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Have a Carrot: Oedipal Theory and Symbolism in Margaret Wise Brown's Runaway Bunny Trilogy

Have a Carrot: Oedipal Theory and Symbolism in Margaret Wise Brown's Runaway Bunny Trilogy

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Published by Claudia Pearson
Literary analysis of Margaret Wise Brown's picture books, The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and My World.
Literary analysis of Margaret Wise Brown's picture books, The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and My World.

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Published by: Claudia Pearson on Dec 08, 2010
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“Have a Carrot”

Theory, Symbolism and Gender In Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny Trilogy And Other Popular Picture Books
Claudia H. Pearson

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I am grateful to my thesis directors and professors in the Hollins University Children’s Literature program, Lisa Rowe Fraustino and J.D. Stahl, whose insights were invaluable to the development of the essays in this book, and to all of the other outstanding faculty, staff, and students at Hollins University who inspired and informed my work, and facilitated my research. I am also indebted to my friends Carol, Tracy, and Annemarie, and my husband Richard, my sons, and their wives. They put up with my career change and extended absences to attend classes at Hollins, who listened patiently as I worked my way through difficult theoretical issues in childhood psychology and picture book analysis, and helped with the editorial process. Nancy Chodorow, Shari Thurer, Ellen Handler Spitz, Perry Nodelman, Susan Lehr, and many other theorists and critics were inspire-ational and instrumental in the development of this text. I am indebted to them all.


Theory, Symbolism and Gender in Children’s Picture Books The Runaway Bunny Goodnight Moon My World

Bibliography Index

Look Again Press Birmingham, Alabama

Copyright © 2010, Look Again Press. All rights reserved. Without express written permission from the publisher, this book may not be reproduced or stored, in whole or in part, in any form, including any electronic format created or compiled for any reason, beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law.

ISBN 978-0-9801113-1-6

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender

What do you see, what do you hear when
you read The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon? The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon have been popular for more than half a century, and although the third text in this trilogy, My World, is not as well known, the three texts are clearly connected and have recently been published as a single edition titled Over the Moon. But to my knowledge, no critical analysis has ever before approached them as a trilogy, and no one has ever previously pointed out the pervasive use of Freudian symbolism or the Oedipal structure of these books. When I first suggested that Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd might have intentionally


incorporated Freudian psychological theories and symbols in their bunny books it raised more than a few eyebrows among my friends and fellow students at Hollins University. Many simply refused to even consider the possibility, and I had no direct proof to support my conclusion, no admission of theoretical inspiration similar to that made by Leonard Weisgard in his Caldecott acceptance speech for another Brown book, no Bank Street School psychologist report pointing out that this or that might suggest castration such as there is for The Noisy Book. So I pieced together evidence and

catalogued the extensive use of Freudian theory and symbols in the text and illustrations, the structure of the Brown trilogy in support my argument. Of course the mere presence of Freudian symbols in a picture book does not mean the authors and illustrators consciously intended to rely on or incorporate psychological themes in their texts. not Freud only in himself our has confirmed but that in the our symbols he identified in dream analysis reflected imaginations, colloquialisms, stories, folklore, songs, and rhymes. It would be difficult indeed to determine

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whether Freudian symbols have gained their

meanings because of the stories we have heard, or if stories use these symbols because our brains originally gave them meaning. As Freud points out, “symbolic relations are not something peculiar to dreamers or to the dream-work through which they come to expression,” but have long been employed by myths and fairy tales to convey meanings beyond the imaginative stories in which they are found.1 It is in the very nature of literature to use symbols, for words are themselves symbols of the ideas and things they represent. Educated adults might assume they know what a word or picture means, and might not realize that it could mean something altogether different to an imaginative child, or even to another adult. But even what seems to be nonsense to an adult can have meaning to a child, and “simple” picture books can expand a child’s understanding of himself, his relationships, and his place in the world. Some will be requested over and over again, much to the chagrin of parents for whom the meanings seem to be fixed. But I have found that books that are truly simple, which have fixed 1 Freud, Sigmund, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
New York: Norton (1966), pp. 195-196, 204-205.


meanings that are easily understood are quickly tossed aside and ignored after they have been read once or twice. They have little to offer a child’s imagination. Adults reading a picture book may look only at what is on the surface, which is why picture books are often described as simple or “childish.” They might see nothing more than the softness of the rabbit mother and bunny child, the pastel colors, the simple words. But the complexity of a good picture book often hides in its seeming simplicity. Indeed, what adults “see” in a picture book is often influenced by their assumptions about what books contain, about the meanings of words, and even about childhood itself. Adults can situate themselves in childhood only as adults looking back, and consequently our “adult” perspective imports our understanding of what children’s literature is and should be into the way we read picture books. In our minds, words and illustrations do not function in isolation. Like a rock tossed into a pond, they create ripples on the surface that reflect the light and lap at the edges of our conscious thoughts. Sinking into the depths, they bump up against other words and images we

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
have collected. Reaching the bottom, they stir the mud and leaves of deep memory that are buried there. Eventually they come to rest, new elements in our reservoir of symbols.2 There is nothing contemplated in the human mind that is not shaped by individual perceptions. Our concept of the “reality” of the present is tainted by the way we reconstruct our past, and the future we envision is limited to what we allow ourselves to imagine is possible. Psychological analysis tends to focus on this subjectivity, on the way our personal orientation to the world around us leads us to notice one thing and not another in a story or a dream, to pronounce some things more significant than others. It also recognizes the way our memories are often shaded by the ever increasing temporal distance from childhood. At no time is our unique perception of the world easier to observe than in childhood. As we grow older we are taught and come to believe that words and symbols have specific, sometimes universal meanings, and we convince ourselves that we are objective and unbiased observers. But at the same time, as we learn to empathize with 2 Rodari, Gianni, The Grammar of Fantasy, transl. Jack Zipes.
New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative (1996).


others, we realize that individual beliefs about what things mean can differ. This paradox is at the heart of narrative synthesis, for it is often through story that we seek connecting and common ground, and hope to discover universal truths about human experience. A story can be as simple as a parent’s report of a child learning to tie his own shoes, or as symbolically complex as the dreams and nightmares reflected in novels by Neil Gaiman, Frank Hebert, Ursula LeGuin, and Stephen King. Along this spectrum of possibilities, picture books for children are often considered to be the simplest of stories. Indeed, as Leonard Marcus has pointed out, many people assume that a picture book is and should be nothing more than a “sentimental repository endings.”3 But as adults we can choose to look again, to try to decipher why certain books appeal to children. This was why I returned to school to study children’s literature, and why, during the course of those studies, I came to see things in picture books I had never noticed before. 3 Marcus, Leonard S., Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the
Moon, Boston: Beacon, (1992), pp. 4-5.






Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny

trilogy was written during a period when Freudian theories of childhood development were important topics of discussion among educational experts, and there can be little doubt that toddlers, the target audience for most picture books, go through a phase when their genitals become important as part of their developing sense of self and their gender identity. Recognizing their fascination with their genitals and growing awareness of the mother and father as sexual beings, Freud openly advocated that children be taught about human sexuality, complaining that concealing the role it would play in their lives prevented them from being prepared to deal with the “aggressiveness” they might experience as a result of sexual desires.4 But even today, with sexual acts explicitly depicted in prime time television shows and Disney characters displaying unusual physical endowments, a child’s growing curiosity about what happens between his parents behind closed doors, and their recognition of biological differences between men and women are subjects many parents prefer to avoid. Parents also seem to be unaware of the ways in which some children’s
4 Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 81.


books operate to reinforce gendered roles in family and society, and the way they reflect and comment upon the psychosexual issues. They may consider the use of sexual symbols and images such as those found in Brown’s work perverted, and balk at reading these books to their children once the sexual imagery and symbolic content have been pointed out to them. A naïve child reader, however, probably would not consciously recognize or understand the symbolic or psychological content of the Brown trilogy the same way an adult would. It is arguably these books’ appeal to the subconscious, to the natural inclinations and interests of their young audience, the deeper, ostensibly “darker” feelings these texts may evoke, which has caused children to seek them out again and again for more than fifty years. While the general public may have tended to ignore the social and psychological messages contained in these texts, increased interest in the academic study of children’s books has led to an upsurge in the application of psychoanalytical theory and feminist analysis to children’s literature. Excellent bibliographies of this body of work can be

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found in Rollin’s and West’s Psychoanalytic

Responses to Children’s Literature, Spitz’s Inside Picture Books, Griswold’s The Classic American Children’s Story, Fetterly’s The Resisting Reader, and Lehr’s Beauty, Brains and Brawn. These authorities are not the first critics to apply social and psychological analysis to literature for children. A quick perusal of Bettelheim’s, Bottigheimer’s, Luethi’s and Zipes’ works on fairy and folk tales indicates the degree to which gender, economic class and psychological theories have been used to construct meaning from stories which were originally intended for audiences of all ages, but are now characterized as “children’s” literature. Luethi even goes so far as to suggest that the connection between psychology and fantasy literature “strengthens us in the belief that we are dealing with a particular form of literature, one which concerns man directly.”5 Few parents are familiar with any of these authorities however, and because the texts of picture books are short and the words used are “simple,” many assume that writing for young children is essentially devoid of literary value. But
5 Luthi, Max, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Bloomington: Indiana UP (1970), pp. 21-22.


for children the words and pictures are open vessels which they can fill with content, and the limited format and vocabulary tends to force picture book authors and illustrators to employ sophisticated literary devices. Certainly picture books speak to children in ways that neither words nor pictures can alone, in ways that we as parents and teachers and librarians should be aware of and appreciate. Even non-rhyming picture books texts are typically poetic in form, and each word and each picture in a picture book operates on many levels, which is why, even though the text is typically very short, and is often described as “simple,” picture books are not easy to create. Writers select specific words not only because of their literal meanings but also because of the way they sound, using those sounds to establish a mood and convey a sensibility that goes beyond the definitions of the words chosen. The development of language itself depends on metaphorical comparisons and contrasts of unknown things with known things that have relatively well established meanings. As humans attempt to name the unknown, to contain and control it by “putting it into words,” they invest

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
words not only with literal and often personal meaning, but also with emotion. The very sound of words can evoke emotional responses. Some young children jump at abrupt noises and shrink from things which growl or hiss, but are drawn to a cat’s purr and a beating heart. Words that use these sounds can evoke similar responses. Naming is a universal activity which recalls every creation story ever told. It is the conjuring of a thing which is not present, the containing and taming of the unknown. “D-o-g” on a page comes to have meaning for a child not only because other black lines and colored spaces form images on the same or an adjacent page and because this symbolic image is named orally for the child, but because of the child’s own experience with a dog, sometimes the teeth, sometimes the tongue, sometimes the soft ears and wagging tail. For a young child, naming takes on a magical quality. A doll or stuffed animal can become a very real friend who offers comfort and consolation at bedtime. A stick can be a sword or a gun simply because the child names it and imagines it to be so. It doesn’t matter that a “real” friend is supposed to be living flesh and blood and not fluff,


or that “real” guns and swords are made of metal and do not grow on trees. Naming the thing makes it “real” to the child. The process of naming also introduces the intertextual nature of language. For example, to a child who has not yet learned his letters, an “O” – a circle drawn on a page – can be a face or not a face, a ball or not a ball, a moon or not a moon, a balloon or not a balloon, some of which you can touch and smell and taste, and some which you can not. Because language works by and through a process of comparing the unknown with what is known, the image of any one of these things in a book subtly calls to mind all the other round things the reader has experienced in other books and in life, and sometimes their opposites as well. Thinking of round also conjures non-round things, straight and pointed and square things. Cold evokes warm and hot, darkness brings light, soft blends into hard. Is a bed in a manger soft when you’ve always slept on the floor? Is it still soft if you’ve slept on a feather bed? Illustrations offer a different system of

symbols which can be used like words, not only to convey meaning but also to evoke emotional

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
responses from the audience. Artists put one object closer to the edge of the page, make it larger, generating a perspective familiar to adults, but which may communicate to a child who has not yet learned the conventions of perspective in art that the larger thing is bigger or more important than the smaller thing rather than closer and farther away. They select primary or pastel hues, rich saturated pigments or translucent water colors, heavy black outlines or thin etched shadows, choosing to fill the page or use white space in a way that adds meaning to the images and text. Children “feel blue” and “see red” even if they cannot yet explain the connection between these colors and the emotions they evoke, the way the colors feel. Some of these connections and emotional responses are culturally developed. Some, like the red actually seen when looking through squinted eyes, may be universal. Molly Bang has done a fantastic job of exploring the ways in which colors and shapes can be used to generate wordless stories in her books. Authors and illustrators use these tools in a way that encourages young readers to embrace and explore their memories and feelings in order to








intentionally introduce ironic discontinuity into their texts. Indeed, discontinuity between the words and the illustrations can be a source of humor for adults who buy children’s books and might otherwise become bored when reading the same books over and over. For children, the interaction between the words and images, the act of making “sense” from what might seem at first to be nonsense is what makes books fascinating. The juxtaposition of words and illustrations which have different meanings operates to spark the child’s imagination and understanding. Discontinuity in a picture book requires the child to participate in constructing the meaning of the text at just the point in a child’s life when the child is learning that facial expressions and other visual symbols often communicate things that are left unsaid. It allows children to experience not only the playfulness of language, but a sense of satisfaction in making the text their own as they decide for themselves what is actually happening. It can also evoke deep emotional responses as children realize they can not always trust their eyes or ears alone to determine what is true, and explore the idea that people don’t always say what they mean.

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
For example, most children listening to Horton Hatches the Egg will know that a “real” elephant can’t climb a tree or sit on an egg without breaking it even if they haven’t ever seen a real elephant. They must reconcile this knowledge with the image and text. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) uses this discontinuity to open young readers’ to the possibility that there are many different kinds of parents, and the story works not just because Horton is silly, but because Geisel has created the kind of reliable, touchable creature children would want taking care of them. Horton’s big eyes and thick eyelashes, his rotund body outlined in thick black lines give children the impression that he is soft but solid, dependable, kind and patient in a way that the self-indulgent wispy-winged Maisy bird could never be. Through his creative approach to the theme, Geisel allows his audience to address both their fears and hopes with regard to their own parents, and seems to challenge the readers’ assumptions about what roles mothers and fathers should play in their children’s lives. Geisel is not alone in using animals rather than human characters in his books. Picture books are filled with small furry animals that symbolically represent humans. The very process of naming 20







introduces both ambiguity and uniqueness. It offers a visual metaphor which children seem to understand. Real rabbits don’t wear clothes, but Peter Rabbit wears a coat and shoes – does wearing clothes make him human? Does losing his clothes make him an animal again? Does the fact that Potter uses animal char-acters soften the impact of Peter’s garden? father’s Does death it in Farmer Farmer McGregor’s McGregor’s justify

threatening behavior toward the bunny-child in a way that readers can understand and accept as somehow permissible, although similar behavior toward a human child clearly would not be acceptable to adults? Another technique used in picture books is the interplay of conflicted and often opposing emotions. For example, in fairy tales, a character can be angry or greedy. He can intentionally or unintentionally hurt and even destroy something or someone he loves. For example, people familiar with Disney’s version of Pinocchio do not realize that in Collodi’s original story, the Blue Fairy dies. Indeed, fairy tales often begin with the hero’s failure, and focus on the rescue or resurrection of a loved person, or the restoration of a cherished

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
object which the hero has lost or broken. It is the hero’s exile, his journey away, his salvation, and his return home. In addition to the openness of words and images to interpretation by the child, the physical and emotional interaction between the child and the adult who is reading the story allow a child to explore his often conflicted feelings. As parents change their voices, as they play act the roles of the different characters, they evoke similar role playing in the child, allowing the child the freedom to identify with characters in the book, to “try on” and “try out” the different roles and the array of emotions the story portrays. Conflicting emotions are commonly

experienced by children, especially at bedtime, especially toward their parents, especially when they are beginning to explore the ways in which they can control those around them, and the ways they cannot. In this context, reading a picture book to a child at bedtime can become a form of performance art which reflects in many ways the very story which is being read. What child held securely in his mother’s arms has not explored his own ambivalent feelings as she reads about the


little bunny’s defiant flight in The Runaway Bunny, perhaps even voicing his own ideas about the forms he might take to escape her confining arms. What child has not felt the frustration of being put to bed when he is not sleepy, searching for objects on each page of Goodnight Moon that have not been named in the text, actively bidding each one goodnight in defiance of the old woman’s “hush,” begging that the book be read aloud again and again to delay the moment when the lights are finally turned out? In pursuing my studies, I found that a number of children’s literature critics had already taken a fresh look at picture books. Prominent writers in the field, including Perry Nodelman, Allison Lurie, and Ellen Handler Spitz, had already concluded that picture books can and do address psychological issues important to very young audiences. Some texts, such as Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, had been subjected to detailed analysis by numerous critics, and therefore I have not revisited those works. Sendak’s books in particular may have elicited this type of analysis because he dared to draw anatomically correct children in some of his illustrations, much to the consternation of many librarians and parents.

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
Like anatomically correct illustrations,

psychological issues in picture books can be presented either directly or in ways that may be so subtle that the psychological aspects of a text are not recognized for years. Unlike Linda de Hann’s King and King, which openly and directly confronts readers with the issue of homosexuality, in my opinion, the real power of picture books comes from their subtle use of metaphor and symbol rather than from forthright representations, especially where the subject may be frightening or potentially embarrassing or shameful. Indeed, as Ellen Handler Spitz notes, “The representation of a significant [psychological] theme stands the test of time only when it is so skillfully rendered that we come upon it gradually, and it does not diminish in power with each successive reading.”6 Consistent with this, Brown’s trilogy was so skillfully rendered that for more than half a century the underlying Oedipal theme has not been identified or mentioned in critical texts. As I stated before, many of my friends refused to believe Brown would have intentionally employed Freudian theory and symbols in these
6 Spitz, Ellen Handler. Inside Picture Books. New Haven: Yale
UP (1999), p. 11.


books. Debates over an author’s intent and the meanings which should be ascribed to the symbols used should not, however, preclude a discussion of the ways in which Brown’s picture books can and do speak to children. The varied and strongly felt emotional responses children may have to some books, the fact that some children request the same books again and again until they have resolved the psychological issues the books address, while others cry and throw the books aside immediately are signs that parents, teachers, librarians and literary critics should perhaps take another look. Certainly Brown would not have been the first to rely on psychological theories of childhood development to write children’s picture books that would both appeal to children and address difficult issues associated with growing up. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists had pointed to children’s literature as a vehicle through which children could both better understand the world around them and be better understood. Agreeing with this philosophy, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the director of the Bank Street School where Margaret Wise Brown worked, studied, and

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
wrote her first picture books, scheduled lectures and weekly discussions which included topics such as “The Emotional Effect of Stories on Children.”7 Mitchell believed that psychology and an intellectual approach were important to creating quality children’s books. ”8 The school taught Piaget’s theories of language,9 and the premise of the “here and now” stories Bank Street writers created reflected Friedrich Froebel’s theory that a child’s education arises from his active interaction with the world. The “here and now” picture books were based on the philosophy that everyday occurrences which adults viewed as commonplace could be the equivalent of fantasy for children, whose innocent sensuality allowed them to revel in the exciting new tastes, colors, sounds and textures they encountered.10 These “realistic” stories challenged the general belief held not only by New York Public Library head, Anne Carroll Moore and other prominent librarians, but also by publishers of the period, that fantasy forms, such as fairy tales,
7 Marcus, Leonard, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the
Moon,, pp. 85-86. 8 Ibid. p. 66. 9 Ibid., p. 52.

10 Ibid., p. 169 (quoting Brown).


myths, and legends, and word-play like nonsense poetry were the best forms of literature for the young.11 Some reviewing this book will undoubtedly focus on the lack of specific evidence that Brown intentionally used Freudian symbols in her trilogy. But Brown and her collaborators would not have openly admitted this. Authorities like Moore, whose power and influence often determined the success or failure of picture books, had already objected to the symbolism and focus on reality in the “here and now” books produced by Brown and other writers at the Bank Street School. Her objections to the “here and now” books would certainly explain Brown’s silence about the use of Freudian symbols and Oedipal themes in her bunny trilogy. But to suggest that Brown was unaware of the psychological import and symbolic content of her books ignores Brown’s wit, intelligence and familiarity with both literary symbols and Freudian psychological theory. While several theories of childhood development were taught at Bank Street, the primary focus of psychological studies at the School was Freudian.12 Indeed, the school became
11 Ibid., pp. 53-55. 12 Ibid., p. 66.

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so well known for its research in the field that it hosted a “steady parade” of psychologists and educators from around the world,13 including one of Anna Freud’s protégés, Edith Buxbaum.14 Given her association with the Bank Street School throughout her writing career, it is probable that Brown personally read not only Freud and Piaget, but Erik Erikson’s, Melanie Klein’s, and D.W. Winnicott’s papers on childhood. There is also evidence that Brown was personally fascinated with psychology even before she began working at the Bank Street School. Although only one course in psychology was required for graduation from Hollins College, Brown took almost every psychology course available, completing not only the required introductory Psychology course, but Advanced General Psychology, Child Psychology, Social Psychology, and Abnormal Psychology.15 In addition to her college studies and

continued exposure to psychological theory at Bank
13 Ibid., p. 61.

14 Helfgott, Esther Altshul, Ph.D. “Edith Buxbaum (1902-

1982).” Women's Intellectual Contributions. Webster U. 9 July 2007.

15 Hollins College Course Catalogue 1930-31, Brown’s Hollins
College records (courtesy Hollins University).


Street, in 1940, the same year Brown began work on The Runaway Bunny,16 she also began dream analysis with Dr. Bak, a prominent Freudian.17 Her sessions with Dr. Bak would have touched on her own life. Her father’s frequent and extended absences during her childhood, her difficulties with her parents’ divorce, and her troubled homosexual relationship with Michael Strange undoubtedly been subjects she would have would have

discussed with Bak, especially as some theorists suggested that homosexuality was the result of the father’s absence during formative years.18 While Marcus reports that Brown

“approached her sessions with Dr. Bak with a healthy skepticism,” he also reports that Brown was preoccupied with dreams and their relationship to “the compelling – and at the time largely unexplored – theme of the power struggles implicit in growing up.”19 Her personal experience with dream analysis may indeed have been what led her to consider dreams and “the unconscious interior life, with all its mysterious operations,” resources
16 Marcus, p. 149.
17 Ibid., p. 139.


Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: U of California P (1978), p. 175 (quoting Biller).

19 Marcus., p. 18.

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which ought not to be shunned by writers.20 Brown knowingly sought inspiration from “the insights to be gleaned from dreams, from memory, and from the ‘child that is within all of us…perhaps the one laboratory we all share,’”21 and even went so far as to confess that she was “grateful to the world of children’s books for remaining one of the purest and free-est fields for experimental writing today,” admitting that most of her books were experiments. therefore be surprising that

It should not friends


described her as “an experimenter,”

or that the

Bank Street writer’s group with whom Brown worked with to create “here and now” picture books was







There is even a specific example of Brown intentionally experimenting with psychology and symbolic imagery in a children’s book. The Noisy Book, published in 1939, was expressly identified
20 Ibid.,, p. 66.

21 Ibid., p. 151 (quoting Brown). 22 Brown, Margaret Wise. “Writing for Children.” Hollins
Alumnae Magazine Winter 1949: 14.

23 Marcus, p. 3.
24 Ibid., p. 79.


as an experiment with sounds and colors, based on a “Symbolist-related spec-ulation of Weisgard’s that sounds might a fact be translated in into visual equivalents through the colors and shapes of an illustration,”25 reaffirmed Weisgard’s Caldecott acceptance speech in 1947. Not only was The Noisy Book expressly identified as a psych-ological experiment, but Brown obtained feedback about the story prior to publication from at least one Bank Street staff psychologist who warned that a story about a little male dog whose eyes were bandaged


suggest only one thing to a boy reader – castration – and urged her to abandon the project. Although Brown rejected the staff psych-ologist’s advice and went ahead with publication, the incident indicates that, as part of her creative process, Brown consulted with psychologists at the Bank Street School regarding the symbolic content of her books. There is also specific evidence of Brown’s interest in creating modern “symbols in the brain” to use in her picture books. In a letter addressed to Gertrude Stein dated November 28, 1940, around
25 Ibid. p. 110. 26 Ibid., p. 112.

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the same time she began work on The Runaway Bunny, Brown wrote: I wish someone would do a book of modern folk or fairy tales – the world we know to-day and values in it, or if it’s a fairy story with princes on tanks and forsaken mermen in a sea of submarines. Which is silly, perhaps because tanks and submarines are not yet symbols in the brain like white horses and dolphin’s tails. Or are they? Anyway. Once there were folk tales about the world people lived in and now there arn’t [sic]. But maybe this would be too hard a book for anyone to write now.”27 Brown suggested that Stein take on the task, a challenge very similar to the “beat me to it” challenge she had made only two months earlier in a letter to Lucy Sprague Mitchell dated September 14, 1940, regarding the medieval French love ballad which was the inspiration for The Runaway Bunny.28 In this semi-erotic ballad, a woman changes into various animals and is hunted by her lover. Not only does the inspiration by a love ballad suggest something unusual for a children’s book, but comments by Marcus also suggest that The

27 Ibid., p. 141. 28 Ibid., p. 149.


Runaway Bunny may have had a private sexual meaning for Brown. He describes her tumultuous homosexual relationship with Michael Strange as “riddled with Runaway Bunny-like, catch-me-if-youcan evasions and ambiguities,” and noted that among their friends, Margaret was known as “Bunny” and Michael was known as “Rabbit.”29 While Marcus does not assert that Michael Strange was the model for Brown’s Rabbit mother, he does report that Strange was a domineering mother whose interference with her son Robin’s intimate relationships adversely impacted his sense of self worth. Strange was known to have meddled in Robin’s homosexual affairs, and left him “little room for an independent sexual identity,” by some accounts even going so far as to seduce his male lovers.” 30 The choice of rabbits as characters for these books is similarly revealing. For Brown, rabbits were neither cute nor innocent. She did not sentimentalize rabbits in the way parents reading this book might assume, but instead enjoyed the sport of running rabbits to death with hounds.31
29 Ibid., pp. 168, 172. 30 Ibid., p. 178. 31 Ibid., p. 40.

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Rabbits were also one of the first sources of Brown’s knowledge of sex as she had observed them as pets when she was a young child.32 The fecundity of rabbits and their association with human pregnancy tests may not be something children today would think about when these books are read, but certainly Brown would have been aware of these connections when she chose to use rabbits as characters in her books. Arguments supporting the view that Brown may have intentionally incorporated and relied on Freudian theory in creating this trilogy also include the Oedipal structure of the trilogy when it is considered as a whole. When viewed together the completeness of the Oedipal frame and the overwhelming number and specificity of Freudian symbols in Brown’s trilogy are astonishing. While some might attribute the presence of Freudian symbols Clement in the illustrations unlike to the illustrator Brown Hurd, authors today,

controlled the creative process, retaining veto power over his illustrations and providing detailed descriptions and sketches of what she wanted. Moreover, the symbolic objects in the illustrations often are specifically named in the texts, and
32 Ibid., p. 16.


Brown’s other works such as The Little Island and The Noisy Book also utilize Freudian themes and imagery, but were not illustrated by Hurd. Read as a psychological experiment

addressing a child’s fear of the omnipotent mother and the process of developing his own gendered identity, Brown’s the Runaway Bunny trilogy pervasive foreshadowed generally

characterization of maternal figures in the literature of the later decades of the twentieth century as “mostly failed nurturers or intrusive manipulators… [whose] malevolent hold was specifically psychological.”33 In the anti-feminist post WWII environment when women were being sent back home psychiatrists expanded their theories regarding “predatory moms” and their alter egos “neglectful moms” (a code name for “mothers who had outside interests”) to blame mothers for every psychological problem children exhibited. Arguably the predatory mother is the kind of mother suggested by Brown’s mother rabbit in The Runaway Bunny, a characterization typified by psychoanalyst David Levy, who asserted that the socially maladjusted child may have been “over
33 Thurer, Shari L. The Myths of Motherhood New York:
Houghton Mifflin (1994), p. 268.

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protected” and too close to his mother.34 Representations of women have always been polarized, a pattern which continued in the era of modern children’s literature. Self-sacrificing “good” mothers can be found in children’s literature from as early as the fairy tales, and continued throughout the end of the Victorian period and on into the twentieth century. They are featured in nineteenth century books like Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit and in twentieth century in books like Shel Silverstein’s’s The Giving Tree. Their opposites, manipulative mothers, were the ones who locked their children in towers or relegated them to performing domestic work for others, preventing them from finding a spouse. They are the mothers who trapped the beast in his beastly form and the frog in his skin so they could not be loved by anyone else. The fairy tale forms of these mothers were reinterpreted by Disney into beautiful yet evil step-mothers and witches. Given the tendency to characterize powerful women in both literature and early psychological analysis as manipulative and evil, it should not be particularly surprising that I chose to apply not only Freudian theory but also feminist theory in my
34 Ibid., pp. 271-273.


analysis of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny trilogy and the other stories explored in this book. Arguably it is the exploration of a child’s fear of the omnipotent mother which gives rise to “evil” mother characters in many stories. Some of the books I have selected affect both adults and children on a highly emotional level, sometimes bringing children to actual tears.35 But critics have tended to turn to nostalgia to explain these feelings, or ignored these indications that something more was going on in these books. Instead of looking deeper, many critics have taken their cue from the following statement by Brown: A book should try to accomplish something more than just to repeat a child’s own experiences. One would hope rather to make a child laugh or feel clear and happy-headed as he follows a simple rhythm to its logical end, to jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar: and perhaps to lift him for a few minutes from his own problems of shoelaces that won’t tie and busy parents and mysterious clock time, into a world of a bug or a bear or a bee or a boy living
35 Hurd recounts observing a toddler in tears, stomping on the

pages of Goodnight Moon, although he prefers to interpret this as communicating the child’s frustration with being unable to enter the bunny’s world. Hurd, Clement, “Remembering Margaret Wise Brown,” Horn Book, Oct. 1983, p. 544.

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in the timeless world of story.36 It isn’t hard to see the way this passage has deflected attention from the Freudian content of these books. She seems to suggest that she is hoping only to entertain and delight children rather than offering them a vehicle they can use to deal with complex emotional issues Instead of focusing only on how Brown’s books might make a child laugh, or how the “simple” rhythms in the language might prepare them for bed, critics should have recognized the rather explicit representation of reproductive organs in the final illustrations of The Runaway Bunny. They should have asked “whose room is this” when considering Goodnight Moon, and wondered why the mother who was so powerful and threatening in The Runaway Bunny fades into a mere shadow by the end of My World. Step by step, these books illustrate the psychological process of a boy’s separation from his mother and the development of his independent gendered identity. The Runaway Bunny explores the little bunny’s apprehension of the omnipotent
36 Shea, Peter. “Offering a Frame to Put Experience In:
Margaret Wise Brown Presents Opportunities to Very Young Children.” Univ. of Minnisota. 19 Aug. 2005, p. 6 (quoting Brown).


mother, his ambivalent feelings toward her, and his fear that she wants to seduce or castrate him. Continuing this theme, while some critics have described Goodnight Moon as a soothing litany intended to establish a ritual and ease the bunny-boy’s fears at bedtime,37 or teach him to go to sleep alone,38 no one has asked whose room it is, whose bed it is, or why the quiet old lady keeps whispering “hush” –what is it she does not want the bunny-boy to tell us? No one has suggested that this is the mother’s room and the mother’s bed, or mentioned the bunny’s defiance in saying goodnight to everything in the room. My World, completes the trilogy. It is the only text in which the father appears. It not only explores the rabbit family’s domestic relationships,39 but the bunny-boy’s competitive approach to the father he simultaneously resents
37 Marcus, p. 187; Stanton, Joseph, “`Goodnight Nobody’:
Comfort and the Vast Dark in the Picture-Poems of Margaret Wise Brown and Her Collaborators,” The Lion and the Unicorn 14 (1990) pp. 70-72; Robertson, Judith, “Sleeplessness in the Great Green Room: Getting Way Under the Covers with Goodnight Moon,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25:4 (2000-2001), 203-13; Spitz, pp. 27-37.

38 Galbraith, Mary, “`Goodnight Nobody’ Revisited: Using

Attachment Perspective to Study Picture Books About Bedtime,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 23:4 (1998-1999), p. 177.

39 Marcus, p. 236.

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and admires. His father’s car is bigger, his father’s soap makes more suds, his father’s dog is more aggressive, and the “moon” “belongs to the man in the moon.” Meanwhile the mother rabbit slips from prominence in the bunny’s life and into the shadows. She has become no more threatening to the little bunny than a shadow on the wall on a bright sunny day. In the end, the bunny is outside, no longer confined to the domestic sphere dominated by his mother. Given the degree of interest in Freudian theory Brown exhibited, the general interest in psychology in the culture which surrounded her, the evidence that she was intentionally experimenting with modern symbols in her books, the private psychological meaning The Runaway Bunny seemed to have had for Brown, and the undeniable Oedipal structure of the trilogy, it seems unlikely that the presence of Freudian themes and symbols in these books was either serendipitous or the result of unconscious creative processes at work. It seems more probable that their presence is “the work of a dry-eyed and cunning sensibility,”40 an experiment by Brown with symbols that would reflect “the world we know to40 Ibid., p. 144.


day and the values in it,”


an experiment that

specifically relied on Freudian theories of childhood development and dream analysis.” Whether the Freudian content in these books was intentional is not really the issue, however. What is important is that parents, educators, librarians, and students of children’s literature understand how and why some children’s books evoke strong emotions in children. We must make the effort to understand the multiple ways in which the words and images can be interpreted in order to understand what children might glean from them. We must also realize that children and adults might not perceive the same text and images in exactly the same way. Symbols different in picture books and are open to to



reinterpretation by the same child, depending on his personal perspective and experience of the world. This is particularly true of Brown’s Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon. One of the most notable features of these books is the ambiguity in the characterization of the mother rabbit. It is up to the reader to determine if she is “good” like a fairy god-mother, self sacrificing and ever present to
41 Ibid., p. 141 (quoting Brown).

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take care of the little bunny, or evil, controlling and manipulative, dependent on the bunny for her own identity, and desperate to keep him close forever – perhaps too close! The meaning a child derives from Brown’s stories is subjective, and it can be recreated, perhaps even changed, each time the stories are read. The target audience’s literary innocence, their lack of experience and familiarity with letters and words and and visual symbols, with generic their expectations narrative conventions,

unfamiliarity with the very idea that words and symbols have fixed meanings might limit a child’s literal understanding of a text or image. A young child certainly would not derive the same meanings from sexually explicit images as a sexually active adult familiar with Freudian theory. A child’s lack of preconceived notions about the ways in which stories are constructed and the ways in which words and pictures can be interpreted also allows the child to respond to picture books in imaginative ways that “literate” adults may have learned to ignore. Before reading this, many adults probably assumed they knew exactly what The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight


Moon were about. Some may have even read them so many times they can recite the texts by heart. But how many parents have stopped to wonder why these books have been so popular for so long? Why do children ask parents to read them over and over again? Why do some love them and others hate them without being able to say why? I am not the only literary critic who has felt some discomfort when reading these stories to my children. Cynthia Voigt asks, “Was I oversensitive to feel a kind of chill when I read the mother bunny's promise, ‘I will be the wind and I will blow you where I want you to go’? Was I over-identifying with the child beside me in her/his longing to escape that overflowing, overwhelming Mother?” Ultimately Voigt returns to the premise that picture books must be about love and asserts that “Have a carrot” is a line which somehow reflects the love she is looking for. But she admits that her conclusion may arise from the positive personal emotions she feels as a mother when she reads this line, and that these positive feelings may be less related to her experience of the book from a child’s perspective. Marc Caro complains of inconsistencies in

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Goodnight Moon that irritate him. “Why is a phone in the room?” he asks, noting that the narrator does not say goodnight to this object. And Elizabeth Kolbert found the story creepy, asking “What’s that lady doing in the room whispering ‘hush’? Why doesn’t she just go away?”42 She describes the story as both “more lyrical than anything written for children today” and also, “In its own quiet way … more brutal,” bringing parents and children together to contemplate death itself: “You don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want to die. But we both have to.”

Mary Galbraith asserts that Goodnight Moon can be read to reflect either “whimsical humor or despair and bitterness,”44 and Spitz comments that while the language in Goodnight Moon is soothing, the text “admits the possibilities of something vaguely sinister.”45 While Spitz acknowledges the “underbelly of anxiety that fuels this book,” like Voigt, Spitz eventually adopts a sentimentalized adult point of view, describing the moon as a
42 Caro, Marc. “Goodnight Mush Indeed.” Chicago Tribune Pop Machine. 21 Aug 2006. 2 July 2007. 43 Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Goodnight Mush.” The New Yorker. 4 Dec. 2006. 9 July 2007, pp. 3-4.

44 Galbraith, p. 175. 45 Spitz, pp. 33-34.


mother, “Illuminating the darkness…a beacon in the frightening realm of the unknown.” Her conclusion that the moon/mother is a reassuring presence in the dark totally ignores the fact that neither the text nor the illustrations mention or show any reassuring contact whatsoever between the bunny and the quiet old lady. Interestingly, Spitz fails to connect her sense of anxiety when reading Goodnight Moon with her independent observations relative to other texts that children are preoccupied with both sexuality and aggression, and that bedtime conflict with their parents is normal. Indeed,her analysis of Brown’s Wait Till the Moon Is Full, explicitly criticizes Brown for raising and then not addressing the child’s questions about sexual secrets, about what happens between parents at night.46 In addition to reflecting Freudian theories of childhood development, Brown’s trilogy also subtly reinforces mothers the which misogynistic taints early characterization Freudian of theory.

Children seem to love stories that address social and family relationships, perhaps because they are struggling to identify their own place in family and society. The subtle power of picture books to shape
46 Ibid., pp. 36-41.

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our culture therefore should not be ignored. Some stories do tend to reinforce established existing gender social roles constructs, including

within the family and society. As Shea notes, “great cultures are built on little stories taken seriously.”47 The fact that the stories discussed in this book may contain potentially controversial content does not mean that parents, teachers, and librarians should stop reading them to young children. My only hope is that after reading this book, you will look at them again, and perhaps see them in a new light.


The Runaway Bunny
47 Shea, p. 3.



Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny is an

innovative work written for multiple audiences. While rabbits are soft and furry, Brown did not romanticize childhood. What Brown wanted perhaps most was to be recognized among adults for her work, and she believed that writing for children was a forum for experimentation with both psychological theories as they related to childhood development and with symbols. Her books were written not only for a child audience, but also with the psychologists and her peers at the Bank Street School in mind. Work was begun on The Runaway Bunny in 1940, but it was not published until 1942. With many fathers overseas fighting the war, their absence from the home was undoubtedly more of an issue than ever before, and a topic with which many psychologists concerned themselves at the time. In fact, Brown proposed to write a book titled “The Fathers Are Coming Home” which was never actually submitted, but which her editor, Ursula Nordstrom wanted her to finish. “That could be such a lovely book,” Nordstrom wrote to Brown, encouraging her to work on it.48

48 Marcus, p. 241.

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It would not be surprising given Brown’s personal history and concurrent psychoanalysis sessions that Brown was preoccupied with the impact of a father’s absence on a child’s developing identity. The father’s absence focuses the inquiry on the role the mother plays in childhood development. What is a “good” mother, and how is she supposed to relate to her children, especially in the absence of the father? Consistent with the divergent opinions that existed regarding the degree to which mothers should devote their lives to raising their children, psychiatrists at the time had developed alternative theories, all of which blamed the mother for the child’s problems. “Predatory moms” were those who stayed at home and devoted their lives so completely to their children that they defined their own existence through their children, by how well their children did in school, etc., and therefore sought to control every aspect of their children’s lives. “Neglectful moms” were mothers who had outside interests or worked, leaving children to care for themselves or in childcare facilities.49 There was no middle ground and the “experts” found fault with whichever choice mothers made.
49 Thurer, pp. 271-73.


Like the “predatory mother” described by the experts, Brown’s mother rabbit in The Runaway Bunny is omnipresent and controlling. She is neither Winnicott’s “good-enough” mother, who is present but neither encourages nor discourages the child’s decision to act on his impulses,50 nor does she resemble Sendak’s Kleinian mother, out of the picture psyche.” but






Because women were demonized, the impact of the father’s role in a boy’s development was magnified. According to Freudian theory, the father’s role was to stand as rival to the boy for the mother’s affections, forcing both the boy and his mother to repress their sexual urges. It was presumed that in the father’s absence, the relationship between mother and son could become sexually toned, that the mother and child might confuse the sensuality associated with nursing an infant with a sexualized relationship.

In this

context, it is therefore possible that Brown’s
First, Elsa. “Mothering, Hate, and Winnicott.” Representations of Motherhood. Eds. Bassin et al. New Haven: Yale UP (1994) pp. 147-150.

51 Spitz, Ellen, “Picturing the Child’s Inner World of Fantasy,”

Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, New Haven:Yale UP (1988) p. 437.

52 Chodorow, p. 108.

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mother rabbit is on the verge of forcing her child into a sexually charged relationship with her. Another aspect of Brown’s books should be mentioned at this point. Not only were her books psychological and sociological experiments, written with the staff and students at the Bank Street School in mind, they were also literary works which relied on and alluded to other books and literary symbols. Above all else, Brown wanted to be perceived as a literary person who chose to write for children rather than being seen as having been relegated to writing for children because she was unable to write successfully for an adult audience. She admired writers whose literary work for adults had garnered them acclaim, and wanted to be admired by them. So she challenged them to write in her field, the field of children’s literature, with the same level of complexity and symbolic content that was typical of adult books. Indeed, The Runaway Bunny began with a literary work in French, written for adults and includes numerous literary references which are well beyond the knowledge and experience of a toddler. The power of soft and languid language and of naïve adult expectations with regard to books


ostensibly written for young children is surprising. Both operate to conceal and misdirect the adult’s attention from the sexual imagery in Brown’s books. But if you consider the possibility that The Runaway Bunny was written with multiple audiences in mind, not only for children but for psychiatrists and literary adults, the levels on which the text and images can communicate ideas become clearer. The triggering conflict between the mother and bunny is never mentioned in The Runaway Bunny, and is perhaps irrelevant. A child is born helpless and dependent upon a caregiver who controls his access to even his most basic needs. As the child grows older, his need to separate from his mother has guided psychoanalytic thinking ever since Freud’s formulations.”53 His rejection of the mother is not only the result of a desire to define ways in which he is in control, but a test of her ability to survive his separate existence. It is the same process reflected in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, where Max defies his mother and threatens to “eat her up.” But unlike
53 Benjamin, Jessica, “The Omnipotent Mother: A
Psychoanalytic Study of Fantasy and Reality,” Representations of Motherhood, Eds. Bassin et al. New Haven: Yale UP (1994) p. 130-131.

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Max, whose mother not only allows him take his

imaginary journey, but brings him a warm supper after his wild romp, the bunny child’s implicit demand for a private space from which he can exclude his mother falls on deaf ears. It is heard by neither the mother rabbit nor the many mothers whose nostalgic sentiments lead them to believe the mother rabbit’s pursuit is a display of affection rather than a narcissistic need to possess and control her child. They ignore the tell-tale line: “you are my little bunny,” she says, and “I will blow you where I want you to go.” The fantasy of maternal omnipotence

probably begins at the point where a child is first confronted with the mother’s independence and subjective will. Not only does the child realize that he does not control his mother, but he realizes that the satisfaction of his needs is in her control, most particularly with regard to the provision of food. Oedipal theory focuses on this point because it relies in part on the idea that boys are sexually attracted to their mothers. After all, mothers are really the child’s first seducer, though this occurs as a result of the mother caring for the child, feeding the child at her breast and touching his private parts as she cleans him, rather than from 52

sexual motivations.54 According maternal to Benjamin, as the fantasy of




parental omnipotence is the product of a “deeply rooted cultural bifurcation of all experience under the poles of gender.” Boys both fear their mothers and enjoy being taken care of by their mothers. As a result of their mixed feelings, women tend to be characterized their place. as desirable a but untouchable sphere of domestic saints, or evil witches who must be put in Because woman’s dominance is the home and children, boys who want to become men are encouraged to define themselves as “not women” – a process which is accomplished not merely through rejection of the mother who has been their primary caregiver, but by denigrating all women in order to develop a sense of justifiable domination over them. Benjamin suggests that by “unpacking” the relationship between the reality of the mother’s subjectivity and the child’s fantasy of maternal omnipotence we can better understand how and why these feelings arise during the pre-Oedipal stage of a child’s development. Interestingly, Benjamin also notes that changing the roles
54 Chodorow, p. 160.

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
mothers and fathers play with regard to childcare would not eliminate this fantasy, because “the wish for omnipotence and the projection of it onto more powerful others are an inevitable result of dependency for which there is no antidote.”

Changing the roles of men and women in childcare might, however, be a key step toward eliminating the bifurcated gender roles which have tended to denigrate women. The Runaway Bunny offers the listening child the dream of independence, a universal theme with which every child can identify. But for Brown’s bunny, the dream of escape is unfulfilled. There is no where the bunny can go, nothing he can become, that will allow him to escape his mother. Parents reading this story may remember their own plans to run away as children, a nostalgic recollection that allows them to recapture, for the moment, an element of their own childhood and apply it to their everyday life as adults. Who would not want to escape the reality of adult life? Interestingly parents do not generally find the mother’s overwhelming dominance disturbing, perhaps because as parents they see it as a justifiable protectiveness rather than a threatening


possessiveness. They see the soft furry rabbits on the cover, touch their children’s soft skin, and for a moment try to recall what it was like to sit in their own mothers’ laps. They long nostalgically for the closeness they once had, or wish they had with their own mothers. Like the powerful rabbit mother, they wish they could stop time, and keep their own children close forever. They call, and the child responds, mimicking the pattern of dialogue in the text. As is clear from the various critics who have adopted this perspective, The Runaway Bunny can be read as nothing more than a loving game played out between a mother and child. Unlike parents cuddling up for a bedtime story, however, clinical psychologists might focus on the complex interaction between the mother and child. This interaction depends on is played out symbolically on multiple levels, and the perspective readers adopt their personal experience, which affects the point of view they choose. This could simply be a story about a healthy child fantasizing about running away, but it can also speak to the sexually abused child struggling to escape a mother who insists on an inappropriate level of intimacy with her son. The openness of this text to such personal

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
interpretations aligns it with the principles of psychological dream analysis, where the subject’s point of view and perceptions are indicative of the individual’s mental state. A child’s threat to run away is far from abnormal. It is a common expression of a child’s growing sense of self, and his need to find a space of his own where he is in control in order to escape the fantasy of maternal omnipotence, When this occurs, Chodorow advises that a mother must encourage her child, especially a boy child, to express his independence or risk negative consequences in the child’s development. She suggests that when a mother refuses to allow her son to express his independence and find his own space, his “pre-oedipal attachment” to her can become charged with conflict and sexual overtones, focused not only on who possesses who, who controls who, but ultimately on the connection between dominance and gender in our society.55 Chodorow’s, Erikson’s and Benjamin’s

theories are refinements of Freudian theories, and it is a testament to the insights Brown had into these processes that The Runaway Bunny continues to address these issues effectively. Even
55 Chodorow, pp. 93-96.


her use of the third person omniscient point of view reinforces the sense that the child is not in control of his own future. Likewise, the illustrations seem to reflect the bunny-boy’s struggle to escape the “reality” pictured in the black and white images, a reality dominated by the mother’s point of view, by fleeing into the colored images that represent his transformation in his imagination. In the end, however, the very thing he fears and is trying to escape becomes his reality. The repeated shift from black and white to color images in the three books is one of the patterns which connects them, and could simply be the result of the publisher not wanting to spend the money on a full color picture book, but other elements suggest something more. The black and white illustrations seem to reflect the bunny’s struggle to escape the reality dominated by his mother. He flees into his colorful imagination, becoming first one thing then another until in the end he is trapped by his mother, unable to escape the reality she imposes on him. Hurd’s illustrations evoke a sensuality some might consider uncommon to texts for young children, especially when compared with many

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
other children’s books at the time. In a speech delivered at a children’s literature conference in New York in 2006, David Ezra Stein recalled his response to The Runaway Bunny as his mother read the story to him: “I remember almost being able to taste them, the colors, to feel the magical way the rabbit’s ear changes into a sail.” The potential impact of color was a subject which Brown expressly experimented with in her work with Weisgard, which suggests that both color and its absence were considerations in each of Brown’s books. In the color illustrations there are few black outlines and the colors bleed all the way to the edge of the page, vaguely defined, unrestrained and borderless as our dreams, while the black and white images seem to be contained within invisible frames reflecting the way our behavior is subject to invisible social constraints. Perhaps the shift from black and white to color was intended to suggest that nothing is ever as simple as “black and white,” that things may not really be as they appear on the surface or as they are stated in the black and white words. Perhaps this signals that there is something more to these stories. Details like these in the illustrations might


be attributed to Hurd, but the presence of Freudian symbols and the focus of the story are primarily dictated by the text. Hurd’s skill in executing and focusing the reader on those elements which Brown apparently wanted emphasized is a tribute to the effectiveness of their collaboration. In response to the mother rabbit’s efforts to maintain her control over him, the bunny-child indicates that he would rather quit being a bunny altogether than stay with his mother. As Erikson notes in his book, Childhood and Society, a boy’s effort to differentiate himself from his mother by pretending to be something else is entirely consistent with a boy’s growing sense of self and independence. The boy wants to rebel against his mother’s domination, but almost against his will he finds he has given in to her. So like Sendak’s Max, he uses his imagination to become something else, to go somewhere else, because that permits him to be his own boss. In his imagination, he obeys no one but himself.”56 The bunny’s first transformation from bunny to fish is drawn directly from the original ballad which Brown used for inspiration. Whether or not it
56 Erikson, Erik, Childhood and Society, New York: Norton,
(1950) p. 211.

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was intentional, her decision to retain this first transformation tends to import the ballad’s sexual overtones into the children’s book. Something fishy is definitely going on, and according to The Dictionary of American Slang, at the time Brown’s book was written, “fish” was still a term used for a prostitute. In response to the bunny’s transformation, the mother rabbit assembles nets and baskets, grabs a fishing pole – a phallic symbol, and sets out after him. Throughout The Runaway Bunny images of lines and ropes and webs appear, suggesting both that the mother rabbit wants to maintain the umbilical connection she once had with her child, and offering a subtle comparison of the mother to a spider, weaving a web in which she will catch and consume her child. Phallic symbols like the fishing pole also appear frequently. In the color illustration which follows, the mother rabbit as fisherman casts her line baited with a carrot. While Stanton, Spitz, and others suggest that The Runaway Bunny is a love story about separation and restoration in which the mother Rabbit continually rescues her bunny from the big wild world, this image does not support


such a naive interpretation. A carrot is not only a phallic object, but a symbol for an inducement to do something the object of the inducement usually does not want to do. The image reflects not only the mother’s desire to catch the little bunny-boy, but the passion with which she has invested their relationship. Her eyes are red, a color which symbolizes strong emotions, especially sexual ones.57 The red color may also suggest the bloody self-mutilation Oedipus suffered after he realized that he had murdered his own father and married his mother. Real rabbits do have red or pink eyes, but the mother rabbit’s eyes are not always red in the illustrations, and ultimately in My World the mother’s eyes have no color at all. The sky overhead grows dark, and a dead and broken tree centrally located in the foreground between the mother and bunny-fish-child introduces the idea that something important between them is broken or has died – ostensibly the father as the tree is a phallic symbol and he is never mentioned and never appears in any of the illustrations in this book. The mother rabbit casts
57 Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York:
Random (1975), p. 173.

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
her line over this dead tree, suggesting that she wants to establish a connection with the child that will overcome the loss of her relationship with the father. Death also threatens the bunny child, for children know that fishermen kill and eat what they catch. This image successfully captures the emotional essence of Horney’s description of a child’s perception of the mother: She is “malignant, capable of any crime, a beast of prey, a vampire, a witch, insatiable in her desires.”58 The “death threat” suggested by this first color image is consistent with Freudian theory regarding childhood development: “When the child begins to be aware that reality will not always bend to her or his will, that thought cannot always be translated into action, a pitched battle of wills can ensue, a struggle to the death for recognition.”59 Notably, this color illustration reappears as a black and white picture of the on the wall in the its subsequent texts trilogy, signaling

importance as an underlying theme. Not only does this image connect the three works as a thematic symbol, but the use of a carrot to catch the child,
58 Benjamin, p. 134 (quoting Horney).
59 Ibid., p. 132.


an image which reappears at the end of The Runaway Bunny, suggests both the apple of temptation offered by Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the orality of the pre-oedipal relationship between a mother and child derived from the infant’s being fed at the mother’s breast. Rejecting the carrot she casts in his

direction, the bunny-child declares that he will become a rock high above her. While a child would probably only think of a rock in the context of his experience with rocks, and a parent might naively ignore the suggestiveness of the text, a staff psychologist at the Bank Street School would have had no difficulty recognizing this as yet another symbol of the erect male phallus.60 A rock high on a mountain top would not only be out of reach, but something which does not have feelings, does not need to eat or sleep, and which cannot be injured – something which needs no mother. In the black and white image the mother carries a stick, still another phallic symbol, and a coil of rope hangs in the doorway, an umbilical cord to be used once again to reconnect the mother and bunny-child. In the color spread which follows the bunny-child is shown bound to a
60 Freud, Lectures, pp. 194-195

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rock, perhaps frozen with fear, erect and unable to flee as his mother mounts the crag. Her blue eyes suggest a coolness that might recall the snow and ice at the top of a mountain, but the rope hanging over her shoulder and the red rod in her hand are both implicit threats to the bunny-child’s independence and developing masculine identity. They send a silent message to a listening child as he explores his own fear of the omnipotent mother: “Run! Hide! Don’t let her catch you!” This impression would be reinforced by the following black and white image where the bunnychild cringes behind the petals of a flower and declares that he will become a crocus, another phallic reference and a symbol of both emerging sexuality in its erect form and virginity in its closed petals.61 Although the mother rabbit wears human clothing in the preceding color illustrations when she is engaged in the “human” activities of fishing and mountain climbing, here she is naked, although ostensibly gardening. She has come to the garden to water the bunny-boy’s crocus, an Eve to tempt the bunnychild, or an omnipotent goddess holding the power
61 Ibid.







of life and death in the watering can. In the color image which follows, she wears a farmer’s overalls, and carries a hoe, an image which once again represents the threat of death. Like the fisherman in the trout stream, the farmer eats bunnies he catches in his garden. There is even a connection between the carrot the mother uses to tempt the bunny, and the garden in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit: it was eating vegetables in Farmer McGregor’s garden that got Peter’s father killed and Peter into trouble. The connections between the images in The Runaway Bunny and Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit are plentiful. The watering can in the mother rabbit’s hand can closely resembles the can Peter hides in while in Farmer McGregor’s shed. The garden on the last pages of The Runaway Bunny bears a striking resemblance to Mr. McGregor’s garden with its neat rows of cabbages and lettuce, there is even a scarecrow wearing a bunny’s jacket. And the tree in the original illustration on the final page of The Runaway Bunny recalls the opening illustration of Potter’s Tale where unlike Brown’s mother, the mother Rabbit stares defensively at the reader as she encourages her bunny-children to come outside.

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
In the color illustration, Brown’s mother rabbit carries not only a hoe, but a basket full of chopped greens. The bunny cringes in the flowers, watching as she severs crocus blooms from their bulbs one by one in her effort to catch him. If staff psychologists at Bank Street were concerned about the little dog’s blindness in The Noisy Book suggesting castration, there can be little doubt what they would have had to say about this image. The only way Stanton might find these images comforting and Voigt could conclude that this is a story about love would be if they are identifying with the mother rabbit. A child would perhaps be more likely experience the “fight or flight” syndrome. Indeed the bunny-child changes again before his mother catches him. He becomes a bird and flies away. He has been unsuccessful with the earth and the water, why not try the air? There must be somewhere in the world he can go that she will not be able to follow. In fairy tales birds represent freedom and the higher aspiration of the ego and superego,62 but flying is also a symbol of sexual excitement and erection.63 The image is therefore arguably a
62 Bettelheim, pp. 101-102. 63 Freud, Lectures, p. 191.


reference to the bunny-child’s efforts to break free from his mother’s obsession and desire to possess him. In the color double spread which follows the black and white text, the total absence of any other trees reflects the mother’s refusal to allow the bunny to “come home to” any other woman. The tree is itself an ambiguous symbol, both phallic and potentially fruitful, although here the only fruit that will hang from her branches would be the bunnybird-child. Failing to free himself from his mother by becoming a bird, the bunny-child returns to the water, a symbol of rebirth, baptism, cleansing and purification.64 He becomes a boat. But even on the sea he is unable to escape her. It is in this image that Voigt sensed an ominous tone, an emotion reflected in the vivid display of the overwhelming, godlike power the mother seems to possess. Waves threaten to crash over the bunny and sink him, and nothing in the picture suggests his powerful mother is trying to protect him. Instead, she is to be blowing up a storm, pushing up the waves and gathering the dark clouds that loom on the horizon to blow him where she wants him to go, whether that is where the bunny wants to go or not!
64 Ibid., p. 197.

Theory, Symbolism, and Gender
Young children who have been exposed to Bible stories would be likely to make the intertextual connection between this scene and Noah. Like God, who created people, children sense that their mothers “created” them. Like God, who flooded the world, and drowned his own creation, the mother rabbit controls the little bunny. Only if they are like Noah, and do the goddess’s bidding, only if they allow the goddess to blow them where she wants them to go will they survive. But the bunny still does not give in. Forced to abandon the water, the bunny-child runs away to the circus. Running away to join the circus was a fantasy voiced by many children, a theme epitomized in James Otis’s Toby Tyler. Toby’s search for food and his efforts to control his oral obsession are key components in that story. The possibility that this is a subtle literary reference for those familiar with Toby’s journey is reinforced by the appearance of the mischievous monkey in the following illustration. The text and illustrations in Brown’s book are certainly open to a variety of potential interpretations, none of which advance the theory that this is a loving story about a child’s desire to


be rescued by his mother from the big, scary world. Nor does it support the claim that the mother is a “home base” to which the child happily returns. Advancing on the bunny-child as he peeks through the labial folds of the entrance to the circus tent, a visual suggestion that he is discovering genital differences between men and women, the mother says that she “will walk across the air” to catch him, reinforcing her seeming omnipotence. Perhaps the circus here was intended to represent the American family in the wider world – after all, the battlefields where fathers were fighting and dying were called “theatres” of war. But at the time this story was written, a circus was considered an obscene show, typified by seminaked dancers and dancing. In addition, dreams of swinging and flying as on a trapeze suggest sexual experiences.65

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65 Ibid., p. 191.

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