Should the Bear Eat the Rabbit?

Josie Leavitt - September 29, 2011

It’s been out for just a few days and already there has been a lot of discussion at my store about Jon Klassen’s book, I Want My Hat Back. I need to go on record as saying I LOVE this book.
The plot is simple: a bear has lost his hat and asks a series of animals if they’ve seen it. Rabbit, who is actually wearing the hat, says that he hasn’t seen the hat.  In the end, the bear realizes the rabbit has his hat. In one spread the rabbit is there, and in the next, there is evidence of a scuffle, but no rabbit. But bear is wearing is hat.
There have been customers who love the book until these last few pages when the Bear seemingly eats the rabbit. Personally, I think it’s funny. One has to take it on faith that the author is not advocating death for taking a hat in the real world. But I think too many people expect all picture books to be necessarily cheery and full of the ubiquitous tidy endings where all is forgiven and the animals hold paws and play checkers.
What this book does is bring to light the feelings a child might have about someone stealing, and then lying about stealing, a treasured hat. It is not an advice manual. Kids have real emotions, and sometimes they’re dark and scary. But this book is tongue in cheek. And the way the Bear dispenses with the Rabbit is dealt with in exactly the same way the Rabbit lies about taking the hat. The cleverness of this book lies in its pure simplicity and dialog.
Admittedly, it’s not every day that the protagonist of a children’s book actually kills another character with no repercussions, at all. There are books where the protagonist does bad things and then learns from his or her actions, but in this book the rabbit is gone and bear gets his hat back and is happy. I think this book can inspire some pretty amazing discussions in classrooms  and homes of kids of varying ages about lying, consequences and what’s right and wrong and also you could have a real debate as to whether or not the bear actually ate the rabbit. Also, it’s never too early to teach kids about black humor.

12 thoughts on “Should the Bear Eat the Rabbit?

  1. Monica Edinger

    My 4th graders love this book and also others of its ilk, say Emily Gravett’s Wolves and (while not involving mortality, in the same vein I’d say) Tao Nyeu’s Bunny Days. All three are perfect kid-level irony, I’d say. Last year in a post I wrote about my students’ response to the last, “… these nine year-olds find it funny because of the way it plays on their memories of sweet little bunny stories of their toddler days. It is their place of irony.”( That is true for Kassen too.

  2. Christina

    Quite right! Introducing a bit of dark humor in a sly way without actually stating that such mayhem occurred is a nice touch. The animal characters also function in a way that animal characters always have: they act out the impulses and behaviors that might roil inside the child reader, but the child knows he or she can’t behave that way even if animals can (and indeed, it’s natural for a bear to eat a rabbit, hat or no hat).
    Many of the most beloved children’s books skirt the edge of danger this way (Peter Rabbit, whose father was made into a pie, for one). And I recall reading a book about children’s illustration in which an old picture for a retelling of the “baby bunting” rhyme (it may have been a Caldecott illustration) shows the baby wearing its rabbit-skin bunting and eyeing a playful family of live bunnies nearby, with a dawning look of awareness on its face–“oh, my rabbit-skin bunting…those bunnies…Daddy’s gun…hmm….”
    Now I can’t wait to go out and get my hands on this book (but I won’t swipe it from anyone, as I do live in bear country 🙂

  3. elizabeth Dulemba

    I so agree. I adore this book, but it does bring up all sorts of discussion points. I was definitely surprised when I hit that page, and then I laughed out loud. Bear’s frustration is satiated! Maybe a bit extreme, but… hm. 🙂 e

  4. Shirley Mullin

    I read this book individually to three granddaughters ages 3, 5, and 7. Their varying reactions were interesting. The three year old said “Oh, he got his hat back!” The five year old said, “I wonder where the rabbit went.” The seven year old responded, “Do you think the bear ate the rabbit? I don’t think so.” Reminds me that children “read” books from their own constructions and insert meaning only to the point that they can accept it.
    I do love the book!

  5. Shutta Crum

    I meet once a month with a really great group for a book discussion. (The group consists of a couple of authors, several bookbuyers and sellers, a children’s book editor, several librarians, two professors of children’s lit., as well as two sales reps from two major publishers.) We discussed “I Want My Hat Back,” last month. (One of our attendees is a sales rep for Candlewick.)
    It was a pretty funny–and divided discussion. A few people were aghast at the implied eating of the bunny. Several of us were not sure that happened. Many thought it was a hoot! I loved the illustrations–that look in the rabbit’s eyes when he lies…………HAH!
    The main question that arose for us was to whom do you recommend it? Certainly adults, kids with a sense of dark humor. But how young woud you go?
    I think Shirley’s comment above is instructive. Kids read/see according to their own experience . . . and often gloss over what they can’t understand/handle at the moment. And humor is such a subjective thing.
    I have a very dark sense of humor . . . and enjoyed getting to read it.

  6. Dianna Winget

    I agree with Christina. Think about many of the classic and much loved fairy tales! Some pretty heavy duty scary stuff happens in those and yet most kids have loved them throughout the generations. The bear in “I Want My Hat Back,” is just being . . . well, a bear!

  7. Elizabeth Bluemle

    I love Shirley’s point about how individual readers come to things with their own perspectives. A couple other books with offbeat, unexpected humor for picture books that are charming and immensely fun to share: I’M THE BIGGEST THING IN THE OCEAN, by Kevin Sherry and I’D REALLY LIKE TO EAT A CHILD by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothee de Monfried.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Oh! And MR. BEAR SQUASH-YOU-ALL-FLAT by Morrell Gipson, which is at least sixty years old (Purple House Press brought it back out in 2000). The Far Side’s Gary Larson loved this one as a kid (he wrote the foreword for the reprint), so let that be a warning…. ; )

      1. Shutta Crum

        Thanks! Never heard of Mr. Bear Squash You All Flat…I’ll have to look for it. I’ve always loved Larson’s humor. One of my favorite cartoons of his is two bears looking at some campers in sleeping bags. One of the bears says, “Yummm. S’mores!”

  8. Eric Luper

    I always rooted for the Coyote to catch and eat the Road Runner. I mean, it’s a circle of life thing. Why shouldn’t the carnivore be entitled to survival as well? Granted, all the money the Coyote spent on ACME products, he could have ordered a huge shipment from Omaha Steaks, but still.
    Anyhow, the Road Runner was a smug son of a gun. He deserved to be caught.
    I am a fan of dark humor as well and I believe kids are capable of handling the darkness. Rock on, bear!


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