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Lit Crit: The Runaway Bunny

Lit Crit: The Runaway Bunny

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.

Read more: Babies, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

33 comments

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9:22PM PST on Nov 14, 2010

Thanks.

10:33PM PST on Nov 13, 2010

Thanks for the article.

12:47PM PDT on Jul 17, 2009

Eric, the Bunny Mother does not limit or curtail any of these adventures. Quite the contrary, she encourages them and accepts them OK by becoming the ground of the experience. This encourages growth and independence and self-acceptance and self-knowledge in a child. Hardly the squashed developmental outcome you conjure. Genuine independence and a positive sself -image develop from the confidence of knowing that you are loved just the way you are as Mr.Rogers so tenderly expressed. This Bunny Mother is doing exactly the right thing : making the entire world safe for her runaway bunny who has nothing to fear.

9:15PM PST on Feb 13, 2009

I hope, as parents, we don't forget how we, as children, wanted attention from our parents, threatening to do "bad" or to run away from home; all along, we wanted them to come after us and tell us how much they'll miss us. I believe this fact is learned in basic child psychology classes. Children may be taught about freedom but need to know of the responsibilities that accompany it. I believe the mother's loving restrictions in The Runaway Bunny are necessary. If we all let our bunnies loose, then expect a whole generation of spoiled, selfish brats running our world.

5:34AM PST on Jan 15, 2009

I've been enjoying these articles, as I think a lot of the points Eric and many writing comments bring up are very interesting. I like all three of the books that Eric has chosen to critique, and have bought all 3 for my children, and we enjoy reading them together, but that still doesn't mean that I haven't wondered what message these books are giving the kids. As far a books giving a positive message that no matter what you do, your parents will be there for you, I prefer "Where the Wild Things Are." Not only are the illustrations fantastic, but the messages are good ones: a)if you act up, there will be appropriate actions taken; b) you can go off and have your adventures, but there's no place like home; and c) home is where you're loved best, and they keep dinner hot for you.

3:08PM PST on Dec 1, 2008

While I agree with the article in general - we do need to encourage independence in our children - I think the book is meant for very young children who need to be reassured that their parents will take care of them. This would be at the stage when feeling secure and safe is most important. What you're saying is, "No matter what you do, I won't lose you."

4:50PM PST on Nov 20, 2008

I read the book, "The Runaway Bunny" to my son , about 20 yrs. ago. I thought then, and still do, that it was a real weird message. I wish I had read it through before readind it aloud to him. Thankfully, it wasn't one of his "read it again, Mommys" Having come from a family where my mom was a smothering, too-dominant type, I had been frustrated for years with my mother's squelching of every bit of enthusiasm I had shown in my own life, or independent thought. The first time I read the book, I was left with an eerie feeling of deja vu! I would never read that story to my grandkids.

10:33PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

And where is the smackdown of The Giving Tree? Man is that overdue, if it's what I think it is.

10:31PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

Susan Best: the author's intention is irrelevant - I think the author meant well, for instance, and it's supposed to be nurturing and all of that, but I still think it's a little creepy for the reasons Eric stated, and I also wouldn't want to tell my kid, "no matter what stupid thing you try and do, I will rescue you" because actually the creep at the bus station might get him/her before I can do that.

3:42PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

I completely agree with this critiqe, and while I haven't read it yet, I am sooo glad that someone has finally brought up the creepy message in The Giving Tree. I always felt like a pariah when I tried to metion these things to others... they reacted like you were attacking their childhood treasures, not simply questioning the messages they convey to children. I don't want my child growing up to believe that people who love them should give them whatever they want, or that no matter what they try to do on their own I'll hunt them down and 'protect' them.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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