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For Young Readers

Sunday, March 12, 2006

When Bad Things Happen to Bad Bunnies

T he Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, $18.99; ages 7-12) has the look and pedigree of a winner. Its author, Kate DiCamillo, took home last year's Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. It is handsomely produced, has an enticing title and comes with haunting illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, the versatile Russian whose art punches any book up a notch or two. Plus it is clear from the start that DiCamillo has a commanding way with words: "Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china. . . . He preferred, as a rule, not to think unpleasant thoughts."

But words in the service of what? Closing Edward Tulane 200 pages later, I had trouble recalling the last time I had read such a bleak and manipulative story: Tess of the d'Urbervilles maybe. But this outdoes Tess , because it is aimed at children, who will be surprised and disturbed by a great many unpleasant thoughts before they, and Edward, are done. Edward, you see, is a vain, pampered, cold-hearted rabbit, incapable of love; it's convenient that he's made of china, because china is breakable, and Edward, apparently, must be broken -- violently, repeatedly, spiritually, physically -- before he can experience "genuine and true emotion." If that sounds bizarre, it is.

Things start out quietly enough. Edward is the beloved toy of a rich little girl named Abilene Tulane, who speaks to him as an equal. So does her grandmother, Pellegrina, who had "commissioned his making." That seems nice. But not for long. Poor Edward disappoints Pellegrina, as she tells him constantly, and she has it in for him. One night at dinner he realizes she is "looking at him in the way a hawk hanging lazily in the air might study a mouse on the ground." Children will surely wonder what the old witch's problem is and why she can't let Edward just be the frivolous china rabbit she ordered -- or why Edward must learn to love while she gets to be such a monster. There is no answer. Pellegrina merely signals his fate by telling him and Abilene a shocking bedtime story about a beautiful princess who refused to love and was punished for her sin by being changed into a warthog, shot ("Pow!"), cooked and eaten.

So Edward is punished, too, "although for what he could not say." In a saga of mounting cruelty and sadness that begins when he is thrown overboard by spiteful boys while on a cruise with Abilene and her parents, he is repeatedly lost, rescued and mistreated, discovering real feelings along the way by losing every new friend he makes. He lives with tramps and watches a little girl die. He spends time on the ocean floor, in a rancid garbage dump and, in the book's single most horrifying scene, as a scarecrow in an old woman's vegetable garden. "She nailed his ears to the wooden pole and spread his arms out as if he were flying." This is what happens to bad bunnies in DiCamillo's world: They get crucified. (If you doubt it, check out the illustration above.)

That's not the end, of course. Not enough suffering. Edward will later have his head swung against a counter in a Memphis diner and smashed into 21 pieces. But it's all good: The rabbit finally cries. His head is mended, but his heart is broken. Although his tribulations are still not quite done -- waiting is a key element of torture, too -- he is redeemed. Pellegrina would be thrilled.

And kids may well be confused. What, exactly, are they meant to take away from this tale, with its hammer blows of random brutality, its weirdly malevolent adults (Pellegrina is by no means the only one) and its endless moralizing about love? The last is particularly baffling. What child needs to be reminded to love? Why, in any case, demonize a child's natural self-involvement, which is all that's "wrong" with Edward?

Early in the book, Abilene objects when Pellegrina wraps up her cautionary tale with the princess's gruesome death. That can't be the ending, she says, "because it came too quickly" and "because no one is living happily ever after." DiCamillo makes sure her own story meets Abilene's objections. Unfortunately, she ignores Edward's. "The story, he thought, had been pointless." He's got her there.

--Elizabeth Ward

(warde@washpost.com)

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