Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Slice of Mad Courage: The Royal Rabbits of London

The Royal Rabbits of London by Santa Montefiore and Simon Sebag Montefiore is a new chapter book perfect for children ages 5 to 9 that feels fresh and original, yet follows in the footsteps of The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down with strong animal characters, funny dialogue, and an intriguing plot. Originally published in the U.K., this story begins when a young rabbit named Shylo goes to visit the grizzled, battle scarred Horatio, an elderly rabbit with half an ear. Shylo enjoys these visits because Horatio tells him stories of the Great Rabbit Empire. When Horatio asks Shylo if he remembers the oath made by rabbits long ago to protect the Royal Family, Shylo eagerly recounts the tale of how King Arthur wanted to declare rabbit pie as the favorite meal of the kingdom, but his nephew Prince Mordred loved rabbits. And so...

“King Arthur was a wise king who loved [his nephew] Mordred dearly, so, after a little thought, he declared that cottage pie should be the favorite dish instead. Thousands of rabbits’ lives were saved and cottage pie did become the preferred meal of the British people. The cleverest and bravest of all the rabbits wanted to thank Prince Mordred and so they took an oath to serve the Royal Family of England. They built a warren beneath the castle in Camelot and called themselves the Rabbits of the Round Table.”

“At the very moment that King Arthur freed the rabbits from the Curse of the Rabbit Pie, something magical happened, didn’t it, Shylo?” said Horatio. “Children and only children were given the ability to see those very special rabbits. But it is a gift that lasts only through childhood. As soon as they grow up, they lose that magic and see just ordinary rabbits, like everyone else.” 

Shylo loves hearing stories of the fabled Royal Rabbits of London, and Horatio always listens to him. Shylo is the runt of the litter and wears an eyepatch over his weak eye. His brothers and sisters tease him, but it is Shylo who tumbles into a secret meeting of Ratzis (Rats who are plotting evil deeds against the Queen of England), and as it turns out, The Royal Rabbits of London still exists, after all. Horatio sends young Shylo on a quest all the way to London to Royal Rabbits Headquarters--under Buckingham Palace. 

With black and white pen-and-ink illustrations by Kate Hindley throughout, young readers and parents will enjoy following Shylo in a tale filled with a secret society of Royal Rabbits, acts of bravery, and close calls with evil rats. As Horatio says to Shylo, “Life is an adventure. Anything in the world is possible--by will and by luck, with a moist carrot, a wet nose, and a slice of mad courage!” 

illustration by Kate Hindley

Friday, January 5, 2018

What we can all learn about LOVE from Matt de la Peña's newest picture book

You will linger over the words on each page of Matt de la Peña’s (Last Stop on Market Streetnewest picture book, Love. Illustrated by Loren Long (creator of the Otis the Tractor series), this is an ode to kindness, to the forms of love we share in our families and in our communities that are not celebrated on a Hallmark card. This book shows love’s many and varied journey through the world. The narrative voice in this book speaks to the child and leads the young reader by the hand to show examples of love that a child may not recognize. The images de la Peña uses to describe love are from the child’s point of view. The very first illustration is from the child’s vantage point in a crib looking up at his/her parents, with the words,

In the beginning there is light
and two wide-eyed figures standing
near the foot of your bed,
and the sound of their voices is love.

The narrative voice goes on to call the music in the back of the cab driver’s cab, the color of the sky at sunset, and after playing in summer sprinklers, the narrator says to the child, “the echo of your laughter is love.” 

And yet, love is not just in things seen or heard in the natural world, but most importantly, the selfless actions of one human for another. The turning point of this picture book is where Loren Long shows two young boys, perhaps brothers, the elder holding out a piece of toast to his younger brother, where a figure outside the window walks in the snow towards the bus. Accompanying that illustration are the words:

And in time you learn to recognize 
a love overlooked
A love that wakes at dawn and
rides to work on the bus.
A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.
The full effect of this book is magnificent. Matt de la Peña’s words shine through his gift for lyricism, his finger on the pulse of those small moments that often go unseen, but are, indeed, love.