I think that it’s fair to say that rabbits in gardens have certainly gotten their picture book due. Whether it’s Peter Rabbit escaping a sieve, a little Tops and Bottoms action, or even those Muncha Muncha Muncha bunnies clicking their heels, kids have no difficulty associating rabbits with garden woes. Squirrels, on the other hand, don’t get the proper amount of attention they’re warranted. Man, when I was growing up rabbits were somewhat bad but squirrels? Squirrels were worse. Your apple trees and strawberry plants wouldn’t yield BUPKISS when a squirrel was around. Credit author Kara LaReau for acknowledging that squirrels deserve to be classified as garden pests. Her book Rabbit and Squirrel teams her up with Ugly Fish partner-in-crime Scott Magoon and together they’ve come up with a book that deserves to appear amongst your garden storytime readaloud staples. Though it indulges the pair’s taste for unexpected endings, this one’s definitely their best product yet.
Once there was a rabbit (named Rabbit) and a squirrel (named Squirrel, naturally) that each tended delicious gardens. One day the Rabbit woke up to find her goodies plundered, so naturally she blamed (and threatened) the Squirrel. The next day the Squirrel found HIS goodies gone so he blamed (and threatened) the Rabbit back. Soon the Rabbit was taking the Squirrel’s peas and tomatoes and the Squirrel was turning his hose onto the insides of the Rabbit’s house when in the midst of their squabble was a gigantic human gardener, demanding to know who was ruining her garden! Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed human hands plucking the veggies throughout the tale, after all. Chased away from their homes, Rabbit and Squirrel high tail it to the woods where they continue to bicker. “One of these days, they’ll grow tired of fighting. And then, hopefully, they’ll learn to grow something new.”
I’ll level with you here. Did you ever read the previous LaReau/Magoon pairing Ugly Fish? I just wasn’t a fan. Some picture books where the hero gets eaten work beautifully. Books like I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean. Good stuff. Something about Ugly Fish just turned me off, though. It wasn’t the fact that the hero gets eaten at the end. I can deal with that. But Magoon has an elastic style that was too thin-lined and shaky for me with that book. Rabbit and Squirrel is different. Now the lines are thicker and the colors dark and rich. What’s more, LaReau has taken her penchant for unusual storytelling and fitted it to “war and peas”. And you could probably apply this story directly to some historical incident if you were so inclined (as I’ve no doubt some high school history teacher will soon do). It would have to be a situation in which two groups went to war when their troubles really sprang from a malevolent third party. Think about it, won’t you?
Let’s go back to Scott Magoon’s art, though. I have to say that for a guy who does his work “digitally” he’s got the panache of the hand-illustrated-only types. There are some textures in this book that I was particularly taken with. The pages sometimes have the visual consistency of some kind of woven material. Burlap, maybe? It’s hard to say. Then on top of this you’ll get a variety of patterns, often all overlapping in the course of a single page. The illustration of squirrel watering “his” tomatoes is set against a light floral pattern so subtle that you might miss it if you didn’t stare intently at it. The ground is a series of undulating brown lines, and the ladder looks distinctly wood like.
I was also fairly fond of the expressions Magoon employs here. When Rabbit first finds that lettuce and carrots have been removed, she gets this squinty eyed look of creeping suspicion that is, for me, my favorite picture in the book. It’s a good artist that can capture an expression you recognize but couldn’t have named prior to seeing their picture of it. Of course, I did have one problem with the pictures in the book. It’s small but once I noticed it I had a hard time ignoring it. Take a look at Squirrel. Take a long hard look. Notice how there are teeth coming off of his nose? Okay, now look and see where his mouth is. AUUUGH! Mutant squirrel!
Mutant squirrels aside, lets consider Kara LaReau’s contributions here. This here is a good bit of storytelling. LaReau employs all the descriptive adjectives in her arsenal to describe the crimes these animals face. “Someone had pulled up her crunchiest carrots. Someone had removed her leafiest lettuce.” As the tensions escalate and the two animals come close to blows, I liked that they were interrupted with the line, “Just as they were thinking of worse things to do to each other . . .” It won’t escape the child reader’s notice either that while Rabbit calls Squirrel a pest and Squirrel calls Rabbit a pest, when the Gardener calls them both pests, she’s utilizing the proper use of the word.
As for the story itself, it’s rare to find a book where there isn’t a happy ending. Normally, this kind of story would end with the Gardener chasing away our heroes and with the two of them realizing their mistakes. Instead, they’re STILL at each other’s throats. Though Mr. Magoon shows a potential resolutions that will “hopefully” someday occur, the very sweetness and light look of the last image in this bok is essentially unbelievable. So child readers will be able to see that while it is in the best interests of Rabbit and Squirrel to cooperate, the likelihood of two such stuck-in-their-ways animals of coming to terms with one another is slim to none. That’s a complicated lesson, and one that may actually come in useful in the future.
LaReau and Magoon together wield the element of surprise as their secret weapon. Pick up a picture book by the two of them and you never know WHERE the story’s gonna go. Rabbit and Squirrel shows that these kids work best when they can upset conventions without breaking the back of the story at hand. If you’ve had your fill of garden pest picture books and you feel like you want a break, just give this book a chance before you throw in the trowel. Sometimes war is just a series of miscommunications and sometimes the two parties are communicating perfectly. This book gives it to you both ways. Smart stuff that’s easy on the eyes.
On shelves May 1st.
Misc. Thoughts: I find it funny that I’m reviewing this book so soon after Cottonball Colin. The author/illustrator team of Colin previously worked together on yet ANOTHER hero-gets-eaten picture book, Tadpole’s Promise and, like LaReau and Magoon, opted for less wacky fare on their next outing. Is this the end of the devoured hero? Don’t you believe it. I do sometimes wonder why teams decide to make it their picture book premiere, though. Guess they want to distinguish themselves from the pack.