I was sick last week with a stomach bug and didn’t much feel like reading anything difficult, so I picked up a couple of the children’s books we have lying around the house. Dear Rat, written by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by Walter Lorraine, and Bunnicula, written by Deborah and James Howe and illustrated by Alan Daniel, were published in 1961 and 1979 respectively, and are probably for kids around a 4th or 5th grade reading level. Dear Rat belonged to my uncle, who received it as a gift in 1969. It was then given to one of my cousins, then my older brother, then me. I have no idea where Bunnicula came from, but it’s clearly been loved and read several times. I had a terrible time finding pictures of the covers online (especially of Dear Rat) so here’s one I took myself.
What’s interesting to me about these books is that, while I picked them off the shelf at random because they seemed like lighthearted children’s reads, both of them happen to be spoofs of adult literature. Bunnicula is obviously a spoof of Dracula, and not even a particularly inventive one, though it’s still a very cute book. In it, a dog named Harold tells the tale of his family and the odd rabbit they found in a movie theater. This strange rabbit sleeps all day, easily escapes its cage at odd hours, and since it’ arrival, vegetables in the refrigerator have been getting mysteriously drained of all their juice. The family cat Chester is convinced the rabbit is a vampire and therefore a danger to the household, and concocts increasingly outrageous plots to kill it. Even though it’s based on a horror novel, there’s nothing scary at all about Bunnicula. Everything ends up happily, and there’s some chuckles to be had even for an adult, though I did have one major pet peeve. Harold the dog loves that the youngest member of his human family feeds him chocolate cupcakes (obviously Hostess cupcakes, but the brand name is never used). However, I think just about every adult known that chocolate is toxic to dogs. I don’t know how much actual chocolate is in a Hostess cupcake, but I don’t think it’s a great idea to make kids think it’s safe to give them to dogs on a nightly basis. Might end up causing some heartbreak.
Dear Rat is also a spoof, this time of the hard-boiled detective novel. A rat from Wyoming named Andrew has recently moved to France and stumbles across a fiendish plot to steal jewels from a cathedral and pass them off a present to the royal family (of rats, that is, all the characters in this book are animals). There are chases, disguises, fight scenes, and just about everything else you’d find in an old detective story, including an intense bromance between our main character and his associate.
This was an extremely fun read. I was struck by how beautifully written Dear Rat was, maintaining a richness of language and description while staying accessible to a young audience. Just look at this first page:
I was totally pulled in. The plot is predictable to anyone who’s read the types of stories this is an homage to, but it’s just so charming and sweet you’re happy to go along for the ride, even if you already know the destination.
As for Bunnicula, it looks like it’s still in print (by Atheneum Books), but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Dear Rat. It was published by Houghton Mifflin, but all I could find online were used copies. Either way, I think it’s worth looking into if you enjoy detective stories, or are looking for a children’s book that’s bit different from the norm. Bunnicula is also the first in a rather hefty series, so if a kid winds up enjoying it, they could be reading for quite a while, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So there’s my reading for last week. I don’t think I’ll make a habit of reviewing children’s literature (though I suppose these were more Middle Grade), but I definitely enjoyed these two. Next up is The Observations by Jane Harris which, though I’m only one chapter in, is already proving to be the polar opposite of child friendly.