BUNNICULA, by Deborah and James Howe

bunnicula

There are loads of things to love about this book. There’s the premise – a literate dog and cat who team up to uncover the mystery of a vegetable juice-sucking vampire rabbit. There’s the writing – consistently clever and perfectly paced. There’s the humor – whimsical insights into the lives of pets and carefully orchestrated, irony-packed scenes.

But the thing I might love most about BUNNICULA is the Howe’s refusal to dumb down their writing, to kid-ify their references and language. Our main characters, after all, are a dog and a cat, not a puppy and a kitten. It makes sense that Chester, a full-grown adult tabby, would develop an interest in psychiatry, and that Harold, a dog having spent many years in the company of a know-it-all, book-loving feline, would possess a strong vocabulary. This sophisticated tone is also necessary for the book as a whole – it simply wouldn’t be as good if, after being asked to accept the fact that a dog and cat can think and talk and read and write, that dog and cat didn’t think and talk and read and write in a nuanced, educated way. If you’re going to be ridiculous, you must fully commit, you must be over the top about it. Like acting or, really, any other kind of performance, halfway just doesn’t cut it.

And here, in BUNNICULA, by fully committing, by going over the top, the Howes aren’t merely doing a service to their characters and their story – they’re doing a service to their readers, too, especially the younger ones.

The books I read as a kid that stuck with me the most are the ones that, in one way or another, challenged me. There were those like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Neverending Story that forced me to confront ideas and concepts and impossible places that, before then, could’ve probably never fit inside my head, and there were those like the collections of Sherlock Holmes stories, each of which required frequent reaches for the dictionary.

Of course, I didn’t always want to pick a book and be challenged. Same as today, sometimes I just want a good story, simply and straightforwardly told.

But it’s important – it’s imperative, even – that those books that require kids to reach (either mentally, conceptually, or more literally and physically, for a dictionary or an encyclopedia or, more likely, for their iPads or laptops) are out there for them to find.

The Howes even offer a clue that they know their book might be one of these “reachers,” and encourage their readers not to despair if they don’t understand every word or get every gag. Toby, the youngest member of the Monroe family (the owners of Harold and Chester and Bunnicula), stays up late reading one night with Harold. When he finally can’t keep his eyes open any longer, the boy shuts the book a bit sadly.

“I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens in the next chapter,” he tells his dog. “This is a good book, Harold. It’s called Treasure Island, and it’s by a man named Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s kind of hard reading, though. I have to keep looking the big words up in the dictionary, so it’s taking me a long time to get through it . . . But it’s a really good story.”

And just in case this isn’t enough encouragement for their readers to go out and get a copy of Treasure Island for themselves, the Howes have Toby add, “It’s all about pirates and this little boy just like me.”

It helps, of course, that BUNNICULA’s big words and clever jokes are bound up in a silly, entertaining story. And no – that’s not the sugar you add to the medicine to help it go down. For kids (and at least this adult), the silliness is just as necessary and important as the vocab words.

Get a hold of BUNNICULA for yourself, or for any kids who might be interested in what their pets are up to when they head off to school or go to sleep. The book is also an excellent – and tame – introduction to the horror genre.

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