First published in 1942, this is perhaps Brown’s best-known work. A copy of it actually rests on the bookshelf in Goodnight Moon while a print from it hangs on the wall (self-tributes, I’m sure, by Clement Hurd, who illustrated both books). Our little girl seems less interested by this book right now, perhaps because there is more verbiage per page. And honestly, that’s fine, because The Runaway Bunny tends to make me cry.
If you read the reviews posted on Amazon.com for this book, you will see that a good twenty percent of its reviewers have a significant distaste for this book. “Creepy” is a word that crops up in many of these reviews. One reviewer titled his review, “A Classic of Squashed Spirits.” Many reviewers read it as a tale of an obsessive, controlling mother. Another reviewer summed her thoughts succinctly: “The story is neither comforting or enjoyable.”
I’m not sure I agree with any of these reviewers, although I can see their points. There is a poignant sadness among its playfulness – and it is playful, as my favorite illustration demonstrates of the young bunny as a “bird” and the mother bunny as a “tree” – both of them still very much in bunny form. As an adult, however, there is something sad and inevitable about this story. The first line reads, “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’” No explanation is given as to why the little bunny wants to run away, and the mother doesn’t ask. There is something about the mother’s response – “‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’” – that implies an inescapable fatalism. Of course the little bunny wants to run away. It’s what little bunnies do.
Here is where I believe many people interpret this as a story of a child growing up and a mother who won’t let go. But to me that is an interpretation meant to soothe and comfort. If the bunny wants to run away, these people seem to assume, then that must mean it is developmentally appropriate. These people don’t seem to accept that young children often want to run away before they are ready. It’s as if parents can’t accept the hard truth that their sweet little toddlers are already trying to make a break for it for no reason other than the desire to escape, that no matter how much we parents love our children, they want to be free of us.
They will do anything to try and escape. “‘If you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’” There is no end to the imaginative escape plans children concoct. I remember a few of them myself from my own childhood. During kindergarten, I hatched quite the scheme to build a rocketship and fly to the moon and live there, safely removed from my family and school teachers. I dare any parent to tell me that a mother who chases a runaway kindergartener is being possessive, obsessive and creepy.
There is, for me, some comfort to be found in the mother bunny’s ability to match her child’s imaginative escape plans. “‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.’” It is in these responses that the mother mirrors her child’s playfulness. Honestly, who among us wouldn’t be tempted to respond to our child’s declaration that she will transform into a fish by saying, “Yeah, right, go ahead and try it.”
The mother only once makes any kind of claim that she will make the child return home, responding to her child’s intention of becoming a sailboat that she will become the wind and “blow you where I want you to go.” But even that is ambiguous. Nearly all of the mother’s responses envision a scenario that provides the young bunny with the freedom to keep running. “‘If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.’” The mother announces she will follow, but not that she will chisel the rock off and carry it back home. She will fish for her bunny in the river, but not catch him; she will find him in the hidden garden, but not pluck him; she will be the tree where he lands, but will not capture him.
Like the most powerful children’s stories, there is a deep and primal adult reality being captured here. Maurice Sendak said in an interview, “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” The people who do not like The Runaway Bunny seem to me to want to cater to the bullshit of innocence. They want a story that is warm and comforting and enjoyable. They want to believe that children grow up appropriately and leave as they are taught, but no sooner; that parents don’t become unhealthily attached to their children and know when to graciously let go; that life isn’t a constant chasing after things we love that don’t always love us back. All of us are constantly searching, striving, chasing that one thing our hearts are so broken to possess, and just as we have figured out how to be near it, it changes and slips away again. In the end, if we find it, we find it not because we catch it, but because it decides to let itself be caught: “‘Shucks,’ said the bunny, ‘I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.’”
In Margaret Edson’s 1995 play Wit, The Runaway Bunny is read to the protagonist, who is dying of cancer, by her former graduate professor. “A little allegory of the soul,” the professor says of the book. “Wherever it hides, God will find it.” (You can watch this scene from the film adaptation starring Emma Thompson here, but be warned: it will wreck you.) Not only do we chase after that which does not want to love us, we run from that which does. All of us are children, tiny bunnies, who want to run away for no reason, who want to evade and escape and hide. We are prideful; we are anxious; we are stubborn. Maybe it is because we want to be pursued; we want something to find us as worthwhile enough to chase after us, but perhaps we fear that if we are caught, our worth will be discovered as less than and we will no longer be worth pursuing.
As Easter approaches and I ponder the significance of the Christian narrative of crucifixion and resurrection, I am amazed at the creativity in God’s response to sin, oppression, and suffering. Like the mother bunny, God pursued redemption with imagination. And like the little bunny, we still try and run. We are not innocent, and it is bullshit to pretend we are. We chase after that which does not love us, and running away from that which does, always hoping that we will catch and that we will be caught, but never quite finding our respite. Resurrection, then, is the hope that at some points along the way we might rest in what is good and true, that the running might stop, that we can find a home – if only until we run away again – with our good mother bunny, and have a carrot and let ourselves be loved. As my heart already breaks knowing that my child will run from me, may I also feel for the heart of God’s divine love, which breaks as I run away myself. For Easter, oh God, may I just as well stay where I am for a moment and your little bunny.