November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
Six year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:
Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”
JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”
Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”
JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”
Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”
JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”
We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. For starters, the book’s premise turns the conventional picture book on its head. A juvenile and saccharine-sweet story (resembling something from the Little Golden Books era) gets a complete makeover with the help of a boy’s imagination—and his big, black Sharpie. What we as readers get is the finished product: a book where words are crossed out and replaced, whose illustrations are embellished with chicken scratch, and where new sentences and comic book-like sketches are squeezed into the narrative. Are you following this? A boy has taken a Sharpie to his book and turned it into something far more entertaining in the world of elementary boys.
I’m talking, of course, about the Stuff of Battles. Birthday Bunny, an innocent young bunny whose animal friends throw him a lame surprise party, becomes Battle Bunny, a bunny on a doomsday quest to bring about the demise of his animal friends. As in, “I am going to whomp on you, bird brain, and pluck you like a sick chicken!” (Bunny says this to Crow). The animals all put up a good fight (“I will take you down with my Furiouso Claw!” Badger retorts; and Sgt. Squirrel even comes ready with “robot killer bees”); but no one is a match for Battle Bunny. Except, of course, our master puppeteer and narrator—a boy named Alex, who also happens to be celebrating a birthday and who writes himself into the second half of the story to bring about Bunny’s successful surrender. Naturally, Alex doesn’t miss the chance for some self-promotion, giving Bunny these lines: “Alex, you have defeated me with the greatest birthday powers. Now I know that you are the best!”
I knew that the book’s format, with its crossed out words and scribbles, would blow my son’s mind; and I could not have been more pleased with his response. I casually handed him Battle Bunny and told him to look it over while I put his sister to bed. Minutes later, the door to his sister’s room burst open, and a wide-eyed JP blew into the room. “Mommy, there is something wrong with this book! There is drawing on it! Some of the words are erased!” (Not surprisingly, my children have been taught to treat books with the deepest reverence.)
Only when JP and I explored the book together did I stumble upon its additional appeal for the early-reader crowd. For all its silliness and bad guy banter, this is a book about words, about word play, about the creative process itself. JP has been diligently learning to read, but he is easily intimidated by reading a book cover to cover. Battle Bunny is not an “early reader” per se—its vocabulary and visual layout will require adult help for those still in the throes of learning to read—but the layered narrative encourages children to seek out the hidden gems buried under and around the layers of Sharpie. Parents will read the new, revised story; but kids, in their own time, will enjoy hours of fun deciphering what the words used to be. After all, the book’s deliciousness lies in the transformation of Birthday Bunny to Battle Bunny. At breakfast, “carrot juice” becomes “brain juice,” and “carrot crispies” become “greasy guts.” Birthday Bunny’s “Special Thinking Place” on a “big gray rock” becomes Battle Bunny’s “Evil Plan Place” on a “launchpad,” perfect for his deadly rocket ship built from a piece of the Eiffel Tower and an arm of the Statue of Liberty. I’ll say it again: this is the stuff that takes up prime real estate in boys’ brains.
Mac Barnett is no stranger to drawing children’s attention to the creative process. Chloe and the Lion, which he co-authored with Adam Rex (one of my favorite books of 2012), gives readers a hilarious look at the banter between writer and illustrator as they attempt to agree on the direction of a story. In Battle Bunny, Barnett and Scieszka go one step further, inserting the child reader into the driver’s seat. As Alex usurps creative control and re-imagines Bunny’s story, it’s as if he’s sending a message to children everywhere that they too posses the power to drive their own narratives, both on paper and in real life. The subject matter might not always be of our choosing—but hey, it’s a start. And a mighty hilarious one at that.