It started with a beloved stuffed rabbit. Kathy Urban, most recently of Dubai, used her storytelling skills honed through years as a journalist to invent tales for her children whenever their stuffed animals would go missing. Those adventures inspired her book Hop Lola Hop and its sequels. “We have a real-life Lola. She has gone missing on numerous occasions,” Urban confesses. “When we had that dreaded situation, my way of dealing with it was that I made up a story.”

Lola, like other stuffed-animal characters before her, interacts directly with her young human friend, Ella. In Hop Lola Hop, Ella is having a rough day and asks to go for a walk in her stroller, rather than holding her mother’s hand. Lola quickly gets bored with the situation:

She much preferred climbing staircases or practising somersaults. But not today! Instead, she and Ella were counting people getting off the bus. After a while, though, Lola wanted to do something more interesting…


Before long, Lola was jumping off the pushchair, heading straight for the nearest wall…

Lola’s adventures lead her far from Ella, where she has experiences she would never have at home. Because she’s never been allowed to go swimming before, she decides to take a dive into a pond—and then realizes exactly why stuffed bunnies are not water toys. But soon Lola is lost and worried she’ll never reunite with her friend. Luckily, Ella finds her just in the nick of time; after they get home (and give Lola a proper bath), the girl gets to hear all about Lola’s journey.

Knowing how hard it can be when a toy goes missing, Urban wanted to offer her daughters, and her young readers, a little distance from their feelings. The book “follows the bunny’s adventures,” she says, “so rather than just showing the despair the girl feels—which we also address in the book, because I think it’s important—it also shows what the bunny does.”. That distancing uses a world of imagination and an adventure story to better help young readers cope. Kirkus Reviews finds this an effective strategy that “may very well…help them feel better about losing their own toys.”

Though Lola was inspired by the real-life plush bunnies of Urban’s children, she was also a collaborative creation between Urban and watercolor illustrator Siski Kalla. They went through several designs, wanting to make it clear that Lola was a stuffed animal, not a real rabbit. Kalla introduced the idea of putting Lola in dungarees—just the right outfit for adventuring—to truly bring the mischievous bunny to life. Ella, on the other hand, is not based on a singular child. “She has been influenced by all the young boys and girls I’ve gotten to know over the years,” Urban explains. She has two daughters, so, she says, if Ella “was only to be inspired by one of the girls, I think I would be in trouble!” Looks-wise, however, Ella resembles an imagined little sister of one of Urban’s favorite kid-lit characters: Pippi Longstocking. “I think my whole life has been influenced by Astrid Lindgren’s stories and the way the characters think out of the box, being a bit rebellious but also caring,” Urban shares.

That element of caring is central to each of the Lola books. Urban believes the connection between a child and their special stuffed animal is “one of the very first early relationships little humans have with someone they love and cherish.” Encouraging children to grow that relationship is just part of helping them become caring individuals. “We’re trying to teach our children to be good, decent human beings. Caring beings. It starts at home—it starts with caring for your beloved stuffie toy, for your mom, for your dad, for your granny, for your family, for your community. How are we supposed to teach our children about bigger world problems if they don’t understand what it means to care for something?”

Caring can come with big feelings, especially when a stuffed animal is lost. “When one of these toys go missing, their world falls apart!” Urban says. This may give young readers their first inkling about what a parent feels when their child is lost, something Urban explores in Hop Lola Hop: A Yummy Market Day Adventure. This sequel features parallel adventures as Ella and Lola wander through the farmers market together to finish their shopping list, leaving Ella’s mom behind. Soon, Lola also wanders away from Ella, who is now frightened for both her stuffie and herself! But Lola, hot on the trail of their special ingredient, stops for a tasty snack of strawberries and falls asleep in the field. Once Ella’s mother finds Ella again, the two search for Lola and find both her and the last item on Ella and Lola’s list.

In Hop Lola Hop: A Magical Christmas Adventure, Lola worries she might be replaced by a new stuffed animal, reflecting how some children might feel when a new sibling arrives in their family. Both Lola and Ella are excited for Christmas, but when Ella spots a doll she longs for in the toyshop window, Lola feels afraid. She misses Ella’s attention, and on her wanderings, she realizes that all she really wants for Christmas is to be loved by her person. Luckily, a certain someone in a red suit comes along to help Lola’s Christmas wish come true! Ella realizes what has happened and decides that what she really wants for Christmas is to have her friend back. Urban guides the story to the conclusion that there is always enough love to go around and that sometimes what matters “could not be made or bought but had to be found.”

Urban strives to make sure children are involved in Lola’s adventures, whether through her text or the details in the illustrations. She uses specific sound words, set in a slightly larger font, to encourage young readers to chime in. When Urban visits schools, especially preschools, she says, “Whenever I read the book, in the first row, someone will say ‘Hop!’ or ‘Splash!’” A Yummy Market Day Adventure includes Ella and Lola’s shopping list; they check off each item at they purchase it, which gives readers another way to interact with the text. Because her background is in journalism rather than children’s publishing, Urban learned those engagement skills by checking out other picture books. What techniques worked for her—and what didn’t? She modeled the Lola books after the stories she liked best, and she paid more attention to the types of stories her children wanted to have read to them than conventional wisdom about picture-book length. The Lola adventures have a little more text on a page than some other stories because Urban’s children would frequently ask why she had stopped reading to them while they were still busy looking at the pictures!

By engaging readers on the level of familiar toy-child relationships, Urban hopes that the books “prepare them, in a soft and gentle way, to understand what matters in life.” Kindness and caring are central to that. “If you want to get some of those real-world problems into a manageable situation,” she says, “we need a lot of good humans.”


Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books, which she reviews with the help of her kids.