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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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"The Tale of Tom Kitten;" first edition; with rare original glassine dust wrapper; 1907; London: Frederick Warne & Co., $4,600. Photo courtesy of Pacific Book Auction
She wrote to break through the loneliness. She wrote to connect to something bigger than what she understood.

For 20th century children’s book writer Beatrix Potter, the connection came through mythical characters like Peter Rabbit who lived in a sand bank under the root of a very big fir tree and through Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny, and Tom Kitten.

Many of Potter’s fairy tale mice, rabbits, kittens and hedgehogs wore human clothing, as if they were people. But they held onto their animal traits. Each came to life in a larger-than-life way through Potter’s illustrations and text.

Today they are as fresh as they were 90 years ago. That’s what makes Potter a master storyteller and illustrator.

Like the children of many wealthy Victorian London families, Beatrix and her brother Bertram had little contact with their parents. Raised by nurses and governesses, Beatrix spent most of her time in a third floor nursery.

Pets were the children’s only friends. Without their parent’s knowledge, the kids hid rabbits, lizards, newts, bats and mice. Even after their pets died, Beatrix saved the skeletons and sketched the bones.

She drew and painted to fill her emptiness. To make sense of things. The sights and sounds of the woods near her family’s summer home in Scotland were magic to her. With imagination, she knew anything was possible.

“I cannot rest, I must draw…when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever,” Potter wrote in her diary.

One night when Potter was especially lonely, she wrote a picture letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess.

“I don’t know what to write you, so I shall tell you the story about four rabbits, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” she said.

Seven years later, Potter decided the picture letter would make a good children’s book. She asked Moore if he still had the letter. He did and was happy to lend it to her.

Potter lengthened the original story and redrew the black-and-white images. Six different publishers turned "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" down. So Potter published the book herself. By 1901, 250 copies of the book were available.

"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was so popular three months later 250 more copies were printed. In 1902, the London publishing company, Frederick Warne & Co., agreed to print future copies of the book if Potter provided color illustrations. She agreed. Over the next 10 years, Potter wrote and illustrated about 22 more books. She died in 1943.

Potter remains one of the best selling children’s authors in the world. Her books have been translated into 30 languages and millions of copies have been printed and sold.

The most valuable books are the early privately printed copies along with the first editions printed by Warne & Co. Throw in the original dust wrapper, excellent condition and the value goes up.

On May 19, Pacific Book Auction in San Francisco featured a selection of early Beatrix Potter books in its Children’s & Illustrated Books auction: The Library of collector Noreen Curry. Here are some current values.

Beatrix Potter

"The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle;" first edition; 1905; London: Frederick Warne & Co., $460.

"The Tale of Jeremy Fisher;" first edition; 1906; London: Frederick Warne & Co., $575.

"The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit;" first edition in book form; 1916; London: Frederick Warne & Co., $3,162.

"The Tale of Peter Rabbit;" first published edition; London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1902; $3,737.

"The Tale of Tom Kitten;" first edition; with rare original glassine dust wrapper; 1907; London: Frederick Warne & Co., $4,600.

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