The Rabbits

The RabbitsSummary: Winner of the Children’s Book Council Children’s Picture Book of the Year (1999). A dramatically moving allegory of colonisation told from the viewpoint of native Australian animals. This stunning picture book examines the consequences of the arrival of a group of rabbits with entirely unfamiliar ways. The rabbits bring new food and animals, and make their own houses to live in, eventually dominating the environment and its other inhabitants.

The change in the native animals’ environment is brilliantly depicted by Shaun Tan’s illustrations, which also serve to highlight the ‘strangeness’ of the rabbits. The parallels with our own experience of colonisation are many; stolen children, the onset of industrialisation, and population increases.

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The Rabbits, by John Marsden and Shaun Tan 8.0

‘The Rabbits’ is an allegorical tale about the invasion of a new land by a colonizing race of rabbits and its effect on its native inhabitants. It is told from the perspective of the natives, a race of numbats, as they try to fight off the invaders and despair at the overwhelming odds. It is not a happy bedtime story.

It’s interesting to note that it was written by Australian John Marsden, who enlisted fellow Aussie Shaun Tan to design the book. Not only did Australia suffer from a devastating infestation of rabbits for well over a century, but one can easily parallel the story with the arrival of British immigrants to Australia.

No doubt that this informed their work.

Personally, I read it from a North American perspective, looking at the way we’ve treated the natives here since our arrival centuries ago. There is also permanent controversy about our continued mistreatment of them, particularly in Canada, so this hits home each time I read this book. It didn’t leave me unmoved.

I liked how Marsden got us into their skin, made us understand their plight and enabled us to feel for them. He chose a sensitive perspective, not making the rabbits evil, per se, but painting them as selfish and self-absorbed, while, the numbats are bewildered, unable to understand and relate to the rabbits.

Shaun Tan’s artwork is pure bliss; the guy is so talented it’s ridiculous. Each two-page layout is a gorgeous painting, with layers of colour and various shades. And his designs are fantastic, giving the characters and the sights a style that is both otherworldly and echoes 18th industrial designs.

‘The Rabbits’ is a short book, but it’s so full of meaning and emotion that it outshines denser works. The text is spare, but loaded with intent, the pictures are bursting with detail and significance. It’s one of those rare works that makes its readers empathize and give them perspective without being condescending.

‘The Rabbits’ is a masterpiece and an essential read.

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