20 November 2007

The Dangerous Book for Rabbits

A loyal Oz and Ends reader advised me after the great flood of comics postings that perhaps I should go back to musing on books about bunnies. But I'm not sure that Emily Gravett's Wolves was what she had in mind.

Wolves has a bunny in it, to be sure. He or she checks out a book about wolves from the library and reads it while walking home. And as she or he reads, wolves creep out of the book, growing larger and larger, until our leporine hero or heroine reads that their prey includes...rabbits.

What follows isn't pretty, although Gravett's combination of drawing and collage is delightful, as is her play with the form and expectations of picture books. To be exact, she assembles a happy ending for sensitive readers from the shreds of the chewed-over book the rabbit was reading.

Wolves is a curious sort of picture book. I bet it holds more appeal for adults who have a lot of experience with picture books as an art form than to little kids looking for a satisfying story. I came across it at the Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards ceremony, where there were many more adult picture-book professionals than children of any age or disposition. I bought a copy for myself, but don't know of any child I'd subject to it.

For another, Wolves is from a curious genre I think of as anti-book books. These volumes portray reading as so powerful than it's actually dangerous. The rabbit in Wolves isn't hunted by wolves naturally; she or he encounters wolves that come out of the library book, with the implication that they would have remained stuck on the page if only that book had never been checked out and read.

In some anti-book books, such as Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, the solution to the problems caused by reading can be found in further reading. But others, like Wolves, don't offer even that comfort.


Indeterminacy said...

This seems like a very nice site for me to browse - I've always been fascinated by children's literature, and especially the ability to tell a story that maybe fills no more than one page in Word, yet each word is perfect - stories like the Little Bear series, or Where the Wild things Are.

I live in Germany but only became aware of Cornelia Funke recently - we saw a theater presentation of Inkheart, and this weekend we attended a reading of her new book Inkdeath. Perhaps this is the first anti-book trilogy.

Anyhow, this is the first time I heard the term" anti-book genre", though I've seen it myself a few times - it might also apply to Michael Ende's The Never-ending Story.

And in non-children's book, I think this story is quite brilliant, Continuity of Parks (by Julio Cortazar).

Monica Edinger said...

We put this on our Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts and I can assure you that 4th grade kids totally get it and love it. I agree that readers need to background to get the subtext and irony, but by 4th my kids do.

J. L. Bell said...

I bet that top-notch fourth-graders are closer to "adults who have a lot of experience with picture books" than to "little kids looking for a satisfying story." At least they might say so!

Nowadays picture-book editors say they look for books that children will want to (have) read over and over. Does Wolves fall into that group? It's really got only two jokes, which depend on two surprises, plus a lot of lovely visual detail about the nature of books that feeds into one of those jokes. But it doesn't offer a story one can sink into.

The Monster at the End of this Book is similar in many ways, including the play with the picture book form and the emphasis on growing anticipation. However, Grover's book has lots more slapstick for kids.

J. L. Bell said...

Ende's The Neverending Story is indeed a possible "anti-book book," showing books sucking readers into dangerous adventures. There are a number of other children's books with that basic idea.

However, I think Ende's novel and most of those are ultimately about the power of books to repair whatever damage and danger they bring. Sometimes that comes across as pat, however.

A minority of those books, like Wolves never really resolve the problems that the books within the book bring about. Which makes quite a philosophical paradox.

Indeterminacy said...

I thought I'd share this text with you by Cortazar - it was on a webpage which has since gone offline - I fished it out of archive.org. I would have mailed this to you, but you seem to have no contact address at your site, and your profile page is not enabled. (Feel free to delete this comment, as it is rather long - but I think you'd be interested in the story in the context of anti-book):

Continuity of Parks (Julio Cortazar)

He had begun to read the novel a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business conferences, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations. That afternoon, after writing a letter giving his power of attorney and discussing a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, its back toward the door--even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him, had he thought of it--he let his left hand caress repeatedly the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. He remembered effortlessly the names and his mental image of the characters; the novel spread its glamour over him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing that the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, licked up the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably, she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to perform again the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest, and underneath liberty pounded, hidden close. A lustful, panting dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even to those caresses which writhed about the lover's body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it; they sketched abominably the fame of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, twice-gone-over reexamination of the details was barely broken off so that a hand could caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.

Not looking at each other now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running, her hair loosened and flying. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until, in the yellowish fog of dusk, he could distinguish the avenue of trees which led up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, and they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not there. He went up the three porch steps and entered. The woman's words reached him over a thudding of blood in his ears: first a blue chamber, then a hall, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. Noone in the first room, noone in the second. The door of the salon, and then, the knife in his hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.