The Runaway Bunny

I have a bit of a history with this book, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. Who doesn’t, really? Of course, Goodnight Moon is still more famous, though The Runaway Bunny can’t feel too bad about its own success, but in my family I somehow grew up feeling that “The Moonie Book” was my sister’s book, and The Runaway Bunny was mine. This is how children’s minds work, and it’s as it should be. I think children’s minds are very good minds, and I like them.

How do adult minds work, though? Adults wonder strange things. They wonder: “I don’t know, how do these books work? Why are they popular? Is that mother bunny a warm and loving mother or a terrible, grasping mother?”

I’ve been thinking about classic bedtime books perhaps slightly on the obsessive side lately, because I’ve been reading them over and over at bedtime. My Spriggan has decided that daytime books should be contemporary books, including Circle Under Berry by Carter Higgins which I’m conveniently linking as a recommendation because it’s so delightful to share with a Spriggan. Bedtime, he decrees, is for the classics: In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are, various beautiful French song books, and both Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny.

And this is how you know I’m a weirdo: I am reliably informed that I’m supposed to get tired of these books. I’m not. Last Shabbat we read In the Night Kitchen at least ten times between naptimes and bedtime. I didn’t get sick of it, no one little bit. In point of fact, I was ludicrously excited to discover for the first time– how did I never see this before?– that the cake the bakers are making seems to be flavoured with orange blossom water, so I made my husband’s birthday cake with orange blossom water. He tells me it was very good.

And I’m endlessly fascinated by the Margaret Wise Brown books, particularly The Runaway Bunny.

The Runaway Bunny was the most controversial book I enjoyed growing up. My mother maintained that it was a lovely story about a mother who loves her child. My father thought it was a terrible story presenting a clingy, hovering, grasping mother who wouldn’t let her kid have any independence and pursued him relentlessly. My interpretation as a small child was that I absolutely adored the way the line drawings on the pages with text were more “realist” whereas the gorgeous full spread colour pages were fantastical and had the bunnies merging into the landscape. I could have stared at the garden page forever. And as I grew old enough to recognize the links between the art in The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon, my mind all but exploded with the delight of puzzling out the comparisons and links. I’m not entirely sure I considered the role of the mother at all (except to wonder what my parents were on about), because this was so obviously a game of “find the little bunny in the pictures.”

Fast forward to growing up and having my own children. I didn’t read The Runaway Bunny very often with the Changeling, interestingly. Like the Spriggan, she was absolutely in love with In the Night Kitchen, but didn’t go for Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny much. We certainly read them, but not as obsessively as the Spriggan does. He does not permit a day to pass without giving the Bunny Crocus in the garden a kiss, point to the “flow-flows” in the garden, and smell them. He seems to love that page as much as I did when I was a bit older than he was. And I’ve found myself thinking about it as I read, because at this age I’m paying much more attention to the mother, both as a mother myself and as an academic.

And one of the things I’m thinking about is a point that Mac Barnett has made several times in discussions, for example, of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This book has been rather controversial especially recently, as kids who grew up being expected to be accommodating are suddenly realizing that boundaries have a purpose. Maybe, they think, that meek tree should have said stood up for itself: “What about me, asshole? Relationships go in both directions.” Therefore, the readers say, this book is promoting an unhealthy type of relationship, and isn’t a good book. Mac Barnett points out that the book isn’t promoting anything; it’s representing a relationship, and if you feel uncomfortable with that relationship, that’s kind of the point. (Side note: if you want my views on The Giving Tree, you can buy me a coffee and casually mention the title and I’ll talk your ear off for 30 minutes at a conservative estimate. I’m writing about The Runaway Bunny here.)

Personally, I agree wholeheartedly with Mac Barnett that a good picture book isn’t telling kids or parents what to think. Authors and illustrators of that caliber have far too much respect for the children they’re talking to (and the adults who read to them) to do more than evoke: they are not manipulative, they are not prescriptive. Your gut response is the point. And for me, reading the back-and-forth between the mother bunny and the baby bunny, I have a number of responses, because people (and bunnies) contain multitudes, and so do these twists and playful transformations.

One thing I have to wonder, as a medievalist and a Celticist by training, is whether Margaret Wise Brown, who was a very well-educated and brilliant woman, may have known, if not about the story of Ceridwen and Gwion Bach (who became Taliesin), any of the analogous stories of transformation and chase? I think she must have. Basically, the Ceridwen story goes like this: Ceridwen (whoever she was, it’s debated, but she seems to have been rather well-educated and brilliant) has a son who’s not exactly the prettiest boy on the block, Morfran. So she decides to brew up a potion in her cauldron which will grant the Awen (poetic wisdom, inspiration) to her son. Well, it has to brew for a year and a day, and then the first three drops that pop out carry the gift. She sets a boy, Gwion Bach, to stir the mixture– and you know what happens. He gets the gift, Morfran doesn’t. Gwion Bach, imbued with all that wisdom, doesn’t take long to realize he’d better run, and a game of hide and seek in different forms takes place. He goes through different forms: hare, bird, fish, and ends up as a grain of corn, which Ceridwen, in the form of a hen, eats. Back in human form, she gives birth to the new form of Gwion Bach, who grows up to be Taliesin.

Because this is a Very Serious Work of Literature, grownups think a lot about it and even analyze the roles of the different forms Ceridwen and Gwion Bach take. And I think the story is actually great fun and wasn’t it nice of Margaret Wise Brown to do a version for younger kids? (NB: I do not claim a direct line of inspiration and transmission; please see my doctoral dissertation for why I really have given up on the question of direct influence, it’s a loser’s game and often pretty secondary in importance– the grapes of influence are sour, anyway.) But look at the mother’s transformations, following her baby! Look at the baby’s choices, which she follows! They change. As do children and mothers. As I have, with the Changeling and the Spriggan.

Still, when you consider many of these stories of chase in transformation, the final step can either be absolute death (the sorcerer’s apprentice sneakily learns all his tricks, they have a chase, and finally the apprentice is able to kill the former master) or, in the Ceridwen case, which, given the mother-child relationship, is a step closer to The Runaway Bunny (I can’t believe I just typed that) rebirth. Either way, it’s very, very high stakes stuff.

What’s really interesting is that Margaret Wise Brown takes us for a much, much wilder ride. This isn’t single-minded; this is exploratory. (Side note to the many academics sharpening their pencils as they read: I’m entirely aware that Gwion Bach’s transformations are also potentially exploratory, as he navigates the full depths of existence from the salmon of knowledge to bird and mammal life, but even Taliesin was never, ever a rock on the mountain high above you.) The little bunny who wants to run away envisions himself as a trout, a rock, a bird, a crocus, a boat, a trapeze artist, and a little boy running into a house. Some of these are genuine ways of fleeing or hiding; others seem more playful: by the time he’s saying he’s a boy running into a house, does he really imagine anything but that his mother will be waiting for him? Meanwhile, the mother is following her bunny not just to try to catch him, but trying to catch up to him: fishing for him involves bait (a delightful carrot for the bunny-fish), and the boat is pursued by the mother-wind who wants to “blow him where she wants him to go,” which certainly feels like an overbearing mother. But she is also the gardener finding the crocus in the hidden garden; is that gardener in invader or a nurturing figure? When the becomes a bunny-bird, the mother doesn’t even envision herself as a pursuer, but she imagines the bunny-bird flying to the bunny-mother-tree as his home. Her part of the conversation is quite as far-ranging and exploratory as his.

This is not something I could have appreciated without having two children. Children are explorers, but in different ways. There are as many types of people in this world as there are people, after all, and as we go through life we change from trout to crocus to bird as surely as the little bunny. But with the Changeling I was often in the role of listening and gentle shoves with a kid who didn’t necessarily want to venture far out there. The Spriggan is definitely more of a gigglesome runaway: This very morning I had to catch him running pell-mell across a field because there were dog-dogs and he was very sure they were his friends and maybe they’d lick his face. He is a scampering creature who loves the whole world and expects the world to love him back. I am constantly figuring out when to hold out a carrot to get him over here, please, and when to walk across the air, and when to just be the tree and wait. Oddly, it was with the Changeling that I was most like the wind, giving gentle and invisible puffs of air to get out there a bit, just give it a try– and I don’t think I understood how far from being overbearing that was until reading it more recently. That gentle push was hard, but it was necessary, I can now see, as she walks confidently to the playground on her own.

To go back to Mac Barnett, he actually wrote– for kids, beautifully illustrated by Sarah Jacoby– a book about Margaret Wise Brown, The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown. It was the longest book I got to read in the school library, and the review I got from a kindergarten student was a very surprised: “It was longer than you usually read but it kept me interested in the whole thing and we had good things to talk about!” And what did Mac Barnett say about The Runaway Bunny in that book? He says it’s a story about a rabbit who is trying to escape from his mother, but his mother won’t let him get away. (He opens brackets, like this, and adds, “Maybe that is why he is trying to escape from her.” Then the brackets close, like this.) I argue, evidently, but not much, because what I love is Mac Barnett’s maybe. And that he doesn’t say the mother is bad or good. Mac Barnett, like Margaret Wise Brown, like so many of the greatest authors, is exploring what it means to be a character and a person. That’s why my students loved reading his book about Margaret Wise Brown. And why my Spriggan and my Changeling and I all love reading Margaret Wise Brown and Maurice Sendak and Mac Barnett and Carter Higgins. Not because they’re simple and easy, but because they’re real.

I don’t think this is such an easy book, just as being a kid isn’t ready, and being a parent isn’t easy. Is the little bunny running away because the mother won’t let him go? Is the mother doing her damned best, and where’s the dad anyway? The judgment we fling at this mother bunny feels an awful lot like the judgment I hear against other parents every day, like the judgment I level at myself on an hourly basis. But the little bunny seems ok. That little bunny still seems to chuckle as he decides, in the end, to be a little boy and run into a house, knowing full well his mother will be there to hug him. And I’m very glad that he gets a carrot.