John Marsden and “The Rabbits” (Part Three)
(CONTINUED FROM PART TWO)
Here now is my old review for the book. I wrote this three years ago, and would probably describe it in different terms today, but I agree with this sentiment all the same.
First of all, I’m going to admit right here and now that I was seriously depressed as a child by Dr. Suess’s, "The Lorax". A great book and a great story and a great moral and it brought me down low. But that’s okay. I got over it. I was doing all right. Then I idly picked up John Marsden’s, "The Rabbits" in my local lending library. Suddenly all the feelings I’d ever felt after reading "The Lorax" were back, but stronger. I came to the realization that this book was better than the Seussian creation. It carries a different message, but the idea behind the tale (and the method of teaching it) is the same. Once you’ve read "The Rabbits", you can’t unread it. It sticks in your brain and you start to see its scenes replaying themselves in your mind at the oddest of times. The best word I can conjure up to describe this book is "haunting". It’s like nothing you’ve ever read before.
To read this book requires understanding a little about its background. Originally published in Australia, the book is about the effects of colonization. As you may recall, rabbits were once a foreign species that was introduced to the Australian wildlife with disastrous results. Devouring the native resources and spreading like mad, both they and cane toads are considered dangerous pests. Taking that idea as a starter, we follow the arrival of civilized rabbits on a vaguely Australian-like land. The story is told from the point of view of some brown curly tailed spear carrying native animals. As the book begins, the native animals say, "At first we didn’t know what to think. They looked a bit like us. There weren’t many of them". Then time passes and more and more rabbits come to the land. They build their own kinds of houses and introduce their own animals. When the native creatures (bush babies, perhaps?) fight back, they loose because there are too many rabbits. The rabbits destroy the land and (in the worst and most heart-wrenching scene in the book) they, "Stole Our Children". Rabbit driven planes fly away with little baby creatures in kites trailing behind as they parents run along the ground, their arms extended. In the end, the land is bare and all the animals are gone. In a final picture, a native creature sits across from a rabbit next to a tiny puddle that reflects the stars, the ground littered with trash. The animal asks, "Who will save us from the rabbits?"
Sad? You don’t know the half of it. It was delightful seeing how many details in this tale were particular to the Australian aboriginal people. The fact that their children were taken by the white settlers to be taught in white schools. Pictures of the fights (natives destroying the rabbit proof fences). Symbols repeat in illustration after illustration. The rabbit’s flags look British, until you realize that the lines on them are arrows pointing everywhere. The guns and houses of the rabbits are inscribed with the words, "Might = Right". If author John Marsden is clever, illustrator Shaun Tan matches him pound for pound. This tale is artistically and morally interesting. I’ve spent more time than I like to think about poring over these pages. The book is covered in the most minute and fascinating details. Notice the single yellow flower that grows in the rabbits’ town. The fact that the rabbits are partitioning out the land, even as they draw topographic lines on the ground. The cows that are permanently attached to milking machines and that already have their tasty parts outlined on their bodies
It all comes down to that final question: Is this a book for children? Originally I said no and my husband said yes. Then I looked closely at the book. It’s not without a glimpse of hope, you know. Even as the little creature at the end asks, "Where is the rich dark earth brown and moist?", there’s a rabbit sadly dropping the dry rotten dust of the ground from its hand. The final shot of the two creatures facing one another across the tiny pond suggests that the only one to save them from the rabbits are the rabbits themselves. Some children will understand this story intrinsically while others will be brought down low by it. Know your child before you decide whether or not to share this book with them. If you decide they might not be ready yet, buy it anyway for yourself. Books like this one are rare pieces of art that disappear quickly. This tale is ideal for those adults that are learning to read as well. Honestly, I don’t know what more I can say to make you want to buy this book. If I have to, I’ll beg you. Please. People so rarely get a chance to see books this well made. Take the time to find it.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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