I always know when Easter is around the corner: I used to win the egg hunt by smell. Though the only thing I desire more than the mountains of chocolate is the best kids’ Easter book ever: The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward (with art by Marjorie Hack). I’m not usually a fan of Easter-related books; I find them way too heavy-handed on the religion. Ironic since it is one of the biggest mash-up religious festivals of all humanity. However, the Country Bunny swaps religious sermons for sociological commentary. It shakes off the guilt trip and returns with a solid lesson in personal responsibility. It ticks the three greatest moral lessons you can have for a child: Feminism, Racism, and professional value.
And not once does it ever make you feel bad about eating all the chocolate.
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
The book originated from a story Heyward used to share with his nine-year-old daughter, Jenifer. Heyward starts by correcting the first misconception of the Easter Bunny; it is actually The Easter Bunnies, five of them. Five of the kindest, and swiftest, and wisest bunnies in the whole wide world. It is a role many aspire to, including a small brown stay-at-home-mum. The story is as much about her hard work, kindness, and ingenuity, as it is about the Easter festival itself.
Feminism in 1939
Keeping in mind this book was written in 1939, it is the only story I can think of where the heroine is valued for her skills as a stay-at-home-mum.
Cottontail is our protagonist, a small brown country bunny who dreams of becoming one of the Easter Bunnies. Instead, she unrelentingly bullied for her dreams, told to “go back to the country and eat a carrot.” So she quits. She ends up with a husband and 21 bunnies of her own. You could easily think the story would end there; that is the view of Cottontail as she considers her life will never amount to anything more than what she does at home.
Even in present day, I could never write on my CV “excellent time management skills because I balance three conflicting schedules and have never left a child behind.” I can’t take credit for knowing the differences between oil-based stains and protein-based stains on school uniforms. I have, however, tried (and failed) at explaining my negotiation skills as Category 4: Able To Avoid Nuclear Meltdown In A Four-Year-Old. These are all essential life skills and easily translatable to most professional jobs (Perhaps the White House?). Are they valued? Well, I’m yet to be offered a job based on my awesome parenting skills.
Yet these are the exact same characteristics Grandfather Bunny is looking for in his new Easter Bunny. He recognises Cottontail must be swift to care for her children, clever to teach all her children so many important life-lessons, and kind to maintain such a warm and loving family. That’s right, folks, now we can all appreciate Cottontail’s mum-skills! Finally, she is worthy enough to join the elite group of…four male Easter Bunnies.
Spoiler Alert: Yes, she shows them.
Cottontail is essentially the stereotypical stay-at-home-mum; a persona not celebrated in the same manner again until The Incredibles with Elastigirl. And that’s a hell of a gap for a civilisation claiming so many social advancements. Instead, we have a book written in 1939 which values the role of mothers in the home as highly as any other role in society.
Racism, Even Amongst Bunnies
In contrast to the loud and clear value of mothers and women, the statements about racism are subtle but still to the point. For example, Cottontail is a brown rabbit. This isn’t an issue until the “the big white bunnies who live in fine houses” say she could never be an Easter Bunny because she is brown.
It is probably surprising enough to know Heyward expressed these views against racism back in 1939. However, Heyward is also the author behind Porgy, which was later adapted by George Gershwin into possibly the most well-known American Opera ever, Porgy and Bess. If you’re not familiar with the opera, check out Alison Peters summary here. My quick and unworthy summation: an emotionally charged story of two lovers, commenting on the plight of African-Americans through racism and classism. The book is better (of course) but either way, you gain the appreciation of how strongly Heyward felt about racism. With The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, Heyward writes strongly against racism but he keeps it in the tone of a children’s book.
Earn Your Easter Eggs
Given I first read this book when I was five years old, I don’t really recall the feminism or racism themes. The one message I remember from the story was the value of hard work.
In Heyward’s storytelling, the role of the Easter Bunny is not something just handed to you like an old English Title. You need to show compassion, resilience, perserverance, and intelligence. As a child, I appreciated all the Easter Bunnies have to do for this job. This book led me down a path of never-ending curiousity for the story behind ALL the festive legends. If you have a similar weakness, check out the more grown-up Klaus by Grant Morrison and artist Dan Mora. An amazing re-telling of the legend of Santa Claus with beautiful imagery and spirituality…However, I’m not sure if it will still be heralded for the same classy approach to social themes as The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.
For a book I have always claimed as the best kids Easter book ever, I am now realising how undervalued it has been. In the same way I have incorporated chocolate in my life, The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes should be brought down off the shelf whenever I need some comfort. While International Women’s Day is still fresh in our minds, this could become an everyday occurrence. And that’s okay. Sometimes everyday activities should be appreciated as much as the special one-day celebrations.