day. There cannot be a lovelier way to leave a hospital than with a newborn in your arms and the sweet voices of nuns caroling in the halls behind you or a more welcoming way to arrive home than to find Christmas dinner --- complete with English trifle for dessert --- left on your front step. Well, I can neither give nor receive a child every holiday season, but my favorite gift to give ever since has been another one we received back then: the complete Beatrix Potter collection, 23 tiny hardcover books in a presentation box.

I knew the story of Peter Rabbit, of course, before I peeled the wrapping from this collection, but the most charming of Potter’s characters were new to me as well as to Chris: Jeremy Fisher with his mackintosh all in tatters; poor Tom Kitten, who narrowly escapes being the main ingredient of a “kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding;” Mrs. Tittlemouse and her friend Mr. Jackson, who says “Tiddly, widdly, widdly” and never wipes his feet.

The books, given to us by friends whose own children were already grown, would be irresistible just from their size --- each no bigger than an adult reader’s hand --- from the physical beauty of Miss Potter’s exquisitely done original water colors, and from the enticing sight of all those matched volumes lined up in their own portable shelf. But their greatest charm lies in the stories themselves, simple words strung together to bring funny characters and fantastic worlds alive and --- the real gift of this gift --- the way those stories lure you, even at the end of a long day, to pull a child to your lap and read to him or her, whether those children understand language yet or not.

Chris, now an economics and math major at the University of Chicago and a voracious reader and book collector, first learned the meaning of credit from Potter’s Ginger and Pickles, whose customers “come again and again, and buy quantities, in spite of being afraid of Ginger and Pickles,” and never do pay their bills. When his younger brother Nick joined us, the two of them would curl up together with Mac and me to listen and, later, to read themselves. When I see those books on our family room bookshelves even today, I see their little fingers choosing a volume for their bedtime stories. I hear them giggling in anticipation as Jemima Puddle-Duck collects sage and onions for “the sandy whiskered gentleman” fox who means to include her in his dinner in quite a different way than she expects. I remember them laughing in outright delight as Jeremy emerges from the trout’s mouth without his galoshes, exclaiming, “What a mercy that was not a pike!”

I couldn’t say how many times I’ve copycatted this particular gift over the 20 intervening years, but each time I do, I feel the joy of sharing them with my own sons, and of having friends who give gifts of books. To be honest, if they weren’t written by Beatrix Potter, I’d be quite sure my gift recipients couldn’t possibly get half the pleasure in receiving them that I get in the giving. But since they are Miss Potter’s stories, I know they’ll bring endless pleasure both to the children they are meant for and to the parents who will curl up with them and inspire the same lifetime love of reading my own sons received with this gift.

-- Meg Waite Clayton

Tomorrow, Stephen Coonts joins us to share some of his fondest holiday memories that he hopes to pass on to his grandchildren one day.