Building a Better Bundo: The History of Picture Books, Politics, and Wiggly Noses
Like most of my information, I heard about Bundo via an oblique tweet that raised more questions than it answered. Then came the press release from Chronicle Books. It read:
“Chronicle Books and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver present A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
100% of Last Week Tonight’s proceeds will be donated to The Trevor Project and AIDS United.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA, March 18, 2018― A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is a children’s picture book that imagines the story of Marlon Bundo, the Bunny of the United States (BOTUS), who meets the bunny of his dreams.
Published by Chronicle Books in collaboration with the hit HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the book is being released, coincidentally, the day before Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, a different picture book written by Charlotte Pence, the Vice President’s daughter, and illustrated by his wife, Karen Pence. Instead of following around the Vice President, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo follows a day in the life of the BOTUS, as he falls in love with another bunny, Wesley. The two decide to wed, only to be told by the Stink Bug in charge that same-sex marriage is not allowed. When Marlon, Wesley and their supportive animal community realize that they can choose who is in charge of their society, they vote out the Stink Bug and the couple is married surrounded by their friends. With its message of tolerance and advocacy this children’s picture book beautifully explores issues of marriage equality and democracy.”
I’m always interested in seeing the ways in which children’s literature breaks through to the larger media. The last time I saw a late night host discussing a contemporary work of children’s literature it was Larry Sanders talking about A Birthday Cake for George Washington. And while plenty of celebrities pen picture books, few have been made with the explicit purpose of upsetting a sitting vice-president.
That said, this is hardly the first time a bunny-based picture book has made political waves. For some of us looking at Oliver’s Bundo, the comparison is immediately apparent. I am referring, of course, to The Rabbit’s Wedding:
Now to get the full story on this, I actually had to sneak into my sleeping daughter’s bedroom right now to grab a copy of my book (which I co-wrote with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta) Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (in paperback for the first time as of September 25!). If you’ve ever read the book you’ll know that mixing subversion with bunnies was kind of the mission of the whole kerschmozzle. Illustrator David Roberts even provided us with an array of bunnies in various states of shock for our use.
So how could we avoid discussing the most famous picture book ever to rile the American South?
Our story begins in 1958. Harper had released an oversized picture book written and illustrated by Garth Williams called The Rabbit’s Wedding. The plot, at first, is awfully similar to Oliver’s Bundo. Two bunnies fall in love and one tells the other, “I just wish that I could be with you forever and always.” So they wed. Not a lot of conflict going on there. Nothing to indicate the firestorm of controversy that would surround the book because, you guessed it, one bunny is black and one bunny is white.
A columnist in Florida’s Orlando Sentinel implied that the book’s creators were readying minds for brainwashing. The Montgomery Home News called it propaganda for desegregation. Alabama State Senator E.O. Eddins stated the book should be burned. And the Alabama Public Library placed it on special closed shelves.
The important difference between Bundo and Williams’s book, however, is in intent. Garth Williams never figured the book would be read that way. As he remarked drily, “I was complete unaware that animals with white fur … were considered blood relations of white human beings.” Which sort of sidesteps the entire issue, but never mind. I much prefer his other quote on the book, “[The Rabbits’ Wedding] was not written for adults who will not understand it, because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate.”
One might well say the same thing about Bundo. And while it will probably not be remembered as one of the better same-sex picture books out there (the art is good but the text is fairly rote) it WILL remain the first example I know of where a picture book was created with the sole purpose of turning on its head a Vice-President’s personal agenda. If Jules, Peter, and I were writing Wild Things today, I know exactly where we’d put Bundo. With The Rabbit’s Wedding at its side, it stands in good company.
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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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