Review of the Day: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
I've done it! It's done! Partly inspired by a post on bookshelves of doom recently, and partly all thanks to some fine fine comments by MotherReader I've bitten the bullet, plunged in, and other rather peculiar mixed metaphors. Without further ado I present to you my personal assessment of Kate DiCamillo's most peculiar of recent offerings. Now I know that some amongst you (the aforementioned bookshelves of doom and Paul Acampora amongst you) loved the book. I hope you will not be too disappointed in that I was not completely and utterly blown away by the entire experience.
I read this book roundabout a month ago. If you knew me, you'd know that my saying this is awfully peculiar. On average I write reviews of children's books within seconds of reaching that final Happily Ever After. I like to get my thoughts down when they're fresh in my mind (or, in some cases, when my outrage is at its peak). Credit author Kate DiCamillo with coming up with a book that took me weeks and weeks and weeks to pick apart in my mind. I should begin this review with complete and utter honesty, by the way. I enjoyed DiCamillo's, "Because of Winn Dixie" when it first came out, but "The Tale of Despereaux" left a very bad taste in my mouth. DiCamillo has already written a dog book, a mouse book, some pig books, and a tiger book. Add to this list the bunny book. I had to figure out whether or not this was the greatest book ever written or a travesty of the pen. And what I found fell a little more one way than the other.
Edward Tulane is a china rabbit of impeccable looks. He is always dressed to the nines and is loved very much by a little girl named Abilene. Abilene dotes on Edward, but her toy rabbit cares only for himself. Often he views the people around him as nuisances of one sort or another, but Abilene's grandmother Pellegrina is aware of Edward's cold heart. None of this bothers him much until one day Edward is mistakenly thrown off of a ship by some mischievous boys and his long journey begins. Before finding a permanent home of his own, Edward is adopted by a fisherman and his wife, taken in by a bum, used as a scarecrow, adopted by a boy and his sickly sister, then smashed upon a diner counter, put back together, and saved in the end. It's a story about going through painful experiences to appreciate the love you have.
When you pick up a copy of "Edward Tulane" the first sound out of your mouth is going to be a coo of delight. This is no accident. The book is a remarkably clever combination of old-fashioned beauty within a contemporary casing. I was once told that "Tulane" works as well as it does because it knows how to charm that average grandmother looking for a good birthday present for their grandchild. How could you resist Bagram Ibatoulline's illustrations? The feel you get from them is something deep in your soul. They make the book seem as if it's a beautiful creation that was beloved of your parents and your grandparents and now they've finally handed it off to you. Oh sure there's the occasional lapse in judgment (nailed ears and all) but for the most part "Tulane" could win a Caldecott and I wouldn't cry. It's the writing we need to examine a little more closely. Now the book's marketing department has already leaped the first hurdle. The look and plot of the story are enough to sway the pocketbooks of hundreds of thousands of people. What they find inside will reflect on the book's staying power.
The first inkling I received that loving "Edward Tulane" was not a universal sentiment came with Elizabeth Ward's now infamous review of this book in the Washington Post. Entitled, "When Bad Things Happen To Bad Bunnies", Ward's article was the first shot over the bow of a book that had already declared itself a "classic". Then other people started to join in the commotion. Some of the odder aspects of the book were overlooked by the large review sources like, "School Library Journal" and "Booklist", and I suspect I know a little of why that is. When you pick up a review copy of "Edward Tulane", there is one significant difference from the final product. Not all the color illustrations were included in the Advanced Readers Copies. Why would that make any difference? Well I'm fairly certain that had SLJ seen the picture of Edward nailed to the cross (which I'll talk more about presently) they would have blinked a little before rushing to hand it a starred review quite as quickly as they did.
I have a co-worker that feels the book could not be made any worse. I have another who thinks the pictures are pretty. I fall somewhere in-between, but my final thought (after much pondering, sweating, and nail-biting) is to declare the book thusly: It is doggone weird. You might love it. You might loathe it. But you cannot deny that it is perhaps the most peculiar thing to crawl out of the head of a Newbery Award-winning author in the history of the award itself. Here are the oddities, as I see them. First of all, we have our hero. Our hero is a china rabbit who is sent on a quest of sorts to find, loose, find, loose, find, loose (you get the picture) love until he finally gets it in the end because he had faith. Now either we are dealing with a religious metaphor here or the story doesn't have a very good grasp of its own moral. Second point - The book is extremely violent. To Edward. You might pooh-pooh the idea that torturing a toy bunny would disturb kids, but if you feel that way then you may have forgotten how emotionally tied some kids feel to their toys. Third, there's the fact that when Edward is made into a scarecrow we see a picture in which he is nailed to a cross. Nailed. To a cross.
Bad bunny or holy figure?
Let's talk about religious metaphors now. Obviously the picture in this book that has created the most confusion (not to say laughter) is the cross illustration. Even his EARS have been nailed. Said Elizabeth Ward of the Washington Post, "This is what happens to bad bunnies in DiCamillo's world: They get crucified". Now if we consider that this book is one big ole religious born-again tale, then this makes a little more sense. It's the Book of Job for kids. Bunny is continually beaten down, has everything he loves taken from him, but he still believes in... no wait. Tulane loses his faith about three-quarters of the way through the book. Hm. Well, maybe this is a big Jesus story then. Yeah! We can finally explain to kids now why bunnies are always up and about around Easter time. Just show them Ibatoulline's Edward On the Cross picture. Some people have even gone so far as to say that the seven trials Edward undergoes represent the seven stations of the cross. But the metaphor doesn't quite work because if the love Edward seeks is a religious love, then does that make Pellegrina God? If so she's pretty Old Testament. At one point Edward is tied to marionette strings so that a starving boy can make him dance for food. While dancing he sees Pellegrina looking at him. Does Pellegrina help either Edward or the starving boy? She does not. So if that's the religious message of the tale, I don't think I want any part of it.
I don't actually think this is a religious book, by the way. DiCamillo has never showed any inclinations towards converting the schoolchildren of the world. Nor have her previous books been anything but secular-city. This isn't to say that there isn't a hidden message lurking beneath Edward's silken clothes. One co-worker of mine speculates that this is a big response to a bad emotional break-up. After all, the love that Edward is continually seeking is not the love a child would seek. Kids do not need to learn the lesson, "Love somebody". I can already hear some people saying, "Yes, but why does a children's book NEED a moral? Maybe Edward Tulane doesn't have a moral at all!" Maybe. But if this book doesn't have a moral then how the heck are we supposed to take the increasingly violent, increasingly heartbreaking stuff that happens to its hero? If it's all pointless then we've just been put through the emotional wringer for kicks. As a fellow children's literature blogger put it so perfectly, "one doesn't put a bunny on a cross without trying to convey something".
There is a moment in every children's book that I dislike when the author goes a little too far. In Newbery Award winning, "Kira-Kira" it was the moment when the younger brother got caught in that ridiculous bear trap. In this particular case, it was the blond child coughing. Though we are never given a time period for this book, we know that it exists in a time when there are hoboes, trains, and diners. Then we get to the coughing blond child who is given Edward as a comfort. Now I would be the first person to admit that consumption never technically went away. But when was the last time you picked up a book that wasn't written 100 years ago and found a small angelic and blond creature (paging Eva from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and all her heavenly brethren) dying of an incurable disease... in a book about a toy? Yes yes yes, in the "Velveteen Rabbit" the boy gets scarlet fever. But the boy does not DIE. And the rabbit did not get buried under garbage, smashed apart by an angry fry cook, and strung up on a cross, did it? Edward, as I mentioned before, goes through seven different trials. Am I the only person who worries about the boy who saves Edward at the cost of keeping him, waves goodbye sadly, and is never heard from again? What happened to that kid? If you are going to make the hero of the story miserable, then you need a child audience old enough to handle his torture. Instead, this book is usually handed to five-year-olds who haven't even had to deal with the fact that Charlotte the spider dies. And they're supposed to be able to handle a bunny that is punished over and over again, for what? Because he didn't love his mistress enough? Since when did toys and children have to earn our love?
Now look, if you want a book with beautiful illustrations that speaks about toy shop toys but on a higher level, go ye and seek out Russell Hoban's, "The Mouse and His Child", as illustrated by David Small. You will note that Amazon does not sell "The Mouse and His Child" in tandem with "Tulane". This is so as not to reflect too poorly on the bunny. I'm probably just preaching to the choir here anyway. Those who are intent on loving "Edward" will have multiple justifications through the artwork alone. Those who dislike it will be crying in their milk come the book award season. It does not deserve the attention it has received but that matters very little. What we should consider now is how it will be remembered in the future.