Review of the Day: The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
Lest we forget, the only reason that children’s books were invented in the first place was to teach small human lessons. That is, in fact, the very backbone of the book business for youth today. Instruction. Guidance. Morally uplifting texts that will mold the little readers into fine, upstanding citizens. And because books like Little Goody Two-Shoes lie at the root of everything published in our day and age, we aren’t surprised by picture books that seek to instruct. These days, it’s funny to think that picture books do not solely instruct just the young anymore. I doubt very much that old Benjamin Harris could have foreseen the rise of the graduation gift picture book or the books kept in a psychiatrist’s office for the aid of his or her adult patients. As it turns out, children are not the only ones in need of instruction these days. I call these kinds of books “Message Books” and each year I collect the names of the ones that do their jobs well. Anyone can write a book that crams its morals down the throats of its young readers. It is far more interesting to look at books that integrate their message seamlessly within their stories. The best make it look effortless and easy. My latest favorite? The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. A book that makes me grateful to think that adults reading this book to small children will pick up on some of what it’s laying down.
For a second there, it was a most magnificent thing. Taylor had worked very hard, building the blocks into just the right configuration. Who wouldn’t have been proud? And who could have predicted the flock of blackbirds that swooped out of the sky, knocking it all down? Suddenly left with nothing, Taylor is devastated. One by one, animals notice the child’s misery and try to help. A chicken recommends talking about it. A bear says to scream out anger. A hyena says to laugh about it. Yet as Taylor rejects their advice they leave, and the kid is alone again. Only the rabbit, quiet and close, stays with Taylor and listens. And when, after Taylor has talked, and screamed, and laughed, and gone through every step of the process, only then does Taylor think about rebuilding once again.
One of the big trends of this and last year are picture books that tackle bad things happening in the wider world. Come With Me by Holly McGhee, Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul, and Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano all seek to comfort and guide in hard times. What sets The Rabbit Listened apart is its universality. The event that leads to Taylor’s misery is an out-of-the-blue disaster that strikes without warning or reason. And just like that, you have a book that can be applied to broad disasters like hurricanes, school shootings, or terrorist attacks or personal ones like the death of a loved one. Even the name “Taylor” could be applied to either a boy or a girl, and Doerrfeld is in no hurry to clear up precisely on which side of the line the child lies.
I don’t actually recommend children’s books to adults unless that person has given me some serious prompting. But when I encountered a friend’s grief not too long ago, I recommended this one. My friend had been talking about the different ways in which people respond when someone they care about has experienced a deep loss. Doerrfeld herself has said in interviews that she wrote this book when two friends of hers lost a child. As a rule, humans don’t like to feel helpless in the face of impossible emotions. In our nervousness to just do SOMETHING we do everything the animals in this book do. We encourage the grieving person to scream, cry, talk it out, etc. and when they don’t we leave in exasperation (and possibly relief). For many of us, the idea of just being there when needed and not interjecting with our own “helpful” advice is actually very difficult. There are a few times in your life when the advice to shut up and listen bears careful consideration. This is one of those times.
Digital art is just too much for me these days. We crossed the uncanny valley and have ended up on the other side, where digitization is no longer immediately recognizable. With a gun placed to my head I would have told you with confidence that the art in this book was graphite and watercolors. Not so. Putting aside the hows then, let’s look at the ways in which Doerrfeld approaches this material. Generally speaking, everything is placed against a pure white background. The danger of this is that it could feel like an Apple commercial, so scenes are broken up beautifully. In three sequences the background is lavender. One of those scenes is tragic, two are inspiring. At first, following the moment of the disaster, Taylor is sequestered to the left-hand page. Characters enter from the right, which is fascinating since I’d always heard that picture book editors hate it when characters walk into a scene in a way that’s the opposite of the page turns. Then again, it’s possible this is done on purpose because it gives the reader an unconscious feeling that something isn’t quite right with the scene. But through it all, the white background has been a wonderful way of showing how alone Taylor feels through all of this. Just a small child in a big empty space where once there was something wonderful.
Listening is very in these days. I guess we haven’t been doing much of it for a while. We might hear a lot of things, but we don’t always listen. Some people are very good listeners. So good, in fact, that we forget to ask them about their own lives as well. In a way, The Rabbit Listened is a celebration of these people. The folks that selflessly put away their own egos and opinions and advice to help other people. In the end I don’t know if I’d rather give this book to the people who do listen, in thanks for all they do, or to the people that never listen, in the hopes that they will. Maybe both. Or maybe I should just give the book to its chosen audience. Because the more children that understand the value of listening when tragedy has occurred, the more they’ll hear, and learn, and comprehend, and empathize. And isn’t that, in the end, what the best picture books do?
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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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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