Thursday, August 20, 2009

I Am a Bunny. I Am Not an Opossum.

I recently bought myself a children’s book just so I could get the cute stuffed animal that came packaged with it. Yes . . . it was a total “impulse buy.” But reading the book made me reflect a bit on how we teach kids about nature . . . and about themselves.

The book is Opossum at Sycamore Road, by Sally M. Walker and illustrated by Joel Snyder. It’s part of the Smithsonian’s Backyard series, whose goal is to “have an educational message that answers many questions about the habits and habitat of the animals in our own backyards.” The “interactive storybooks, audiocassettes, and stuffed animal toys” that constitute the “collection” are “developed under the direction of curators for the National Museum of Natural History (a Smithsonian Institution Museum).”

Already, I can smell a huge administrative committee at work on this project.

The basic gist of the book is “a day in the life of an opossum.” Well, actually, it’s a night, because the subject of the story is nocturnal. The story begins under a moonlit sky as an opossum drinks from a suburban puddle.

Throughout, this opossum is called “Opossum”—no articles; Opossum is her “name.” So on nearly every page, it’s “Opossum does this”; “Opossum does that”; and “After a while, Opossum does something else.”

Our opossum is a female carrying around her four babies—oops, make that “baby opossums”—in her pouch and on her back, while they all engage in foraging behaviors.

The illustrations are quite realistic; if the animals look cute, it’s because opossums have pink digits and olfactory organs, and their external, hairless ears swivel to face the objects that hold their attention. But there’s no question: These are real, wild animals.

The point I’m making here is that there’s absolutely no anthropomorphism in the whole book; I gather that the entire administrative committee used a fine-tooth comb (one constructed for only veterinary purposes, at that) to remove any semblance of wording that might cause a reader to “identify” with the creatures described. Very “scientific.”

This is not to say that one doesn’t still instinctively root for the opossum when a “large, brown dog” whips around the corner of the beige house and surprises the single-mother opossum family while they are plundering an unsecured garbage can.

(Blooper alert: On page 15, the text reads “Opossum . . . heads toward the garbage cans lined up alongside the house”; and on page 18, it’s again “garbage cans”—but all the pictures show just a single garbage can, alone, by the side of the house. I guess the “oversight” committee overlooked this detail.)

Anyway, the babies escape the terror, and when she is unable to evade the dog and he grabs her in his mouth, the adult opossum instinctively becomes limp and doesn’t move. She looks gross, like she’s dead. The dog then leaves her alone. It’s all carefully objective, like you’re seeing it through a telescope. It’s exciting, but it’s not like a “friend” is in danger of being killed.

But the story is pleasing, anyway, and like so many good kids’ books, it gives a sense of a cycle—beginning as the opossum awakens under the starry sky and ending with the opossum family curling up to sleep safely in their leafy nest in an oak tree as daylight dawns. . . . This would make an awesome bedtime story.

But I also want to dial back to another nature book for kids, one for a slightly younger audience, which came out in 1963: Richard Scarry’s I Am a Bunny. I suspect this might have been the first book that was my very own—my Grandma S gave it to me in 1967 on my second birthday. (See? It’s no surprise that I wanted to have a career making natural history books!)

This book also follows a cycle—a cycle of the seasons, beginning in spring and ending in winter. It, too, ends with “bedtime,” as our cheerful little protagonist-bunny “curl[s] up in [his] hollow tree and dream[s] about spring.”

. . . Bunnies dream? Are you sure?

This book features anthropomorphism gone hog wild. (Hey, what do you call an expression like “hog wild,” where animal attributes are applied to describe human behavior? That’s zoomorphism, isn’t it? And shouldn’t that be “outlawed,” too? What is good for the goose, is . . . oops, there we go again.)

But in this book, there is no question: This is not an actual rabbit.

I Am a Bunny takes other liberties with reality, too—bunnies don’t live in hollow trees (that I know of), and the cover picture shows Mr. Bunny using a pretty red fly agaric mushroom as an umbrella during a rain shower. The problem of scale is only the tip of the iceberg, here. The editorial committees of today surely wouldn’t allow such flights of fancy—but good lord, that’s a poisonous kind of mushroom, even, and the bunny is smiling! We don’t want to give kids the wrong idea! Think of the potential for lawsuits!

Anyway. I am favorably biased toward I Am a Bunny because of its unapologetic anthropomorphism. The bunny wears a pair of red overalls and a yellow shirt—cute like all kids’ clothes—and he rejoices in something in every single season.

“In the spring, I like to pick flowers.” “In the summer, I like to lie in the sun and watch the birds.” “In the fall, I like to watch the leaves falling from the trees.” Each page is like a mantra or affirmation; as you read it, in all this glorious first-person, you become the human-bunny yourself, and his words echo in your head and become your own.

The bunny—he tells us his name is Nicholas on the first page, even though he doesn’t really need a name, except that it is polite to introduce oneself and he is a model of good behavior—is basically just a little kid dressed up in a bunny costume. He sits quietly by the side of a pond and watches frogs. He blows a million dandelion seeds into the air. He stands quietly, smiling, watching “the animals getting ready for winter.”

Yet throughout, nearly all the rest of the animals and plants in this book are illustrated with objective accuracy. The spreads showing autumn leaves, butterflies, and insects are so carefully rendered it is possible to identify to species. (I suspect Scarry used the Golden Nature Guides for reference—same publishing company; how convenient for him.)

So what’s going on here? In a strange blurring of boundaries between child and critter, this bunny-kid is a vehicle for getting inside of nature. Nicholas the bunny-child not only shows the human reader how to imaginatively get inside another being, but also demonstrates the pleasures of appropriate nature viewing. Sit and observe mammals and amphibians quietly. Dance in the falling leaves. Chase the butterflies and let them chase you. Put on a stocking cap and embrace the snowfall. Lie down in the grass to see the insects more closely.

The bunny with human faculties simultaneously exercises our human wont to imagine ourselves in other beings while modeling our ability to see the “other” in nature objectively and, at the same time, rejoicing in our ability to discover and appreciate the outer world. There is symbolism, science, and emotional wisdom taking place in I Am a Bunny, while Opossum at Sycamore Road simply pins down that outer world with dispassionate objectivity, offering information without a soul.

Hmmph. I’m glad my Grandma gave me I Am a Bunny when I was little.

Books Discussed in This Post

I Am a Bunny, by Ole Risom, illustrated by Richard Scarry. A Golden Sturdy Happy Book. New York: Golden Press, 1963.

Opossum at Sycamore Road, by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Joel Snyder. Smithsonian’s Backyard series. Norwalk, Conn.: Soundprints, a division of Trudy Corporation [blah-blah-blah], and the Smithsonian Institution [in some kind of multiorganizational administrative cooperative agreement that is not entirely clear from the copyright page], 1997.

(Thank you also to Norman, my dear I Am a Bunny–reading model. He is not a bunny or an opossum. He is a dog.)

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