There are a lot of things to love about Because of the Rabbit! It is narrated by Emma, a 5th grader who is starting public school after having always been homeschooled. The story begins the night before Emma starts school. Her father is a Game Warden and she accompanies him on a call to rescue a rabbit that is stuck in someone’s fence. When they see the rabbit they know instantly that it is a pet and not a wild rabbit so after releasing it from the fence they cannot let it go in the forest, as it wouldn’t survive. They bring the rabbit home until they can find the owner. The rabbit, which Emma names Monsieur Lapin (the French word for ‘rabbit’), becomes a catalyst for some of the ensuing events in the story as well as for some of Emma’s gradual insights into herself.
After starting school Emma realizes that there are a lot of unspoken ‘rules’ and norms the other students take for granted but of which she is unaware. One big difference is that friendships seem to need to be socially structured to ensure ‘belonging.’ Emma is slightly stunned at several pivotal points in the story when she realizes she has to choose whether to: (1) be herself or someone she thinks might be more accepted by the majority of other students; or (2) choose friendship with a student who is nontypical (Jack) and of which the others clearly disapprove. To be accepted in the way she had hoped Emma must decide between what she knows is right (but comes with ostracization) or willfully hurting an innocent person in order to attain a comfortable social place for herself.
I love the honesty of Emma’s dilemma. I have seen it played out in reality countless times as a student and as a teacher. I don’t think this struggle ever really goes away. Adults deal with it differently sometimes but the root of the issue is always the same: how do we treat others with kindness and acceptance when doing so carries societal penalties–usually ostracization. Because of the Rabbit offers an opportunity to begin these conversations with young readers using Emma as a bridge between thought and reality. Emma’s need to belong is normal and something with which all readers can identify.
My only quibble with the book is the conclusion. For me, the novel loses some of its grip on reality by placing the climactic scene in a 5th grade classroom; what happens is much more likely to occur in a 3rd grade classroom than a 5th grade. I don’t actually think Emma’s actions are unbelievable–taking into account her inexperience with the school setting her choices make sense to me. What I do question is the the believability of the other students’ response. I only bring this up to point out that this story will probably not be as effective in its impact or usefulness for discussion in older elementary classrooms. 3rd Grade is a spot-on fit and even the first half of 4th Grade would still be a great choice. Individual readers of older ages might also find it a compelling read, but as a whole I think 5th Graders would perceive the students’ reactions as unrealistic. When a reader (regardless of age) perceives that the solution or the coping mechanism or the response to these things, used in a situation is not realistic we tend to dismiss the entire book. That would be my concern about reading this with 5th graders as opposed to younger kids.
No one overtly tells Emma that she has to choose between Jack and the rest of them, but she receives that message very clearly. Emma’s story is a magnificent tool in helping children develop both awareness and strength of their own ‘core’ confidence and sense of ‘okayness’ as individuals. We cannot control whether or not another person chooses to engage in hurtful behavior. Because of the Rabbit beautifully–and tangibly–demonstrates the ability to acknowledge hurtful behavior but not allow it to demand the sacrifice of our authentic self in order to move through and past that pain, and the power of empathy in everyday interactions.
In elementary school my daughter experienced the same decision that Emma faces and I wish I could have read Because of the Rabbit with her at the time. What a gift Cynthia Lord has given us by creating a story that is both genuinely moving and empowering.
One of my favorite quotes from the book is a moment of Emma’s delight in being herself:
For the first time I knew why Lapi had binkied as soon as we’d released him from the fence. Freedom is just too big to hold inside you.