February 25, 2010


A Very Big Bunny. By Marisabina Russo. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary. Poems by Maya Gottfried. Paintings by Robert Rahway Zakanitch. Knopf. $17.99.

     Animals of all sorts are often used to teach children ages 4-8 lessons about human life. In different ways, both these books intend to do just that. A Very Big Bunny is mistitled – it would better be called “Big Bunny, Small Bunny,” since that is really what it is about. True, Marisabina Russo’s book starts as the story of Amelia, “the biggest bunny in her class,” who is always last in line (because the class lines up by size) and is continually teased by other girls because of her size – and is lonely. But what really makes the story work is the arrival in class of Susannah, the smallest bunny in the group, who is ostracized and teased by the same girls who have been making fun of Amelia – and is kept away from the same games at recess. But unlike Amelia, who stands and sulks at the fence, Susannah is more outgoing. She repeatedly approaches Amelia with questions and makes attempts at friendship – and eventually breaks through to the big bunny in a way that surprises and delights the bunnies themselves and their teacher. The final scene of the book, showing a solution to the seesaw problem that seemed unsolvable for both bunnies who wanted to play on it (one too big for the ride and one too small), is a particularly neat twist. But the book’s focus is not solely on the big bunny, and its lesson is clearly intended for big and small alike. And a nicely taught lesson it is.

     The lesson intended to be taught by Our Farm is a little harder to figure out. The book is essentially a promotion of Farm Sanctuary, a national group that maintains farms for neglected and abused animals in the states of New York and California and that lobbies for legislation to promote better treatment of farm animals. But those are very adult concerns. What the book offers children is beautiful, realistic but interpretative line drawings and paintings by Robert Rahway Zakanitch, showing the appearance of farm animals in loving detail: pig and piglet, chicken and rooster, ram, calf and more. But the atmospheric poetry of Maya Gottfried, who volunteered at the Farm Sanctuary in New York, is not a perfect fit for Zakanitch’s illustrations – even though they were inspired by it and by photos that Gottfried took. The reason is that the poems unrealistically attribute human hopes, thoughts and feelings to the animals. There is, for example, this from a donkey named Bonnie: “here/ my mane swept by wind/ here/ my ears filled with quiet.” And this from a turkey called Whisper: “We are so graceful,/ like/ a/ ballet/ class.” And, from a goat named Clarabell: “Daisies, they call to me./ Trees sing my name.” Lovely sentiments, these, but surely not the thoughts of the realistic-looking animals portrayed in the pictures. True, this approach mostly avoids outright advocacy of Farm Sanctuary’s cause – that is mainly reserved for “A Note for Grown-ups” at the end – although one poem does have a sheep named Hilda saying, “Thank you to the kind hearts and hands/ that brought me to my home.” Also true, the poems themselves are often lovely, or at least cute – the two haikus by rabbits seem particularly apt. Nevertheless, Our Farm is a somewhat uneasy mixture of realism and flights of fancy – best to leaf through it before buying it, to decide whether it will have something to teach your family.

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