The Insightfulness of Beatrix Potter Makes Her a Great Author & Illustrator:
A Look at The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse
It takes an insightful author and illustrator to make a great picture book, and sometimes they are the same person. If they are, they’re exceptional. Beatrix Potter is one such artist. Most people know her for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she’s constructed other books for children just as great. She’s written twenty other books that demonstrate her skill. She launched her career in 1902 whit her first children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Her work continues to hold value on library, bookstore, and children’s bookshelves all over the world. The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is one example. The story is quaint, and reveals her insightfulness in creating work young children will enjoy, although experts on the subject of picture books, Schwarcz and Schwarcz, say “a good picture book [should] embody one or more of the following aspects: entertainment value, meaningful human interest, societal significance, and aesthetic appeal” (11-13), and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse embody all four.
One reasonthis story contains aesthetic appeal for children is the size of the book. Because the book is about four inches wide and about five and a half inches long, it’s perfect for little hands. Maybe Potter knew smaller book initiate charm and delicacy. Nodelman, a respected expert on picture books, is a professor at the University of Winnipeg and author of Words About Pictures – The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. He explains that “The size of a book influences our response to it,” and “We tend to expect more fragile, delicate stories from smaller ones” (44). Nodelman was also the editor of a respected publication such as Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature, and acted as editor alongside Jill P. May for Festschrift: A Ten-Year Retrospective. He also edited Children’s Literature Association Quarterly from 1983-1987 too. His work shed a lot of insight on why authors and illustrators make the choices they do:
We associate both very small and very large books with the youngest of readers. The very largest and very smallest of picture books tend to be the simplest in content and in style, and we approach their (the author) stories with expectations of simplicity – childlikeness – as soon as we see them. (44) When deciding on a smaller sized book, Potter is exceptional.
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse generates children’s interest through color choices for the book’s cover. These colors “establish mood” and hook the reader (Nodelman 50). She placed her main character, Mrs. Tittlemouse, directly in the center of the book’s cover with a frame around her, which Nodelman explains, “provides the sense of having a limited glimpse into a world” (52). Children are often interested in getting a sneak peek into the world of a tiny mouse. To generate more interest, Potter chose forest green as the main color for the cover with white words and a white frame. Colors establish mood and let readers know who the story is about. Although “white space around a picture can act as a frame [that] create[s] a sense of constraint, [and] demand[s] detachment,” says Nodelman, doing so can also “force attention upon them” (53). This is what happens here. Potter sets mood with soft colors for Mrs. Tittlemouse, creating a gentle and snuggly atmosphere. Parents can especially appreciate this because of the calming effect the colors have on their children. To hold attention, Mrs. Tittlemouse looks directly at viewers while using a broom as a mother might. Her methods to hook young viewers is smart. Potter’s choices of where characters are placed for the cover along with the choice of color to add interest and appeal.
Potter’s insight with color continues within the pages of The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, creating a yielding mood. She uses soft happy yellows, cheerful pinks, and as with the cover, adds organic richness with warm greens. Brown with green intensifies richness and warmth. Foliage colors indicate growth occurs says Nodelman who (61) reminds readers that, “the use of color create atmosphere” (67). Did Potter wish to comfort young viewers while entertaining them through color choices? It certainly appears that way.
When an author/illustrator makes text and illustration work together well, a book blossoms, becomes treasured, and characters come to life. Potter certainly knew text and illustration depend on one another, and livens characters. For example, Mrs. Tittlemouse says, “Shuh! Shuh!” This shows the mouse’s distaste about a beetle crawling in her house, and generates sound readers hear. They feel distaste too, and relate to the beetle crawling toward them. Potter brings sound through words such as “seeping” and “dusting the soft sandy floors” (12). Readers hear and see Mrs. Tittlemouse who sweeps along with the illustration. Once she stops, Potter brings the sound of a beetle who skitters across the floor. This isn’t all Potter does though. Movement comes from how illustrations are placed and Potter must have considered every word and picture. For example, the book begins with a picture on the left page and words on the right for the first two-page sets, and then the pattern continues to go back and forth alternating turns of pictures and words on opposite pages until the end of the story. The book ends with two sets of pages with words on the left and pictures on the right. Interestingly, the very last set ends with a picture on the right and words on the left. The result is Potter’s pattern creates a feeling of movement and the passing of time raising its entertainment value.
Potter employs balance with placement of text and illustration on each page, thus creating a balance between unity and variety. One way she does this is with rounded shapes. “We associate certain emotions with certain shapes,” says Nodelman (126). Rounded shapes are more accommodating and an enclosed circle suggests warmth ad love (Chua and Rajaratram 5). Each page of The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse features round shapes which are the center of attention. On page 15, the lady-bug is large and in the center of the illustration. Even the black dots on her shell are round. Other examples are large round plant leaves to the left center while Mrs. Tittlemouse peeks out of a circular hole from her burrow on page 18. The bottom of a basket Mrs. Tittlemouse holds up against a bee on page 22, and the frog’s round back on page 37 is spherical too. Another way Potter employs balance is with text placement in relation to illustrations. Potter establishes balance by making the text of page 14 as wide and as high as the illustration on page fifteen. This balance implies the same amount of time should be spent on both the text and the illustration. Potter chose to place the first illustration on the left page and the opening words on the right. This going back and forth pattern is “the action of a book,” Nodelman says. It is the “movement of the author’s exposition and the reader’s experience of it.” In other words, “they give us a sense of the story as a whole while we read it” (248). Since balance provides satisfaction and Potter puts a lot of work into each page in order to offer balance.
Good tension between words and illustrations not only entertain, but proper tension between the two heighten interest and excitement, says Chen in her book, Children’s Literature. As a result, there is more meaning to a story. In their book, The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at Childhood Through the Art of Illustration, Schwarcz and Schwarcz write, “When word and picture come together to produce a common work, the illustrated book-it is actually two languages that join forces” (4). On pages 6 and 7, Mrs. Tittlemouse stands in the doorway of her home peering out. Plush greenery grows around the door but the exact location of where her home lies isn’t seen. The words explain instead. They say, “Once upon a time there was a wood-mouse and her name was Mrs. Tittlemouse. She lived in a bank under a hedge.” On the other hand, without the illustration, the words alone wouldn’t supply enough information. Readers want meaning to picture books and it’s an investment in their time. The story will need to make sense too. Together, the illustrations work with the text to “inform us about how to interpret [the] narrative content (40), and provide an “emotional quality” (42). Potter’s tale uses tension between illustrations and text perfectly, making her insightful in her ability to make a great picture book.
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse embodies meaningful human interest and aesthetic appeal with shapes. Each illustration is in a frameless rectangle, meaning there isn’t a line around the rectangle, but the large amount of open white space around the illustration acts as a frame. The lack of an actual line around a picture “suggests rigidity, dullness, and conformity,” says Chau and Rajaratnam, (5) though closed lines add stability. The rectangle’s open space provides solidness without dominating. The rectangle also supplies a sense of energy associated with tidiness, which is what Mrs. Tittlemouse attempts by cleaning her home.
Entertainment is heightened with object placement. On page 15 she sets Mrs. Tittlemouse further away from the reader and the beetle closer. The way she stands, tilts her head, and holds the broom and dust-pan give the impression she is startled. We see her as in the middle of what she is doing and is displeased about the beetle. Since the beetle’s legs are in mid-motion, the sense of movement is portrayed – movement toward readers! Placement of words and pictures influence how a page is interpreted and the book as a whole. For example, in his book, Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books, Nodelman adds that “[U]pon timing the page where the words are one side and the picture on the other, our eyes go to the picture first and the words second. If they take turns, a sense of movement occurs” (54). Young children have energy and are easily distracted. The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse works hard to hold attention by offering the sense of movement through object placement and it works.
Potter further embodies the Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse with meaningful human interest and also with societal significance by featuring memorable characters and with where the story takes place. Young children want to learn about the world, but within the safety of home and with someone like a parental figure close by. “Central characters should be unforgettable,” says Chau and Rajaratnam (9), and should be “convincing and credible with distinctive personalities” (9). The “behavior of characters should be consistent with their ages and background to create believability” (Chau and Rajaratnam 9). Potter must have considered that as well as atmosphere.Mrs. Tittlemouse is attentive to detail and isn’t afraid to speak up to invaders. She wears a dress down to her feet and a pink apron. One aesthetic welfare for children is the home environment where the sense of love and belonging is found. The physical placement in a picture book should not be considered lightly. Besides offering a sense of comfort, the place in a picture book can widen children’s horizon. In The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at Childhood Through the Art of Illustration, Schwarcz and Schwarcz add that “from an attachment to their own area, children may be led to the appreciation of the concepts of a sense of place and of the spirit of environment in general” (114). By viewing Mrs. Tittlemouse at home cleaning, most viewers will associate her with their home and with their mother, or grandmother. Children are often used to parents who want the home clean and organized. When each visitor Mrs. Tittlemouse encounters dirties her home in some way, she acts quickly to get rid of them. The creatures are: a beetle with dirty feet; a big fat spider who leaves cobwebs all over; bees who leave untidy moss and beeswax; and a frog who drips water and smears honey everywhere. Mrs. Tittlemouse wants her home clean and safe.
An influential children’s book takes an especially talented author and illustrator to embody entertainment value, meaningful human interest, societal significance, and aesthetic appeal such as Potter does with The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. Her skill made the difference between a great picture book and an okay one. Examining Potters tale, perceiving her intentions, and why she did what she did, provides an example of an author and illustrator who is exceptional. Recognizing great authors and illustrators is important because other creators are inspired, and offers an amazing story for those wanting to read one such tale to children can. When an exact mood is wanted for children, perception of what mood a picture provides helps. Maybe a calming effect is desired when putting children to bed for instance, or in a school setting after lunch. Furthermore, knowing what makes a good picture book, and the details of how to make them, aids authors and illustrators in their creative pursuit of making a great picture book instead of one that is just good or okay.
Lynn, Chua and Rajaratnam. “What Makes a Good Picture Book.” Singapore: National
Library Board, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/growbeanstalk Accessed 26 Jan. 2022.
Chen, Emily Ph.D. “Children’s Literature.” Taiwan: National Kaohsiung First
University of Science and Technology,
www.2.nkfust.edu.tw/~emchen/CLit/picturebook_design.htm . Accessed 15 Feb.
Nodelman, Perry. Words About Pictures. The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture
Books. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. New York: Frederick Warne & Co.,
Schwarcz, Joseph and Chava Schwarcz. The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at
Childhood Through the Art of Illustration. STATE: American Library
Association, First Ed., 1991.