Friday, July 24, 2009

Bunnies! Bunnies! Bunnies!

Our books today are three kids books starring bunnies, in response to the surprising number of you (almost all card-carrying members of the silent majority, alas - so many people reading and, presumably, enjoying Stevereads, so few people bothering to tell Steve that!) who reacted to my bear-themed kids books posting with what could only be called ursophobic levels of species-baiting. This was hardly a personal affront: I dislike bunnies every bit as much as I dislike bears. But it's true that bunny-themed kids books number among my favorites, so a sequel of sorts seemed called for.

Naturally, the place to start is the one that started it all: Beatrix Potter's 1902 story The Tale of Peter Rabbit. With their big eyes and preternatural air of innocence, bunnies are the kids storybook equivalent of Jesus (almost all of their stories are about redemption and reconfiguration)(whereas in the actual animal kingdom, almost all of their stories are about violent sex and eating their own poo), but Peter Rabbit is pure Old Testament. Peter is a nattily-dressed little rapscallion, not a picture-perfect child like his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail. The minute his long-suffering mother leaves for the bakery, Peter sneaks onto the property of Mr. McGregor, the gigantic, bearded figure who killed and ate Peter's father in a pie. Is it any wonder Peter turned out to be a trespasser, a thief, and quite probably gay?

Mr. McGregor chases Peter all over the property. Peter has several close calls, then manages to find his way back to the cozy den he shares with his mother and his sisters. He's exhausted from his raucous extracurricular activities, and as he lays there semi-conscious, his womenfolk brew him some tea. It's like something out of Trollope, only everybody has pug noses and buck teeth. Come to think of it, it's exactly like something out of Trollope.

Twenty years after The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Margery Williams wrote The Velveteen Rabbit, another genuine bunny-blockbuster. It's the story of a brand-new velveteen rabbit toy who's given to a young boy one Christmas (ding ding). The boy and the rabbit are inseparable, and the boy loves his rabbit dearly. The rabbit yearns to be Real, and an ancient toy from the house's collection, the Skin Horse, assures him it can happen:

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked. "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

(Needless to say, none of that is written for children ... Margery Williams was a wise woman)

As everyone knows, the Velveteen Rabbit goes through one horrible near-tribulation and is then reborn (ding ding) as a real rabbit, to live in Rabbitland forever and ever. This is sugary glop, it's true, but the final coda of The Velveteen Rabbit is worth swallowing a little glop.

Twenty years after The Velveteen Rabbit, another bunny blockbuster hip-hopped down the garden path: Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. The earlier theme of a rebellious rapscallion rabbit is resumed - the little bunny who wants to run away spins one scenario after another to his mother (again, the long-suffering kind ... a virtual maternal requirement, when you pop out sixty kids a year): he'll become a fish in a stream, he'll become a rock on a mountain, he'll become a crocus in the garden, he'll even become a boy and run inside, etc.

To each of these scenarios, the mother bunny has an unperturbed answer - she deftly inserts herself into her child's fantasies, always there to chase him, find him, catch him, love him.

"Shucks," said the bunny, "I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny."

And so he did.

"Have a carrot," said the mother bunny.

The book's Christian allegories have been noted before (most poignantly - and devastatingly - at the conclusion of Margaret Edson's brilliant play Wit)(watch the film version of that final scene, and see if you don't bawl your eyes out), but its real staying power lies in how effortlessly enjoyable it is to read slowly, out loud, page by page, to an audience of children. Because in this as in so much else, timing is everything. Jesus would have understood.


Anonymous said...

Do you need to feel some of your fans' love? Your loyal and usually silent admirers will read you write about anything, even bunnies. Loved your take on the Atlantic Monthly, as usual. Better?

briankirker said...

I'm partial to the bunnies in 'Monty Python's Holy Grail', 'Night of the Lepus', and maybe 'Fatal Attraction'. Good post, as usual.

steve said...

Oh, don't get me wrong: I LOVE my silent majority! I get a fair amount of private, one-to-one emails about virtually every post (which is why there have been so many posts in 2009 - we're only a week away from #500!), and I cherish that.

It's just that the cool kids in the blogosphere playground only look at the activity in the Comments field! And they tease me so!

briankirker said...

500 posts this year alone?? I think I forgot how to count again.

steve said...

No, no - 500 posts TOTAL, since I started! What a long, strange trip it's been, as somebody once said!