February 02, 2017
(++++) BUNNIES AND BEYOND
How to Be a Bigger Bunny. By Florence Minor. Illustrated by Wendell Minor. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $14.99.
Whose House? By H.A. Rey, adapted by Lay Lee Ong. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Farm Babies. By H.A. Rey, adapted by Lay Lee Ong. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Bunnies are inevitably endearing in books for pre-readers and the youngest readers; like other animals that may be somewhat less adorable in real life – mice, for example – rabbits are a staple of works intended to use adorableness to help lessons be communicated gently. But the portrayal of bunnies in kids’ books varies widely: some are thoroughly anthropomorphic, while others are shown highly realistically even though their behavior may have distinctly human elements. The latter approach is the one taken by the wife-and-husband team of Florence and Wendell Minor in How to Be a Bigger Bunny. All members of the rabbit family here – Nibbles, Wiggles, Giggles, Jiggles and Tickles – really look like rabbits, and they move like them, too, as they scamper about in the meadow. But Tickles, the smallest of the five, does not get to go along on the bigger bunnies’ adventures: she tends to be overlooked. That is a highly human thing to do, and the fact that Tickles walks around carrying a book makes her even more like a human child. She is absolutely adorable when drawn sitting propped up against a tree (in a distinctly un-rabbit-like posture), reading stories – from which she takes lessons about never giving up, acting like a bold pirate, and “How to Think Your Way out of Tricky Places.” Sure enough, all the stories’ ideas are soon put to the test, as Tickles’ four bigger siblings get trapped in a log in which they are playing when a rock rolls down the hill and plugs the log’s open end. There is not much to the story, really – of course Tickles will figure out how to rescue her family, and of course at the end they will say they will always take her along when they play from now on – but the application of the stories’ lessons is amusing, and the contrast between the human-like approach to the bunnies' predicament and the lovely pastoral setting in which the story takes place makes this an especially endearing book. Tickles does not get to be a bigger bunny physically, of course, but she grows larger in her siblings’ eyes through her determination, and at the end is seen dreaming of being a huge bunny, wearing a cape and zipping about to save her family “from danger everywhere.” Wish fulfillment, for sure, and all in a good – and particularly attractive-looking – cause.
Bunnies also appear in one of two new lift-the-flap books created by Lay Lee Ong from stories created long ago by H.A. Rey of Curious George fame. These are clever adaptations of books that have timeless elements but also show their age in some ways. Whose House? comes from Anybody at Home? (1939). Farm Babies is derived from Where’s My Baby? (1943). The bunnies appear in the first of these, when kids lift the flap of the page opposite the words, “Look in this hole –/ What can it be/ That lives deep down/ Under this tree?” The three under-flap rabbits are drawn in pleasantly cartoonish fashion and are seen smiling happily, with very human expressions, at the reader. The somewhat dated nature of Whose House? is clearest on pages where humans and their lives are involved. The car that emerges from a garage is recognizable, if old-fashioned, but the gas pump outside the garage is a design that no 21st-century child is likely ever to have seen. The airplane that comes out of a hanger has two propellers, not jet engines, and passengers are seen boarding it by walking outdoors and climbing steps – a real rarity of a scene nowadays. And when two trains come out onto railroad tracks, both are being pulled by smoke-emitting steam engines – another real rarity. The “house” idea for people, animals and inanimate objects is still a charming one, and Rey’s illustrations are not only attractive but also quite reminiscent of those in his better-known books. But parents may have some explaining to do about the pictures that do not include rabbits, birds, bees and other wildlife.
Farm Babies requires less explication. Here too the animals are drawn in Rey’s distinctive style and sport expressions that are human-like but not overdone. And some of the pages have little lessons within, such as a chance to practice counting: “Cluck, cluck, cluck!/ Calls Mother Hen./ Help count her chicks/ From one to ten.” Lifting this book’s flaps reveals not only barnyard creatures but also some found indoors: “Mother Cat’s kittens/ Have soft, warm fur./ She licks them clean,/ They meow and purr.” The only page in this book that harks back strongly to the time the original was written is the final one: “Here a mother sits –/ She’s about to read a book./ But where are all her babies?/ Just open up and look!” This mother – holding the original Rey book from which Farm Babies is taken – is dressed in distinctly old-fashioned style, sitting in a chair with knitting beside her, and turns out to have, when the flap is lifted, six kids (three boys and three girls) who all seem to be more or less in the four-to-10 age range. One boy has an old-fashioned slingshot in his pocket, while another is carrying a propeller-driven toy airplane, and the ways in which the boys’ outfits and girls’ outfits all match are attractive but certainly not in contemporary fashion. The book as a whole is fun, though, and so is Whose House? Neither of these works has the timeless quality of the Curious George books (although they too contain many now-archaic elements that are, however, rendered unimportant by the underlying charm of the stories). But both lift-the-flap books are pleasant for a young child to read and interact with – or enjoy while sitting on a parent’s accommodating lap.