I’ve had more than one person this year ask me if I’ve seen Bárður Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit, released by Owlkids Books back in September. My friends and colleagues know I love picture books and write about them a lot, and given that this one is so distinctive, they were curious to know if I’d taken a look. My response to their queries, which they usually paired with a scratching of the head and a wild-eyed look, was always, “yeah, I’ve seen that bizarre book, but I just haven’t written about it yet.” If you’ve seen the book, you might get this. It’s about roadkill, for one thing. And it’s, hands down, the most ambiguous picture book of 2014, maybe only tied with Mac Barnett’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by Jon Klassen. The Flat Rabbit is a good book—Kirkuseven gave it a starred review—but it’s definitely unlike all other picture books you’ve seen this year. I hadn’t written about it, because I was still thinking about it. It’s the kind of story you mull over.
It’s not like the book hasn’t gotten its fair share of attention. Along with the starred Kirkus review, it received accolades from other review journals and has been the subject of several blog posts. But it occurred to me that it’s nearly December, so if I’m going to stop mulling it over and write about it, now is the time. And I surely do want to write about it, given that it’s rare you see picture books dealing with death in such a practical manner.
Here’s the story: A dog is walking down a city sidewalk. He sees roadkill, a very dead and flattened rabbit. Just prior to this, he looks up, making me wonder the first time I read it if the rabbit, for some ludicrous reason, fell from the sky. But this, I learned, is just one of several ambiguities in the book, so let’s carry on.
A rat walks up, and the dog and the rat marvel at the dead creature. When the rat asks the dog if he knew her, he responds that he never talked to her but that “I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.” It’s a moment of scatalogical humor that will have children giggling. This is a dog, after all, and that’s what dogs do.
The rat notes that lying there simply cannot be any fun at all. The dog had been thinking the same, he says. They ponder how to move the deceased rabbit, but they’re stumped. If they move her, somebody might eat her. If they leave her outside her home, people will suspect they had something do with her death. After the dog spots another creature in the park flying a kite, he has a brilliant idea. They peel the rabbit up, careful not to tear her very flat body, and take her to the dog’s house. They hammer away mysteriously inside his home, and the next day they reveal that they’ve attached her body to a kite. They feel good about their plan, though “the rat wasn’t convinced the tape would hold.”
They fly the kite, watching the bird in silence. The rat asks the dog if he thinks the rabbit is having a good time. “I don’t know,” he responds. After the dog asks if the rat would like a turn flying the kite, readers turn the page to see that the kite has been released. That’s that. End of story. The rabbit is now free, yet we don’t see the side of the kite where she is attached. Oskarsson leaves her hidden here for this moment, the readers’ farewell to her.
The first time I read this book, its gallows humor was evident. But it’s way more than just a dark comedy—and I’m still not sure that it even attempts to be a dark comedy. It’s actually quite touching, how these two creatures attempt to give the rabbit some dignity in her death, a meaningful send-off in the face of such a violent and impersonal end. (One assumes anyway that she was crushed by a vehicle, perhaps even without the driver’s knowledge.)
And it’s honest in all its ambiguity, particularly that “I don’t know” from the dog, in response to the rat’s question about the rabbit’s afterlife. Who can say if the rabbit is happy? Who can say if this is the send-off she wanted, but it sure beats…well, vultures, which surely would have been her fate, had her flattened body stayed on the road.
I had a conversation with Robin Smith recently about how European picture books, on the whole, tend to be more open-ended. This is a great example of that. You’d be hard-pressed to find a book like this from an American publisher. Oskarsson, who renders the illustrations in very relaxed, loose-lined cartoons, is Faroese. (Have I ever in my life read a picture book from another author from the Faroe Islands? This is now something I shall ponder for a while. The answer is very most likely no.)
I think American children will find this story, so different from what they get from American publishers, refreshing and possibly even comforting. Death happens. They know it, even if adults try to shield them from it.
Roadkill also happens. And all of us, hapless rabbits included, deserve a thoughtful and proper send-off.
THE FLAT RABBIT. Copyright © 2011 Bárður Oskarsson. Translation © 2014 Marita Thomsen. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Owlkids, Toronto.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts 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.