As with my last deconstruction-lite of a beloved children’s classic, The Giving Tree, I am attempting to do the unthinkable–tipping one of the sacred cows of children’s literature. My intention is not to be provocative, in the sense of upsetting adults and children alike, but to provoke a little bit of thought and conversation about the inherent message of some of these classics. Today’s cow–Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.
Margaret Wise Brown is probably best known for the classic of all classics, Goodnight Moon (a book that may be beyond reproach) as well as the exceedingly odd b-side of a book, My World. However, The Runaway Bunny has a certain resonance and endurance with children and parents alike. For those of you unfamiliar with the beloved tome, it involves the conversation between an adoring mother bunny and her baby/little bunny that is suffering from some serious wanderlust. The conversation consists of the little bunny loosely threatening to run away in a number of creative ways and the mother bunny matching the little bunny’s creativity by always promising to catch up to and capture the little bunny despite his desires to flee. Clement Hurd beautifully illustrates the book, with alternating spare pen and ink drawings and blooming full-color illustrations depicting Mama Bunny in hot pursuit of her bunny gone AWOL.
For most readers, this is a fable about the unconditional love and devotion of a parent as it meets with the oppositional independence of a child. However, since as long as I can remember I have found it creepy, disquieting, troubling and the source of some lasting questions about personal freedom and independence.
I find the character of the mother, instead of understanding or even encouraging her child’s (or in this case, her bunny’s) independence, choosing to smother and stifle the child’s curiosity and lust for life. The interchange between mother and child appears to be less about love and devotion and more about parental control and suppression. Each time the child/bunny works up an idea of liberation, the mother meets it with a method to restrain or defeat the child’s will, as in this passage:
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,
“I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
Which, if we take the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it would be something like, “and I will catch you, clean you, and devour you.” So much for, “If you love something set it free.”
The mother figure in this book never encourages the bunny or inquires as to where the he wants to go, or what he wants to be, she just remains vigilant in outsmarting him until his will has been sufficiently squelched and he has no choice but to submit to her desires and stay put. Many people, of strong religious persuasion, see this story as an allegory for God’s absolute love for mankind and pursuit of the soul. Because God always knows where we are, and keeps a watchful eye, no matter how far we try to stray, and his grand design for us is for us to come to the place of simply wanting to be “Little Bunnies.” This idea obviously gives some people comfort, but for others (myself included) they find it manipulative, restrictive, and far from inspiring behavior on behalf of almighty.
In many respects, the book supports the idea that you are never free to escape from your foundation or origin, and that the familial grasp is so restrictive and steadfast that it will ultimately obliterate your dreams and aspirations.
Sure, this is only a book about two bunnies having a theoretical conversation (something wholly implausible even with the intervention of God or science). But considering the fact that his book is read time and time again, with great affection, by parents to children, I think it is time we take a moment to consider its underlying message, and try to develop an open discussion with our children about will, freedom, and independence for bunnies and children alike.
Any thoughts, bunnies?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.