- Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, and Alex
Every librarian and teacher has seem them, those saccharine early reader series whose desperate inclusion of Things Kids Like is merely a crutch for the didactic intent of helping little ones learn sight words and to sound out more complex vocabulary. So has Alexander, whose Gran Gran has given him a copy of Birthday Bunny—whose “worn” back cover reveals that it’s part of the “Adorable Bunny Collection”—for his own special day. The simple, schoolbook story of a bunny who’s sad because he believes all his friends have forgotten his birthday doesn’t appeal to Alex, though, so he’s spiced it up with plot twists and illustrations all his own.
Scratching out words from the printed text and replacing them with his own boisterous vocabulary, Alex has chosen instead to make this book about the Battle Bunny, who decides that his birthday is the perfect time to put his Evil Plan into action. Battle Bunny forges ahead and destroys each of his enemies (formerly Birthday Bunny’s friends): Sgt. Squirrel of the Robot Police Force is taken down when his robot killer bees (“Ready to sting your butt and save the forest!!”) are no match for Battle Bunny’s chainsaws, and Shaolin Bear and Ninja Turtle’s 1,103 fighting styles are demolished by Battle Bunny’s 1,104. A scribbled-in president (who’s sometimes Barack Obama, sometimes Abraham Lincoln) pleads with a doodle Alex to save the day; Alex obliges by revealing that today is also his birthday, and Battle Bunny concedes: “[Alex], You have [defeat]
surprised me with the greatest birthday present[owers].”
It’s a metafictional farce, but it’s wickedly subversive in all the ways that will appeal to kids, and it’s remarkably realistic in capturing the inevitable graffiti of childhood. The stilted cutesiness of Birthday Bunny is an amusing parody in itself, but Alex’s emendation choices are hilariously effective as he deftly repurposes initial letters, grammatical markers, and short chunks of text to tell a very different kind of story (“‘[F]Greetings[ze], Bunny,’ said Badger. ‘[Stop]
Why are you [c]hopping so [m]sadly?[!] Today is special day.’[you face El Tejon, the greatest wrestler!!]”). The youthful over-the-top hyperbole captures all of the clichés of kids’ action tales with gloriously overstated comedy. The resulting text is thus an honest reflection of the ways kids interact with books—in a way that’s accessible to kids themselves—as well as a complexly layered work of comic genius.
The oil and pencil illustrations of Birthday Bunny are blandly adorable, with splotchy lines and muted colors reminiscent of vintage basal reader illustrations here set appropriately against pages seemingly yellowed with age. Contrast that art with Alex’s additions, which are scratchy doodles in thick black pencil, complete [End Page 199] with speech bubbles and comics-style onomatopoeia, that transform the wide-eyed, floppy-eared, and button-nosed bunny into a fierce dictator, complete with angry eyebrows, an eye patch, a scar on his ear, and a World Wrestling Federation belt. Alex has left no stone unturned—or un-defaced—in this world, with even innocent bystanding trees getting marked up with scars or toppled by chainsaw in the wake of Battle Bunny’s path of destruction. By the end of the book, Alex’s narrative requirements make Birthday Bunny all but illegible, with one page’s text block near the end of the book completely marked out, replacing Birthday Bunny’s moping with the president’s interaction with Alex in a graphic narrative.
This is an example of exactly how kids are told not to interact with their books—and that’s what makes it so effective. Alex’s gleeful disregard for the inanity of Birthday Bunny belies a deep engagement with the words in...