It would be simpler if kids read at exact levels at all times. Wouldn’t it be grand if you had a kid go strategically from easy books to early chapter books to older chapter books without so much as a glitch in the system? But as it happens the road to literacy is not this smooth varnished path off into the sunset. There are bumps, and valleys, and wobbly bits where the pavement chips off. That’s why certain school systems have introduced concepts like “Levels”. A kid reads at a certain level, masters it, and moves on to the next one. Of course, the danger with that kind of thing is that it never gives kids a chance to challenge themselves. If they’re Level L and are handed Level O, many adamantly refuse to consider trying something that “hard”. That’s why the world needs more books like this here Rabbit and Robot. Here you have that rarest of rare beasts, the early early chapter book. Harder than Frog and Toad, easier than Magic Tree House, it’s a transitional title that’s the perfect thing to get kids out of their reading ruts and into the wide and wonderful world of chapters. Lots of books attempt to do that sort of thing, but it takes a delicate hand like Cece Bell’s to also pepper the book with memorable, hilarious characters and a simultaneously familiar and unique plotline. This is only the first in the adventures of uptight Rabbit and groovy go-with-the-flow Robot, but I trust we’ll see more of them in the future. The world demands more of the same, consarn it!
Good buddies Rabbit and Robot (just go with it) are about to have their first sleepover at Rabbit’s place and both of them are very excited. Rabbit, a by-the-book kind of guy, has every evening activity written out and planned to the letter. And Robot, an easygoing fellow bearing a vague resemblance to a cell phone on wheels, is just the kind of stand up friend to throw a distinct wrench in the works. First Rabbit’s plan to “Make Pizza” is changed slightly when Robot removes the bulk of the home’s nuts and bolts to top his own pizza pie. Then Rabbit can’t find the remote and a near nervous breakdown occurs before Robot reveals the simple solution. A game of Go Fish takes a header when something odd happens to Robot. And finally, bedtime is the perfect moment to review and see that even if everything didn’t go precisely to plan, it was still a really nice day.
The distinct advantage of being your own author/illustrator is that you never have to consult with your collaborator. Bell’s style has always been akin to that of Crockett Johnson and the like. It’s this pure-lined style that embraces simplicity over clutter. When working in her usual picture book vein, Ms. Bell’s books are straightforward in their plots and visuals. Here in Rabbit & Robot she uses her lines to convey the characters’ moods with great verve. Rabbit is as easy to smile as he is prone to overwrought hysterics. Robot, in comparison, is simultaneously laid back and energetic. This comes across particularly well when Rabbit first presents Robot with his anal retentive list of what their evening will have to consist of. Robot, we know from our reading, has other ideas about what they’ll be doing, but you can tell from the picture that he’s mostly keeping that to himself. There’s a bemused smile playing about his metallic lips. You get the feeling from pictures like that that he knows precisely how this evening will go, and it’s Rabbit who’ll be the surprised one in the end. Then there’s the characters’ look. It took me a while to realize it, but there’s something oddly satisfying about looking at that perfect triangle that serves as Rabbit’s nose and the elongated rectangle that’s Robot’s. It just works.
You could say the book has a classic feel and this would be true. Does it have an old-fashioned feel or a contemporary feel, though? I’m going to side with contemporary in terms of the characters and the interactions. While I’ve no doubt that kids 50 years down the road could still get a kick out of these characters, the book doesn’t feel like it belongs to the past. The art, however, definitely relies on some tried and true historical tropes. Note, if you will, the telephones that Rabbit and Robot speak into on the title page. Aside from the fact that they appear in little bubbles ala Bye-Bye Birdie there is the fact that they both are on landlines (with cords and everything!). Be ready to explain to your kids what exactly those types of phones are when they ask you. Then there’s Rabbit’s television set. He does indeed have a nice little remote for it, but who else noticed the awesome bunny ears (ho ho) perched on top of the TV? The TV itself is perched on a kind of Jetsons-esque stand, which is cool in and of itself. One get the distinct feeling that if a camera were to appear in the course of this tale they’d be buying film for it and taking it down to the local photomat to get it printed.
The odd couple format has proved to be a tried and true way of getting kids into early chapter book fare. Whether you’re reading about Frog and Toad, Houndsley and Catina, or Bink and Gollie, opposites attract. They attract one another and they attract burgeoning readers who need something a little silly, a little sly, and a little enticing if they’re going to keep doing this whole “reading” thing folks keep trying to push on them. Go into most libraries and you’ll find that easy books and early chapter books are some of the most popular in the system. All the more reason to let something like Rabbit & Robot into your life. It’s new and fresh and thoroughly enjoyable, whether you’re reading it to a kid or they’re parsing it on their own. There’s a new odd couple in town and hopefully they’ll return to us again soon.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Alien and Possum: Friends No Matter What by Tony Johnston
- Monkey and Robot by Peter Catalanotto
- Houndsley and Catina: Plink and Plunk by James Howe
- Bink and Gollie by Alison McGhee and Kate DiCamillo
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast at Kirkus
- 100 Scope Notes
- Shelf Elf
- Read, Write, Reflect
- There’s a Book
- Cece talks with 7-Imp about early sketches and a rejected chapter of the book
- An interview with Kathy Erskine
- Four words for you – World’s. Cutest. Release. Party.
- Read a sample of the book here.