Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2013 Contenders: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

Ursula K. Le Guin recently wrote an excellent post about literary awards. The whole thing is thoughtful and thought-provoking, but this passage in particular caught my eye:

"I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to give prizes at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize, an ad hoc, unique prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (in those days there were many mongrels and few breeds), and certainly no Best of Show."

I very much doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Bunny is going to win the Newbery Medal (though I could be wrong - I used to think there was an upper limit for Newbery weirdness, but then a little book about funeral homes, Hell's Angels, and geriatricidal octogenarians made the cut). If there were a literary equivalent of Being the Only Skink, though, Polly Horvath would have it in the bag.

And that gets at the heart of my ambivalence about literary awards. I disagree with Le Guin when she says that in "declaring a book as `the best,' a literary award serves that book. It does not serve literature." When Frederic Melcher and the Children's Librarians' Section created the Newbery award, their explicit intent was "to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children." To that end, I think it has met its goal. It has encouraged excellence in writing (and publishing) for children by rewarding excellence in writing for children (with prestige and increased sales).

In that sense, maybe literary awards are most effective within ghettoized genres. If no one believes there's such a thing as aesthetic greatness within children's literature (or science fiction, or romance), the establishment of an award can create a change in perception on the part of both publishers and readers. 

On the other hand, this is the age of shrinking shelf space and vanishing bookstores. Awards encourage publishers to give riskier titles a chance in the first place, but if they don't garner the Big One, how long do the books stay in print? There will always be a place on the library's shelves for Polly Horvath, but she'll be in and out of Barnes & Noble in the space of a month, if they ever stock her at all. I guess we'd better hold on to our libraries and our children's librarians: loyal defenders of Only Skinks and other oddities.

But I digress. A lot.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny is really freaking weird, even for Polly Horvath. The fact that she is listed, on the cover, as having translated the book "from the Rabbit" should tip you off. The plot, such as it is, concerns a sensible little girl whose hippie parents have been kidnapped by some evil foxes (who also own Fox Entertainment, naturally). She enlists the help of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who have recently taken up detective work (mostly as an excuse to wear fedoras).

I described Polly Horvath to Sam as "Daniel Pinkwater meets Kate DiCamillo," but this one obviously has a pinch of Beatrix Potter, and possibly Kenneth Grahame, thrown in. It's hilarious, surreal, and good-natured (with a touch of bite). I will also note that it's so, so nice to see a woman writing unabashedly in the darkly humorous vein. We need more of that.

Sophie Blackall's illustrations complement the text perfectly. They make me want to buy an illustration from her etsy shop. I do worry, though, that the cute bunnies on the cover will put off the weird little boys who will otherwise love this book. Skink defenders, do your work! 

Published by Schwartz & Wade - on shelves now. 

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