06 August 2011

On Vacation: Peter Magpie

On my first visit to Greece, in April 1977, I watched in fascination as large raucous black-and-white birds misbehaved -- or behaved like magpies -- in a field at Mycenae. "Peter Magpie!" I shouted, and then had to explain about Peter Magpie.

Peter Magpie was a favorite book when I was very young, and I have spent the past twenty years trying to find a copy.  I wrote English bookstores, I signed up for specialized search services.  Last month, I finally found a single copy, at The Children's Bookshop at Hay on Wye, probably the only available copy in the world, and extremely cheap even with international shipping.  The cover has some raggedy edges, a testimony that someone tried to take care of it for sixty years.

Peter Magpie is not a perfectly satisfactory book in terms of ethics, but apart from Jack-the-Giant-Killer it was the only book I saw for many years that treated intelligence and fun as important, and did not harp on virtue.  Even at the age of five I appreciated how the very simple line drawings extended the text, instead of illustrating it. (The pictures here will enlarge if clicked on.)

Peter was very good at escaping danger and helping his friends.   He kept his friends the rabbits from being attacked by the fox and the owl.

And he found a way to keep the farmer from shooting him for -- um -- acting like a magpie.

He was fond of the farmer's boy, Jan, who was fond of Greta.  Greta was fond of Jan but she was very shy because she had freckles.  Peter Magpie gave Jan freckles, too.

Being a magpie, Peter Magpie liked shiny things.  He came very close to disaster.

Because this is a book for children that had to be bought by adults, it is equipped with an unconvincing moral, but it still holds to the value of intelligence.

1 comment:

  1. Probably were Magpies in Greece, I once took the slow train thru Yugoslavia to Greece, 1973, and the fields were full of them. And Gerald Durell writes of his tame 'Magenpies' in Corfu in the 30s.

    My favourite early (well 1937) children's book is Munro Leaf's 'The Story of Ferdinand'. Luckily still widely available. Pacifist, gay, vegetarian, you'll get lots of interpretations but it still delights.


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