Fuse #8

Sunday, April 09, 2006

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.


At 11:42 AM , Blogger MotherReader said...

Welcome to dark side, Fusenumber8.

At 11:43 AM , Blogger Liz B said...

There were things I liked about Tale of D, but what I didn't love I hated. Professionally I do my best "acting" when I have a customer who loves this and I know my role isn't Intellectual Debate but rather give 'em what they want.

My reasons for not liking Tale of D. had to do with the servant girl (Mig?) and the rat. The cute & pretty (D., the princess) are entitled to the light, and are rewarded for their desire; there is even a hint that D. isnt as much striving for something out of character, but rather for smething that culturally the mice don't strive for; he's not unique. While both the servant and the Rat are cleary Reaching for things beyond them; so both are cursed to be disappointed. both would have been happier had they only accepted their lot in life. Mig particularly bothered me: the abuse, being deafened, the servants who coddle the princess hitting Mig the next moment, and Mig's happy ending is a return to the abuser.

Tale of D. might be an accurate view of society -- the haves keep what they have, while the have nots are happier not even wishing for change -- but it was one I found disturbing.

As you can imagine, I've been accused of over-reading.

At 11:54 AM , Blogger PJ Librarian said...

Really enjoyed this write up. I was not a big fan of The Tale of Despereaux and really had a lot of negative thoughts going into Tulane mainly because of the hype. Your write up provides the best review I have seen so far. I still haven't read it and probably won't. Also, thanks for providing us all with such a great blog.

At 1:10 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I agree that Liz B. did perhaps the best assessment of the problems I had with Tale of D. At the time the only thing I could pinpoint was my dislike of the casual ho-ho-ho abuse of Mig. But it really does go far deeper than that. What Mig and the rat dream of are impossible. Therefore, they are doomed to fail. Ditto, in a way, Despereaux. And don't let anyone ever tell you that you're reading too much into a children's book. Literature is literature and what a book is trying to say deserves to be talked about.

At 6:38 AM , Blogger Chris Barton said...

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.

Right on, Fuse. I picked up an "Edward Tulane" ARC at ALA, read it, and liked it quite a bit. I wouldn't read it to my kids, but it worked for me.

Then came the Post-led dustup, and I saw the scarecrow/crucifixion illustration. I felt sucker-punched. I'm not sure how I'd envisioned that scene, but it sure wasn't like that.

At 8:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a practicing Christian (I practice because I am so bad at it! Har!) I'm a bit breathless---folks are refering to the stations of the cross and Jesus (?!) in reference to the Eddie illustration and text?

Uh boy.

Can I just point out that if somebody thinks cold, supersilicious, self-absorbed Eddie is supposed to be a Christ figure (and may I point out that at the end it's still a self-absorbed, passive sort of love when our hero decides to love "somebody who will come for him"---and lucky lucky it's Abilene all growed up!), then that somebody wasn't paying attention during the Jesus Chapter in their "Bible as World Literature" class?

Literary Christ-figures give their lives to save others. That's the archetype. That's how a fictional figure earns the appellation.

You don't get it just by having your ears nails to the wood. There are RULES in the Christ-figure business, people, and I'm here to make sure they're followed.

Billy Budd is a Christ-figure. Eddie Tulane is a beat-up rabbit.


PS. I agree, though, that the author had none of this Christ imagery intended. In that spirit, know what the illustration actually reminds me of?

Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby in the corn patch.

I kid you not.

Now you know why I have to practice all the time!

At 8:17 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

God I WISH DiCamillo could have made a Tar Baby reference. Wouldn't this have been an entirely different beast if it had been filled with literary allusions to other famous bunnies in children's literature? But then you get into the whole "Watership Down" business and I don't think any of us want to deal with the repercussions associated with that interesting novel.

At 11:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Need more time to compose a response. Afterall you had a month to chew.


At 8:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I continue to like Edward (the book and the character), your review made me laugh until I teared up. You are a funny, funny lady, Fusenumber8. You rock.

(And I wouldn't worry too much about it winning about an award -- I really suspect that the Edward-on-the-cross illustration will unofficially disqualify it.)

At 12:46 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I wondered why the Pro-Edward camp was being so quiet! Last night I shocked a perfect nice Random House editor with a ripping apart of our dear china bun. By all means, take time to fashion your response. And I just learned last night that Tulane will probably NOT be eligible for the Caldecott after all. That means all cylinders will be firing towards garnering a Newbery. I'm sharpening my swords as I speak.

At 3:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As pro-Edward as I am, I wouldn't be pro-Newbery. There are enough sad books with medals out there. I'm not quite ready for another one. (The question is... will I ever be?)

At 10:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the category of totally-over-thinking-it, I've started to wonder whether Edward is even the main character in this book at all. Maybe the main character is love. Except for love, Kate DiCamillo has created characters that readers are almost compelled to ignore. Even at his best, Edward is not a likeable bunny. And the humans are nearly anonymous (pretty girl, hobo, sick girl, the boy...). Since torture and pain are deeply compelling, DiCamillo keeps us turning the page. But the question soon moves away from "who’s going to do what next?" Instead, it becomes "What would unconditional love do?" I find it difficult to consider that question without thinking about religious stories. Would rocks and stones actually begin to sing? Would a poppet get nailed to a cross? Could life go on? Kids probably won’t articulate their experience with Edward Tulane in this way, but I do think they’ll have a sense that the story is a little more complicated than your average talking bunny tale. And that’s a good thing (No offense to Bugs, of course). One more thing: the only story-place you can deeply and honestly explore unconditional love is in a story where at least a few of the characters can truly love unconditionally. Adults who are not god-like probably can’t pull that off. So the characters have to be children. Still thinking about it. Still love it.
-- Paul

At 10:11 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

So why would TULANE not be considered for a Caldecott?


PS. Hmmm. Unconditional love? Religious stories? Man, I don't think even at the end our Eddie is chock full of the love that moves the sun and other stars.

"Someone will come for me....

She held him in the same ferocious,tender way Sarah Ruth had held him.

Oh, thought Edward. I remember this."

It's still a limtied, self-referential, and passive love on the second-to-the-last page.

Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Human love is just hunky-dory, and a fine end to the tale---but may I point out that it's definitely eros rather than agape which our rabbit hero experiences?

And again, I stare in amaze at the notion that DiCamillo had anything at all religiously spiritual in her sights.


At 12:56 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I officially declare this to be my most popular blog posting to date. In the end it's Pro-Edwards: 4 and Anti-Edwards: 6. Anti-Edwards win by a hare. HA HA HA HA HA! God, I love posting when I know no one cares anymore.

At 12:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I love posting when I know no one cares anymore."

Not true! My kids and I finished this book last month, and it has taken me this long to process it and blog it (www.dear-time.blogspot.com). As I was looking for links to include in my post, I found your review.

This book will continue to have a long life in hardcover and then in paperback. Many will buy into the hype that TMJOET is "destined to be a future classic" (from the E Tulane website).

I hope the discussion continues and readers (parents and children) are encouraged to read it critically.

At 11:54 AM , Blogger Blue Moon Mama said...

I'm glad to have stumbled on your site. I enjoy your reviews immensely.

I've just finished reading Edward, and I have to say that I quite enjoyed it. It's certainly not a book for my two-year old son, but I liked the central themes, and I liked how unsentimental it was.

And I admit that I'm puzzled by the response to the cross imagery. To me, it was simply a way of saying that Edward was on the path toward redemption -- i.e., that even this hopeless moment in his life was a step towards his "spiritual" growth and development.

I didn't think the message was that he was a "Christ" figure, and I didn't find the description or the accompanying illustration offensive or disturbing. (I am not Christian, so perhaps that explains it.) I thought it was a pretty clear allusion to the redemption-through-love theme that runs throughout the book.

I don't know. I thought it was a simple book with a simple message. It moved me, and I enjoyed it.


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