“Big Mouse and Little Hare” is a very short story from a collection out of Germany in the early 1980s. Janosch (that’s a pen name) was an influential author in Germany, mainly for his prolific contribution to school journals. (Sometimes the ‘big name’ authors aren’t actually the most widely read. That was certainly the case in 1980s New Zealand when I was growing up.)
The point I’d like to make here is that even micro fiction follows the seven steps of story.
STORY STRUCTURE OF BIG MOUSE, LITTLE HARE
The hare is so weak and thin that he can’t attract a same-species mate.
He wants to get married.
The illustration shows us that the opponent is the big fat mouse.
Off the page we have the scene where the small hare overcomes the big mouse.
The reader realises something along the lines of ‘Every Jack Has His Jill’ even if you have to think outside the box in your choice of mate.
‘neither of them regretted their marriage in the least’
I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said about The Rabbits elsewhere. Except, perhaps, for a closer look at the story structure. John Marsden has done a couple of interesting things with the traditional story structure, especially in the final two steps.
Shaun Tan writes about his work on his own blog. I highly recommend taking a look at Tan’s entry on The Rabbitsif you haven’t already.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RABBITS
The native creatures are not very numerous. They are vulnerable to invasion.
At first they want to get to know the rabbits. There aren’t many rabbits. But after a while too many rabbits come.
Now the rabbits become the opponents.
Unfortunately for the native creatures, there is no real plan other than to try and protect themselves.
“Sometimes we had fights … We lost the fights.”
The main battle page is the double spread in which the children are stolen. The reader has already realised that this tale is an allegory for the white invasion of Australia and the decimation of Aboriginal peoples. The stolen children remains one of the most egregious politically sanctioned crimes in Australia today, so this part is treated very carefully: Each word is separated within the illustration, giving it due weight.
Instead of a typical self-revelation, we have a few double spreads of reflection:
Where is the rich, dark earth,
Brown and moist?
and so on.
Unusually for a story, this one ends with a question. “Who will save us from the rabbits?” Despite the question, the new equilibrium is clear: The native creatures are in trouble.
But the story was originally illustrated by William Nicholson (1872-1949). He and his wife had four children, two boys and two girls, though because of wars and illness only one of the sons and one of the daughters lived full lives; one son was killed in the first world war and a daughter died of the Spanish flu.
William’s own daughter died of the flu around the same time — just before — he illustrated this, about a little boy who becomes very ill due to an epidemic of illness. This knowledge makes the illustration ‘anxious times’ particularly resonant, with the bottles of medicine in the background.
Marjery Williams had been writing children’s books since the age of 19, but it took her until the age of 41 to write The Velveteen Rabbit, her runaway success story.
She has recreated here a similar sort of household set up as she herself would have had in London as the daughter of a barrister — the absent parents, the staff, the large collection of toys and the means to afford a trip to the seaside, which is what people did in the pre-antibiotic era. Alexander Fleming didn’t discover the healing powers of penicillin until 1928, six years after this book was published.
Scarlet fever is an infectious bacterial disease affecting especially children, and causing fever and a scarlet rash. It is caused by streptococci (strep throat or a strep skin condition). These days — at least for now — any child with access to antibiotics isn’t going to suffer the dire consequences of this illness, which we are told caused Mary Ingalls’ blindness in the Little House On The Prairie series. However, scarlet fever does not cause blindness. Mary may have caught a virus from a tick, such as West Nile virus. Or she may have had the mumps or suffered complications from the oral herpes virus (cold sores), which most people have in their system. (Just because you don’t get cold sores doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus.)
There are instances of scarlet fever in the following fictional tales:
Five Are Together Again (Famous Five series)
Kit Kittredge (American Girl series)
And yet herpes is rarely mentioned in children’s books.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE VELVETEEN RABBIT
The Velveteen Rabbit is a literary fairytale — one which is written down by a known author rather than having evolved from a long mysterious history of oral folklore.
There is indeed a fairy, which comes about after the rabbit sheds a tear. (A flower pops up and out comes the fairy.)
Velveteen rabbit isn’t ‘real’. (Alive)
Velveteen rabbit wants to have a full life with meaningful relationships. We know this because the rabbit is very interested in what the Skin Horse is telling him.
Nana is the first opponent, cast as a woman who basically wants to get rid of anything that looks old and nasty. Young modern readers will probably assume this is the boy’s grandmother, but given the era, it’s more likely referring to the female servant of a middle-upper class household in charge of the care of young children. This nana is not the warm grandmother more often found in modern picturebooks. Modern grandmothers have plenty of time for their grandchildren — usually more than the parents do. But in this story:
Nana was in a hurry, and it was too much trouble to hunt for china dogs at bedtime, so she simply looked about her…
Next, the field rabbits stand in contrast to this toy one, to highlight how much better it would be to be able to prance about on the prairie.
The Velveteen Rabbit has no real plan other to hang around waiting to become real.
It was a long weary time, for the Boy was too ill to play, and the little Rabbit found it rather dull with nothing to do all day long. But he snuggled down patiently, and looked forward to the time when the Boy should be well again, and they would go out in the garden amongst the flowers and the butterflies and play splendid games in the raspberry thicket like they used to.
This toy plans to become ‘real’ by basically being a loyal companion to the Boy.
Velveteen Rabbit is almost a goner before the trip to the seaside. This time the doctor is cast as the main opponent — Nana has come around a bit because she’s noticed the toy has a knowing look on its face:
“How about his old Bunny?” she asked.
“That?” said the doctor. “Why, it’s a mass of scarlet fever germs! — Burn it at once. What? Nonsense! Get him a new one. He mustn’t have that any more!”
And so the little Rabbit was put into a sack with the old picture-books and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl-house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire…
But because he’s part real he manages to wriggle out of the sack.
When the Rabbit realises he has full use of his hind legs he realises he is really real.
He will now live with the rabbits in the field.
The Boy remembers his lost toy whenever he catches sight of that rabbit, with the similar markings.
The entire story of Peter Rabbit can be read here at Project Gutenberg, but bear in mind that Beatrix Potter was very fussy about the size of her book and everything about the printing process, and it’s therefore meant to be read as a bound copy, in its original small size rather than as part of an anthologised collection.
It’s worth looking closely, too, at the gender attitudes reflected in this tale — attitudes you might expect to have evolved since this story was written, but which haven’t really, in popular children’s literature. Although Peter Rabbit’s sisters are all wearing pink shawl’s, it’s coincidental that it was only several decades later that the colour pink started to be associated with femininity, and blue with masculinity. (Perhaps this partly explains the enduring popularity of Peter Rabbit merch given as baby gifts.) For links on the Pinkification of Everything, see here.