How is this for brilliant Easter holiday reading? A powerful, feminist book for children. A book written 76 years ago by a white man from the deep south of the USA.
When I’m stuck on a writing project, I tell myself I will read and research other books, but usually I just turn on the TV. One afternoon, after watching re-runs of 19 Kids and Counting on YouTube I began to remember a book I had enjoyed as a child. Except that I could only remember vague details, like maybe it had a pink cover and a lot of bunnies on it. So I just kept typing ‘bunny’, ‘Easter’ and ‘rabbit’ into Ebay’s children’s book section, hoping that something would come up. Sure enough, an old copy of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward came up and I bought it for a buck fifty. When the parcel came, and I looked carefully at the cover, I noticed the book was published in 1939. There was a picture of a mother rabbit with her many children, standing in a row, all stiff and neatly dressed, just like the Duggar children. At best, I was expecting to get a laugh. Reading favourite childhood books as an adult sometimes shatters the sweet memories. I was expecting to be faced with condescending and sexist stereotypes about women that would have gone over my head when I was six. Maybe I should have stayed in the bubble where all I would remember was the pink cover and the bunnies?
How fascinated I was to learn that I could not have been more wrong about this book. Now you see, ever since she was a little bunny, Cottontail, a brown-skinned rabbit from the country has dreamed of becoming the Easter Bunny. But the Easter Bunny role has always been filled by privileged white males. Cottontail won’t let that dampen her dream, she’ll show them! Except that life gets in the way and she finds herself becoming a single mother with 21 babies. All the posh white rabbits with cravats laugh at her. They tell her that only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies. They tell her to go back to where she came from and go eat a carrot. I know. But Cottontail doesn’t give up on her dream. As her children grow, she loves and nurtures them, teaching them not only to be self-sufficient but that they each have a unique purpose in the world. Cottontail gets another chance to compete for the coveted Easter Bunny position and this time, it’s recognised that by being a mother she has developed some amazing skills. She gets the gig as the Easter Bunny, and has some challenges to overcome along the way. However, at the end of the day her kids are just fine. In fact, they’re better off for having a mother who is happy and fulfilled.She’s a mother and the Easter Bunny. And she did it all without a partner.
I was so surprised to learn that Heyward was from Charleston, South Carolina. He was a descendant of Judge Thomas Heyward, Jr., who was a South Carolina signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. Way ahead of his time, Heyward also wrote Porgy, which was the first major southern novel to portray African Americans without condemnation. The book went on to become Gershwin’s Broadway sensation, Porgy and Bess.
Heyward was very ill as a child, contracting polio, typhoid fever and pleurisy. He spent a lot of his time writing, and died of a heart attack only a year after The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was published. The book began as a bedtime story that Heyward would tell his daughter, Jenifer. It has never been out of print since first being published 76 years ago, and is still relevant. It’s the kind of kids’ book where you get to the end and want to fist pump your Cadbury Crème Egg into the air.