Amy M. O'Quinn is the author of Becoming Beatrix: The Life of Beatrix Potter and the World of Peter Rabbit, a new biography for kids. Her other books include Nikola Tesla for Kids. She lives in Georgia.
Q: Why did you decide to write this biography of Beatrix Potter?
A: I loved Beatrix Potter’s books when I was growing up, and I enjoyed sharing them with my own children when they were young. However, I never really knew much about Beatrix herself—other than the fact that she lived in England.
I also loved the intro to The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends videos my children watched, as it portrayed Beatrix’s warm and cozy cottage and environment, so I was already drawn to the time/place in which she lived.
I think it was when I read Susan Branch’s A Fine Romance: Falling in Love With the English Countryside that I really became more interested in Beatrix’s life, work, and her Lake District home.
Susan’s photos and descriptions of Hill Top Farm and its garden made me want to go there myself. I honestly wasn’t thinking of writing a biography at that point—I just wanted to visit the UK!
And when my husband and children gave me an “across the pond” 50th birthday surprise trip in 2017, I was thrilled! My mother, sister, and I spent two weeks traveling and exploring London, Hampshire, Shropshire, the Lake District, and finally Edinburgh. It was magical.
As soon as I set my eyes on Hill Top Farm and walked along the stone path that led up to the farmhouse and Beatrix’s garden, I got that tingly feeling that every writer gets when he/she knows something is meant to be.
I just knew right away that I wanted to write about Beatrix Potter’s life and began brainstorming the proposal I planned to pitch to my editor. I also took lots of photos—just in case.
Q: The writer Lindsay H. Metcalf said of the book, “Becoming Beatrix is a meticulously researched and engaging window into the life of Beatrix Potter that highlights an important theme for young readers: you don't have to be just one thing. Beatrix bucked the norms of her Victorian-era upbringing to succeed in not only art and publishing but also science, conservation, and agriculture, among other pursuits.” What do you think of that assessment, and how would you describe Potter's legacy today?
A: I thought Lindsay hit the nail on the head. Beatrix WAS an anomaly for her time, and she had interests in quite a few fields of study and areas of work that were not considered suitable for a woman with her privileged background.
Of course, everyone remembers her as a gifted author and illustrator, but I think that people outside of the UK are also beginning to realize just what an impact Beatrix had in the conservation and preservation of the English Lake District.
She has also become an acknowledged expert of mycology (years after the fact), sheep breeding, farming, etc., but I imagine the majority will still associate Beatrix mostly with her writing and illustrating talents. I’m just happy that her other pursuits and successes are being recognized and celebrated.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: After I signed my contract to write the book, I immediately scheduled another trip to England with my mom, sister, and twin daughters to do research.
I spent a couple of days at the Blythe House (part of the Victoria and Albert Museum), where many of Beatrix’s books, family albums, sketches, letters, photos, etc. were housed at the time. It was amazing to look through the family photos, hold her original sketches, and turn the pages of first editions of her books. However, I think my greatest thrill was holding her paintbox.
I had also intended to go back to the Lake District, but Covid hit about the time we arrived in the UK—and my mother broke her ankle on Day 3. We had to book a quick flight back to the U.S. before everything shut down (and get my mom back home for surgery), so I didn’t get to return to the Lake District and Hill Top Farm as planned.
But thankfully, I had already visited there in 2017 and gone to the other places and museums where many of her things were housed. My sister and I also managed to make it to Kensington and Bolton Gardens, the site of Beatrix’s childhood home, before we left.
Once I got home, I just did the rest of my research from here. I read countless books, Beatrix’s journals, biographies, nonfiction books about what was happening in England and around the world when Beatrix was alive, and the many letters to and from Beatrix.
She especially loved corresponding with Americans! I didn’t know that, so that was a bit of a surprise. Learning about her complicated relationship with her mother was also eye-opening. The elder Ms. Potter was something else! It was also neat learning about her brother Bertram and what a talented artist he was as well.
To be honest, research is my absolute favorite thing to do. Knowing when to stop researching and when to start writing is my sticking point. I also tend to want to put EVERYTHING I’ve learned into a book because I find it all fascinating, so thank goodness for wonderful editors.
Q: Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter character?
A: I love all of Beatrix’s characters, but I guess I’d have to choose Peter Rabbit—the cheeky little fellow. Yes, he was disobedient, but it’s impossible not to admire his sense of adventure and curiosity.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have been tossing around some ideas, but I haven’t quite settled on a definite topic for a new proposal to pitch yet. I’d either like to do another classic children’s writer bio or perhaps another scientist bio. I have also been working on a couple of picture book drafts and doing research for a possible historical disaster project.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am a bookaholic, and I even decorate with books!
Moreover, I love to share great literature with children, and I had the amazing opportunity to begin teaching elementary and middle school ELA classes at a small co-op three days a week this past year. Additionally, I teach a high school creative writing class, and next year I will also be adding in a British Literature class to the mix.
I am thankful that I get to do what I love—both writing and teaching.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb