Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
Genre: Middlegrade Fiction
Publication Date: September 1944
My quest to read all the Newbery winners continues with Rabbit Hill, the winner from 1945. The story primarily focuses on a family of rabbits, who are very excited that a family is moving into the abandoned house near their hill. All the small animals on the hill are starving because they rely on the garden at the house for food. The animals don’t know if the new Folks will be nice people who like animals or mean people who trap and kill animals.
This is a sweet, quiet story. The animals each have distinctive (and occasionally irritating) personalities. The main bunny, Little Georgie, is easy to root for. He’s brave, and cocky, and has a sense of humor. This is definitely a book that will make you smile.
“‘Seems there's new Folks coming.’‘Yes, I know,’ cried Little Georgie eagerly. ‘I've just made a song about it. Wouldn't you like to hear it? It goes like—’‘No, thanks,’ called Robin.” – Rabbit Hill
“‘I've made up a song about the new Folks,’ [Little Georgie] added eagerly. ‘Would you like to hear it?’‘Don't think I would,’ answered Uncle Analdas.” – Rabbit Hill
Beneath the book’s cute exterior, there are strong themes of charity and being kind to others. (Well, not to dogs. I guess you can throw rocks at those. And not to chickens. Those are for deep frying. But the other animals treat each other kindly.)
I wonder how much patience children would have for this story. I guess it’s a classic, so kids must enjoy it, but it feels like it takes forever to get going. The animals spend pages and pages gossiping about the new neighbors. It’s funny to see animals acting like nosy humans, but it’s not the most interesting thing to read. It gets repetitive quickly.
Also, it’s kind of confusing. Am I the only one who’s confused by anthropomorphic animals?
I don’t usually like anthropomorphic animal stories because I’m not always sure what the author is trying to say with them. Am I supposed to read the animals as animals, or am I supposed to read the animals as cute stand-ins for humans?
The animals in this book are anthropomorphized in a weird way. On one hand, they’re very human. They live in a human-like society; they peddle conspiracy theories; the foxes don’t snack on their rabbit neighbors. On the other hand, they’re very animal-like. They eat chickens; the humans kill them with traps and poison; they’re torn apart by dogs; they’re inadvertently flattened by cars. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be thinking of these critters as humans or animals.
Right now, you’re probably like, “OMG. It’s a children’s book. Children enjoy reading about bunnies. The animals are just supposed to be entertaining.” You’re right, but the author is clearly trying to send a message with this book. I’m not sure if I should nod in agreement or roll my eyes.
Beware! Thar be spoilers ahead!
Okay, the book ends with the humans giving the animals free food and sticking a statue of Saint Francis in the garden. The animals are so impressed by this that they decide not to destroy the people’s garden. They’ll eat everyone else’s garden, but they’ll leave these people alone. I guess it’s like a retelling of that story of Saint Francis and the wolf.
“THERE IS ENOUGH FOR ALL.” – Rabbit Hill
If you read the story one way, the animal characters are stand-ins for poor/homeless people. The author is saying that the world would be a more peaceful place if we shared our extra resources instead of hoarding them for ourselves. We should help each other and not kill each other. I agree with that. This book was published in 1944, so its original readers had lived through The Great Depression and WWII. A lot of the child readers were probably familiar with rationing or not having enough to eat. The “Share your stuff and don’t kill everybody” lesson is a good one.
If I’m supposed to take this book literally, then that’s when the eye-rolling starts. I believe you should be kind to animals, but you can’t expect animals to be kind back. If you put out a pretty statue and some food, the animals will eat the food, and then they’ll eat your garden. Because they’re animals. Eating everything is what they do.
(Oh, this reminds me of a random tangent. I give my dog everything she needs to live in doggie luxury. That didn’t stop her from climbing up on the table and eating my cookies last Christmas. If she was a good Christian and follower of Saint Francis, she’d know that it’s very rude to steal cookies on Christmas.)
No More Spoilers. Carry On.
Compared to current children’s literature, I found this book slow. The beginning is repetitive scenes of animals gossiping, and the rest of the story is episodic. It doesn’t feel like it’s heading anywhere. There is the mystery of the new Folks, but that’s not much of a mystery. The new Folk’s personalities become obvious fairly quickly.
This isn’t one of my favorite Newbery winners. It’s cute, but I don’t think it’ll stick in my mind after I finish all the winners.
TL;DR: Some important themes. I think a lot of kids would get bored with the meandering plot.