Bunnies abound in children's literature. Children's books seem to favor them, along with bears and pigs, though not as much as mice, as characters especially in anthropomorphizations. Why the popularity? Sure, they're cute, but so are puppies and ducklings and they aren't used in such stories with as much frequency. Perhaps it's because their oval heads lend themselves well to humanizing in illustration, or maybe it's those expressive eyes. Whatever the reason, there are many wonderful bunny books, particularly the most recent one I have read, which inspired me to write this post, which is fittingly timed for Easter.
The bunnification of children's literature no doubt began with Beatrix Potter. In her books, bunnies are really bunnies even when wearing clothes. her. She manages to make Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny both completely bunny under their coats, and at the same time behave just like naughty little human boys.
As the world grew more urbanized, so did the bunnies, becoming just like suburban children in picture book favorites such as Margaret Wise Brown's books, Good Night Moon and My World. The "bunnyism" of the children in those books is merely incidental, and not essential to the story at all, but it does add to the cozy feeling which has made Good Night Moon a classic bedtime book. The bunny in pajamas looks like a stuffed animal you'd like to climb into bed with. A similar-looking bunny appears in Richard Scarry's The Bunny Book, though again the rabbit doesn't really need to be a rabbit. Its species merely adds to the cuteness factor.
While many books in the twentiethe century focused on using bunnies for their cuteness but not their other qualities, some recent books show a return to portraying rabbits more as rabbits. In the recent Arlo Makes a Friend, Jack Rabbit is a tough champion digger. True bunnyism can be seen even more in the books of Anita Jeram (who drew the hares in Guess How Much I Love You). Her bunnies are really bunnies, hopping in the forest in Bunny my Honey, which has been one of my daughter's favorites since she was a baby. It has a rather typical storyline of being separated from mother then found, but it is so beautifully illustrated that you can truly feel the warmth of the rabbit mother and child's love for each other in the ilustrations. Plus there's the quirky addition of a duckling brother and mouse sister, explained in All Together Now! This companion book incorporates plenty of fun onomatopeoia, always popular with kids.
The literary rabbits that behave most realistically are those of Watership Down, human-like, though, in that they are capable of complex introspection. Rabbits are also frequently portrayed as ingenious heroes like Brer Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily and even wise guy Bugs Bunny. Such portrayals build on rabbits' naturally sharp senses and agility in movement. But bunnies will always be favored as cuddly toys as in the classic The Velveteen Rabbit.
The Velvetten Rabbit, incidentally, was once included in a school reader for second year high school in a boys' school where I taught. I found that rather odd. While some boys responded to the deeper meaning of the story, many couldn't get over the childishness of the setting and the symbolic figures. Interestingly, the story was given without its happy ending, which I was told was how the story was originally written. Of course that made it somewhat bleak, though the magical trasformation added seems to be pandering. Perhaps I'll discuss this in a later blog I'm planning on happy endings.
Possessing elements of The Velveteen Rabbit but with a far broader scope is Kate DiCamillo's lumnous The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the story of a vain self-centered china rabbit. Like the Velveteen Rabbit he is a beloved toy. But his growth is slower and entails many changes of owners. From a petted object of display, he becomes a confidante, a traveling companion, then an entertainer and comfort object for a sick child.
Perhaps any kind of doll or toy could have taken the place of The Velveteen Rabbit or Edward Tulane. But a bunny is a singularly appropriate creature since we see it in so many ways-- from a cuddly pet to a suspicious wild animal; from a shy, aloof creature to a lively meadow dancer; from quiet, vulnerable prey to a sly invader and speedy evader. I have seen a real wild rabbit in Woods Hole in Massachussets: Being a child then I hoped to sneak up to it and catch and cuddle it and soon observed the contradictions in such seemingly innocuous creature. The slightest movement in its direction and the snap of a flashless camera sent it away. Clearly not an animal to be underestimated. No wonder children's book writers keep coming back to it.