One of my favorite things about this life—right up there with the printing press, putting on clothes straight from the dryer, a good scone and the 16-minute closing medley of Abbey Road—is reading aloud with my two young daughters.
Our most recent read-aloud? National Book Award winner Polly Horvath’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire! (Schwartz & Wade), illustrated by Sophie Blackall.
And I am here to say that we laughed our fool heads off.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on Sonya Hartnett's 'Sadie & Ratz.'
I like a Good Wry, and Horvath does wry well. She’s funny, irreverent and refreshingly honest with her readers. She makes the landscape of children’s literature emphatically weirder, and for that I salute her. (“Weird” is a compliment in my world. Sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to say “quirky” or “whimsical” or even “madcap,” though she surely pulls those off, too. Wait. I just said them. Well, I never.)
The book opens at the festival of Luminara on Hornby in Canada. Madeline, walking home on her last day of school, wonders why the longest day of light is celebrated with more light: “If we didn’t spend so much on candles, maybe we’d have money for shoes.”
It’s not that her family can’t afford shoes. It’s that she lives with two “happy hippies,” Harry and Denise, who prefer to be called Flo and Mildred. It’s safe to say they’re moderately to severely spaced out at all times. Insufferably, though good-naturedly, bohemian, they’re like a really good lost Portlandia skit. (“When Flo and Mildred got to Hornby Island, they came into their own by discovering that with very little effort they could both play the marimba and make jewelry out of sand dollars. There was no stopping them after that.”)
Flo and Mildred eschew things like the monarchy—Prince Charles plans to visit Madeline’s school for her fifth-grade graduation ceremony—as well as the white shoes that Madeline’s teacher suggests all students wear for his visit. (“They can’t make you wear white shoes! Wear the shoes you have. That’ll show them.”)
Needless to say, Madeline finds it necessary to raise herself. She fares well, though she doesn’t know “how to make the other children like her, and she felt she constantly had to defend herself from unspoken accusations about a way of life she hadn’t chosen to begin with. Well, she thought, who needs them? I bet none of them now how to make plumbing repairs. I bet none of them have read Pride and Prejudice. Twice.”
Madeline’s Uncle Runyon is a secret decoder scientist. He spends most of the novel in a coma, but there’s a certain gang of foxes, trench coats and all, who have studied humans (make that “hoomans” in their mangled attempt to speak our language), and they need Runyon to help them unravel a cryptic recipe in order to make Fanny Fox's Canned Rabbit Products and By-products a success. This skulk of sneaking foxes is led by none other than the bumbling Grand Poobah (aka “The Enemy” in his cordially signed evil notes), who is so determined to be over-the-top evil that he comes complete with his own doubly malevolent evil-laugh: “MWA-HAHA! MWA-HAHA! MWA-DOUBLEHAHAHAHA!”
The foxes kidnap Madeline’s parents, hoping they’ll tell them where Uncle Runyon lives. Naturally, the flaky Flo and Mildred can’t remember, just assuming that the ever-responsible Madeline will show up to save the day.
Which she does! But not without some help. The nearby Mr. and Mrs. Bunny have decided to take up detecting, since earhole-equipped fedoras are involved. Horvath fleshes out the rabbits with great detail. They’re the most endearing (and funniest) duo in children’s lit that I’ve seen in 2012. (And, OK. Very quirky. Delightfully so.)
They cross paths with a garlic-bread-devouring marmot (“Marmots, of course, were the bane of many a bunny’s existence”), whose first name is The; who, when properly wrung out, may or may not make an excellent squeegee; and whose mother sometimes called him “her Special Precious.” (Not a major plot point, but it made me laugh.)
Horvath includes a cast of just-as-funny minor characters. (Their blithely rude neighbor, Mrs. Treaclebunny, steals the show.) The author’s pace is brisk and her dialogue quick-witted.
As for Blackall’s artwork, there couldn’t possibly have been a better fit for illustrator. Horvath’s eccentric characters brought to life with Blackall’s delicate and just-as-offbeat ink drawings equals simply perfect.
I couldn’t sleep at night if I gave away the book’s ending, though I will say that in Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit, Madeline finally has some responsible creatures to look after her best interests. She also comes to realize something about the “underlying reality” of nature, as well the fact that the “richness of our lives depends on what we are willing to notice and what we are willing to believe.” Those may or may not be the words of Prince Charles.
And Madeline may or may not have gotten her white shoes after all, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. Just don’t expect shoes that aren’t delightfully weird.
Much like this entertaining book itself.
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 focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
Mr. and Mrs. Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire! Copyright © 2012 by Polly Horvath. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Sophie Blackall. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, New York. Images posted with permission of Sophie Blackall.