Cece Bell’s newest book, a chapter book called Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, is a straight-up tribute to one of children’s literature’s most beloved author/illustrators. “This book was my attempt to be a smidgen like Arnold Lobel,” she told me, “who is arguably still the greatest chapter book writer and illustrator of all time. He brought some really interesting psychological things into his work that really make you want to linger over his books longer.”
It’s challenging, I’ve no doubt, to pull off such a tribute, yet make the book your own. Or, in this case, to give a tip of the hat to a master of the chapter book form and still make it All Cece on every page. But she’s done it, and done it well.
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As the book opens, Robot is heading to Rabbit’s house for a sleep-over. Rabbit, Type A to an extreme, is excited to have a friend over and has created a list of things they’ll do. Robot wants to play Old Maid, but another card game is on the list, says Rabbit with worry. Things go really haywire when—following the list precisely, of course—Rabbit proceeds to make a cheese and veggie pizza for Robot, who’d prefer one with nuts or bolts or screws, thanks very much. Rabbit’s a little high-strung, to say the least, and nearly loses it when the table WHERE THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO EAT falls apart: “He yelled all around the house. He started throwing things, too.”
We all have at least a cousin like this in the family, yes?
Robot’s solution? A blanket on the floor and an insta-picnic. Even Rabbit thinks it’s fun: “I’ll cross ‘Make Pizza’ off the list, even though you put weird things on yours.”
The rest of the chapters are laid out to correspond with Rabbit’s agenda for the sleep-over. Each chapter is a new opportunity for Rabbit to panic: The remote cannot be found (“I have some data that will interest you,” Robot consistently tries to communicate to Rabbit, who has gone straight into freak-out mode, not realizing the remote is tucked in her ear); Robot’s batteries go low, leaving Rabbit to wonder why he’d ever opt for a nap before bedtime (it’s not on the list, for crying out loud); and Robot wants to review the day when it’s clearly time to be quiet and go to sleep.
But each challenge for Rabbit turns into a test of their friendship, and they always pass. Rabbit might be a nervous wreck, but she does everything she can to assist Robot as his batteries fail. And what does Robot really want to talk about at day’s end? He wants to review the day’s data, which is the fun they had as friends. Rabbit comes to realize this when she finally lets go of that to-do list and listens.
With the Frog & Toad chapter books, Lobel introduced readers to memorable characters and brought them to life so vividly and endearingly that readers were instantly willing to embrace their neuroses. Well, I guess I should speak mostly for Toad here, the more anxious, fretful of the two. Readers also saw how much Toad needed Frog and how very deep their friendship ran. There is a lot of that here, and it’s appealing to children, who already have to deal with the anxious adults in their lives.
There’s a lot of humor and heart in these four stories. They say a lot about the rewards of friendship—more than many of the forced character education programs you see implemented in elementary schools. I say give ‘em some Frog and Toad, and some Rabbit and Robot instead. Share with children these well-crafted stories, written with wit and style.
Best of all? Why, you get to use your best robot voice when reading Rabbit & Robot to a child. Who could resist that?
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
RABBIT AND ROBOT. Copyright © 2012 by Cece Bell. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.