Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Sendak and Zolotow

Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is a 1962 picture book written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Zolotow and Sendak were both giants of American picture book world. Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present was also a Caldecott Medal Honor Book, so it’s interesting to look through a contemporary lens and see how picture books have changed, or how reader responses have changed. The word which frequently crops up in consumer reviews of Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is ‘creepy’.

It’s wonderful, and probably necessary, for children to have the opportunity to do something nice for the adults in their lives. Children by their nature must constantly be on the receiving end of care, attention and gifts, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be a child and to do something you know is truly appreciated by those who normally take care of you.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Mr Rabbit seems to be more of a Pooka, as in the classic movie Harvey of the mid 20th century.

Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s 1944 play…The story centers on a man whose best friend is a pooka named Harvey, a 6 foot 3.5 inch tall invisible rabbit, and the ensuing debacle when the man’s sister tries to have him committed to a sanatorium.

Wikipedia
Harvey DVD cover rabbit mirror
Elwood P. Dowd from ‘Harvey’
Elwood P. Dowd from ‘Harvey’

I’m Gen X, so for me the massive rabbit friend in Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present reminds me of Donnie Darko.

The púca (Irish for spirit/ghost; plural púcaí), pookaphouka is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape-changers, which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.

WIKIPEDIA

There was a time when massive rabbits were in fashion. The example below is an ‘Illustrated letter to Grace Orpen’ by William Orpen, undated. Fantasy rabbits have gotten a lot smaller in children’s stories, perhaps because massive rabbits are CREEPY.

SETTING OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT

This is a fairytale setting in a prelapsarian forest, where there is always enough food.

Noteworthy: the absence of blue. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a complete absence of blue in the palette, a decision clearly made by Maurice Sendak, who had plenty of opportunity to include some blue when the text talked about ‘blue’ grapes. He made them purple (close enough). Interestingly, blue as a concept is relatively recent. See for example reference to the ‘wine dark sea’ in Homer’s Odyssey. Sendak has ignored the concept of blue and gone in the reverse direction. Blue does not exist. Even the sky is greenish.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Why might an illustrator avoid blue? Blue tends to feel ominous. Even the warm tones can feel a bit scary.

The forest is a European forest, which explains why The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit don’t find a banana tree, but instead stumble across someone’s abandoned picnic. I’m not sure if it’s a common reading experience to wonder who abandoned their picnic like that, and whether they’re about to come back to find their banana missing, but that’s where my mind went.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

CARNIVALESQUE STORY STRUCTURE OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT

Not all carnivalesque stories are paced like The Cat In The Hat, or like one of Madeline’s adventures. Sometimes fun doesn’t look like a carnival, complete with the flying trapeze. Sometimes it looks very much like this: A retreat into imagination, where the pay off is simply doing something nice for someone you love.

The pace of the book is entrancing, part suspenseful, part predictable, feels like sailing in a light summer breeze. I can see why children have loved this book for half a century.

CONSUMER REVIEW

An Every Child is at Home

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit start their story on a hill in the forest, but the the buildings of civilisation (home) are visible nearby.

The Every Child wishes to have fun.

The Little Girl wants to find the perfect gift for her mother. This is her idea of fun, and regardless of whether this character is a boy or girl, this is what gives the story a feminine sensibility. The female maturity formula is at work here, and so is our patriarchal culture in which girls are more likely to be encouraged to think about the needs of others than boys are. (This, after all, is at the heart of patriarchy.)

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962 2
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962 “But what?” said the little girl.

We still need more stories in which masculo-coded characters are the stars of stories like these.

Disappearance or backgrounding of the home authority figure

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Adults in this story are physically absent but emotionally very present. The Little Girl spends the whole time apart from her mother thinking about her mother.

Appearance of an Ally in Fun

In this story, the rabbit is there from the start.

Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.

Unusually for a carnivalesque story, Mr Rabbit has the authority. We can even see it in the names: little girl versus Mr. The rabbit is the authority when it comes to saying things like “You can’t give red”. Usually, carnivalesque rabbits who turn up out of the blue are a bit more fun than this guy.

Modern audiences tend to read this rabbit as creepy. Some readers find him less creepy when they code him as imaginary. For others it doesn’t help. Here’s a man-sized rabbit suggesting red underwear, leaning on a little girl, hanging out with her in the woods… Not questions that were significant (or raised) in the 1960s when this book was nominated for a Caldecott.

Here’s Mr Rabbit invading the little girl’s personal space.

Fun builds!

Rather than ‘building’, this carnivalesque story utilises a repeating structure. Red, yellow, green… The story functions pedagogically, teaching the difference between concrete and abstract nouns (obliquely), colours (for younger readers) and also to consider whether the receipient of a gift would like it. This is complex for young readers, who are inclined to give gifts they themselves would like. The little girl is practising theory of mind.

Although this story is repeating, there is still a build. Ther always is. Sometimes the build is subtle. The build here is in the amazingness of the gift. By the time they look up at the stars and consider giving the stars, the story is utilising a version of The Overview Effect. Many stories feature a contemplation of sky at this part of the narrative. This helps readers to connect the events of any given story to more universal themes. (Yes, it’s very literal.) And because we’re used to stories structured in this way, a glance up at the sky (or down from the sky in a low angle shot) helps to convey the sense of an ending.

Peak Fun!

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Surprise! (for the reader)

On first read, I half expected the story to end with the appearance of the mother, and her pleasure at receiving the thoughtful gift. But the mother never appears. We are left to imagine how much the mother will appreciate the fruit basket.

The gag in this story is very minor:

“Happy birthday and happy basket of fruit to your mother.”

(Because it’s not usual to say ‘happy basket of fruit’.)

Return to the Home state

The rabbit and girl have said goodbye. This particular carnivalesque story did not begin inside the house, so it does not end inside the house, either. ♦

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Inky Illustrations of Cats

There are many ways of rendering cats in illustration. By letting ink run into the paper, cats can look beautifully soft and furry.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) ink blot cats by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) ink blot cats by Andy Warhol
Clare Turlay Newberry (American, 1903-1970) cat kittens
Clare Turlay Newberry (American, 1903-1970)
Louis Icart, (1880-1950) detail from an etching, c. 1925
Louis Icart, (1880-1950) detail from an etching, c. 1925
Tsuguharu Foujita (Japanese-French, 1886-1968) from Book of Cats, 1930
Tsuguharu Foujita (Japanese-French, 1886-1968) from Book of Cats, 1930
Hannes Kilian - Cat Nero in the Snow, 1953
Hannes Kilian – Cat Nero in the Snow, 1953
Endre Penovac Serbian artist cat
Endre Penovac Serbian artist
Marjorie L. Cooper (American, 1910-1999), pen name Elizabeth Webbe, An illustration from the book 'The Kitten Twins' 1960
Marjorie L. Cooper (American, 1910-1999), pen name Elizabeth Webbe, An illustration from the book ‘The Kitten Twins’ written by Helen Wing 1960
Clare Turlay Newberry (American,1903-1970) - April’s Kittens cat
Clare Turlay Newberry (American, 1903-1970) – April’s Kittens cat
Clare Turlay Newberry (1903-1970), c. 1937 cat
Clare Turlay Newberry (1903-1970), c. 1937

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Women and Cats in Art

There is a strong link between women, girls and cats. In fiction, for instance, women are frequently described as cats (and also as birds).

Then there’s the witch link between women and cats, who are thought to be witches’ familiars. During the witch craze, a small proportion of men were also tried for witchcraft, but the modern witch archetype is an old woman who sometimes transmogrifies into a beautiful young woman in order to trick men or to test them.

Nine lives: Cats are said to have nine lives, and women ten cats lives.

from a 1703 dictionary of slang

Then there’s the modern dismissive archetype of the ‘crazy cat lady’, for which there is no male counterpart.

Below are some artworks celebrating the relationship between women, girls and their cats.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)
We Have Always Lived In The Castle girl with cat
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Dentist's Cook, 1922 by Peggy Bacon (1895-1967)
The Dentist’s Cook, 1922 by Peggy Bacon (1895-1967)
Edward Gorey girl letter cat
Edward Gorey
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Balinese, Birman, Burmese and Siamese Cats In Art

Agnes Tait (American, 1894-1981), Sailor Cats, 1941
Agnes Tait (American, 1894-1981), Sailor Cats, 1941
C.F. Tunnicliffe watercolor - Siamese cat on a branch in blossom
CHARLES FREDERICK TUNNICLIFFE R.A. (BRITISH, 1901-1979)– Siamese cat on a branch in blossom
CHARLES FREDERICK TUNNICLIFFE R.A. (BRITISH, 1901-1979) Siamese cat
There is Nothing Like a Cat illustrated by Rosalind Welcher, 1968
There is Nothing Like a Cat illustrated by Rosalind Welcher, 1968

Fish Bowls In Art

George Dunlop Leslie - The Goldfish Seller

The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house. For house cats, the fish bowl is a miniature version of the pond or lake — domestic version.

Blanchie and the Goldfish from the book Clever Cats a Chimney Corner Series unknown author and illustrator, published by Peter G. Thomson, Cincinatti, Ohio, 1885
Blanchie and the Goldfish from the book Clever Cats a Chimney Corner Series unknown author and illustrator, published by Peter G. Thomson, Cincinatti, Ohio, 1885
Mother Goose book, published in 1915 with illustrations by Frederick Richardson How many days has my baby to play goldfish bowl
Mother Goose book, published in 1915 with illustrations by Frederick Richardson How many days has my baby to play goldfish bowl
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935) goldfish bowl
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935)
by Gilbert Wilkinson cat goldfish
by Gilbert Wilkinson
Anne Anderson and Alan Wright husband and wife illustrators, from The Cuddly Kitty and the Busy Bunny by Clara G Dennis 1927 goldfish
Anne Anderson and Alan Wright husband and wife illustrators, from The Cuddly Kitty and the Busy Bunny by Clara G Dennis 1927
Dutch poster for Philips Tv, 1951 fish
Dutch poster for Philips TV, 1951
Shukan Shincho cover by Rokuro Taniuchi 1979
Shukan Shincho cover by Rokuro Taniuchi 1979
Illustration by Carlo Bisi, 1932
Illustration by Carlo Bisi, 1932
French fashion illustrations c.1920s George Barbier
French fashion illustrations c.1920s George Barbier

Brigid Lucy tries to be good, but it doesn’t always work. This could be due to the invisible imp hiding in her hair. When Biddy’s pet slug dies in tragic circumstances, Dad promises to buy her a new pet. But Dad is allergic to almost every pet in the shop! Things get even worse when the invisible imp in Biddy’s hair decides to get involved. She can’t help but encourage Biddy into trouble.

Erte 1977 fishbowl
Erte 1977 fishbowl
Amy Millicent Sowerby (1878-1967) fish bowl
Amy Millicent Sowerby (1878-1967)

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.

It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.

The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?

Cat and Bowl of Goldfish, 1933 by Ohara Koson (Shoson) (1877 - 1945)
Cat and Bowl of Goldfish, 1933 by Ohara Koson (Shoson) (1877 – 1945)
Marguerite Davis, 1936 goldfish
Marguerite Davis, 1936
Le Monde A Envers, (Pomme d’Api), 1942 goldfish
Divito, Patoruzú If the wife keeps throwing the husband's whiskey into the fish bowl, I don't know how I'm going to normalize my life
Divito, Patoruzú If the wife keeps throwing the husband’s whiskey into the fish bowl, I don’t know how I’m going to normalize my life
Cat and Goldfish from the series One Hundred Tales. Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 1839
Cat and Goldfish from the series One Hundred Tales. Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 1839
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl

Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom – the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it – somehow.

Friday Fishing Day by Théophile A. Steinlen (1859-1923)
Friday Fishing Day by Théophile A. Steinlen (1859-1923)

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Header painting: George Dunlop Leslie – The Goldfish Seller

Symbolism of Birds

VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L'Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.

New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.

BIRDS AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS

Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

Vice
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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

In the classroom, Lobel’s picture book would make a good companion to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To The Moon“. Owl At Home would also make a good introduction to discussions about the theme of loneliness, present in a great many works.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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Cats Looking Out Windows

Below is a collection of artwork and illustration featuring cats looking out of windows. I bet they’re wishing they were outside.

Ben Kliban, Cat Looking Out the Window from his calendar collection, 1970's
Ben Kliban, Cat Looking Out the Window from his calendar collection, 1970s.
Franco Matticchio cat looking out window
Franco Matticchio
Etching by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
Etching by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
Richard Egielski (born 1952) 1976 ‘Six O Two Is The Life’ illustration for ‘The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring’ by John Bellairs
Public and Private Life of Animals, by P. J. Stahl, illustrated by J. J. Grandville, Publication date 1877 cat
Public and Private Life of Animals, by P. J. Stahl, illustrated by J. J. Grandville, Publication date 1877
Illustration by Hans Drawing for Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales. 1934 cat looking out window
Illustration by Hans Drawing for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. 1934
Franco Matticchio cat bird window
Franco Matticchio
Cats at the Window by Wanda Gág, 1929
Cats at the Window by Wanda Gág, 1929
edward gorey cat window
Edward Gorey
The Sumner Intrigue by Frank Swinnerton (Cover artist not found) Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, London 1955 cat window
The Sumner Intrigue by Frank Swinnerton (Cover artist not found) Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, London 1955
Christmas Card by Edward Gorey; 1925-2000, cat and girl looking out window
Christmas Card by Edward Gorey; 1925-2000, cat and girl looking out window
André Édouard Marty (1882 - 1974) 1925 illustration for House And Garden magazine
André Édouard Marty (1882 – 1974) 1925 illustration for House And Garden magazine
Edward Ardizzone cat looking out window
Edward Ardizzone
Bettina Baldassari – Italian illustrator. The cast of this painting might easily be for the Australian picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (except the cat’s markings are different). The witchy vibe is there because of the cat and the broom.
Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862 - 1927) The Capture, 1924. Pencil, watercolour and gouache
Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862 – 1927) The Capture, 1924. Pencil, watercolour and gouache
Klaus Ensikat Arthur Rackham
Klaus Ensikat Arthur Rackham
Bettina Baldassari – Italian artist
Cover illustration for The New Yorker magazine March 1st 1982  Jean Jacques Sempé (b.1932) French illustrator and cartoonist
Cover illustration for The New Yorker magazine March 1st 1982 Jean Jacques Sempé (b.1932) French illustrator and cartoonist
Gahan Wilson 2003
Gahan Wilson 2003
Helen Oxenbury - Through the Looking Glass
Helen Oxenbury – Through the Looking Glass
Miroslav Ša šek, illustrator and writer
Miroslav Ša šek, illustrator and writer
Klaus Ensikat (german, b. 1937, Berlin, Germany) - Illustration from book Cats by Axel Eggebrecht (german, b. 1899, Dresden, Germany)
Klaus Ensikat (german, b. 1937, Berlin, Germany) – Illustration from book Cats by Axel Eggebrecht (german, b. 1899, Dresden, Germany)
Józef Wilkon's cat does not look out of the window.
Józef Wilkon’s cat does not look out of the window.

And of course you can’t have cats wishing to head outside without cats also wishing to come back in. So here are a few catslooking inside a window from the outside.

Anne Mortimer for Tosca’s Christmas by Matthew Sturgis
Paule Bernard Roussel – French artist
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