I’ve written here before about the spat of self-conscious, “postmodern” picture books that have been popping up on bookshelves over the past few years. If you’re not already familiar with the name Jon Scieszka, one thing you need to know about the author is that he was doing it long before everyone else. THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES, among others, were clever and irreverent, encouraging kids’ curiosity and creativity while telling them great – and very funny – stories.
Amazingly, nearly thirty years later, Scieszka is still offering fresh takes on the picture book, and even at this time when it feels like all the tricks have been played, like kids have already been shown all the good things that a slanted, postmodern perspective can show them. BATTLE BUNNY, written along with the always-excellent Mac Barnett and illustrated brilliantly by Matthew Myers, is one of Scieszka’s latest picture books, and might just be my new, all-time favorite.
BATTLE BUNNY is, in fact, two books. The first, original book is actually titled BIRTHDAY BUNNY, and, thanks to a handwritten inscription on the book’s very first page, we learn that the book has been recently given to “Alex” by his “Gran Gran” for his “special day.” Barring a small, quiet nod to Samuel Beckett, BIRTHDAY BUNNY is a perfect parody of the picture books popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s – painfully simple, boringly straightforward, and cloyingly sweet (think of the worst of the Little Golden Books).
BATTLE BUNNY, on the other hand, is Alex’s story, the reworked version of BIRTHDAY BUNNY that he creates by slashing through the text and enhancing the illustrations with no more than his imagination and a pencil. BATTLE BUNNY is everything BIRTHDAY BUNNY is not – uproarious, irreverent, and delightfully chaotic, full of hand-to-hand combat, explosions, cameos by the President of the United States, and the occasional fart joke. In other words, it is everything your average, typical boy could want – and is extremely unlikely to find – in a picture book.
But by showing Alex at work, by giving kids a green light to dislike books that have nothing to offer them and actually take measures to change them, to make them better, to make them their own – this is the extra step that authors like Scieszka and Barnett so regularly figure out how to take, the reason why their books so often do more than entertain kids (not that they need to in order to be worthwhile). These authors’ books also encourage kids to question the world around them and all the things it hands down to them, and gives them the ideas and tools they need to get started making their own unique mark where they feel they can and must.
It’s possible that, after giving this book to your kids, you’ll find drawings on your living room walls and pencil edits in your novels (one good reason you might want to give it to other people’s kids). But you also might find that, in the process, your kids’ creativity has been unleashed – and that’s something worth a lot more than clean walls or pristine books.