“Ninja Bunny,” a new picture book written and illustrated by Jennifer Gray Olson, is unique among books of its genre — children’s books about ninjas — in welcome and wonderful ways. What with ninja pigs, ninja wolves, ninja Red Riding Hoods, and ninja grammas, one might wonder how an author could make a book about a ninja bunny different from the rest. Among children’s authors, ninja is the new black.
But Olson has done it in a most entertaining and profound way: This book has no pictures of violent acts, of anybody actually making violent contact with anybody. The anonymous title bunny — he’s only referred to as Ninja Bunny — has determined his goal in life, which is to become a super-hero ninja.
So like any good bunny, he reads a how-to book, “How to Be a Super Awesome Ninja.” The rules, all written and illustrated, are demanding, clever, and pretty darn amoral: always work alone is rule number one; and there are such follow-ups as be sneaky, possess incredible strength, create weapons, know how to escape, and more.
Upon finishing the book, Ninja Bunny runs smack-dab into a large, fearsome bear who is probably looking for lunch. And Mr. Bear obviously thinks bunnies are delicious. At this point, Bunny realizes that he’s in big trouble, ninja rules notwithstanding. But he is saved from his impending doom by the voluntary involvement of a whole lot of brave bunnies who come to his aid and chase the bear away.
The story, in all its marvelous simplicity, teaches many important lessons. Rule Number One, for example, goes down the drain. “Always work alone” defies common sense, logic and meaningful positive behaviors. We, like bunnies, are social creatures. Teams are always much more effective in conflict or combat than individuals. Think “No man is an island” or “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM.”
These adages are cliches, but of course they have become cliches because they are true, even though ninja stories do not often reflect them. Michael Jordan never won a professional championship until he learned how to share on the court. Even the greatest scientific mind who ever lived, Albert Einstein, needed the help of a brilliant mathematician to construct the formulas which mathematically proved E=MC2.
“Ninja Bunny” effectively teaches that important truth to little ones — with not a drop of fighting or attacking with deadly force. It’s also important to note that as the bunny tries to put the rules into practice, he fails at every one. Trying to be sneaky after stealing some carrots (one presumes from Mr. McGregor’s garden) we see him about to step on the upward-facing forked end of a rake, so we know he’s about to suffer a very sore foot and a very sore head. And so it goes.
Each illustration portrays his failure to apply the rules. Another important few lessons: Life desires may involve unrealistic goals; everyone who tries to achieve success will encounter plenty of failure along the path; and when faced with danger, the best and smartest move, as all true ninjas really know, is turn around and, like Mr. Bear, run away.
But most importantly of all, children and adults would do well to understand that when we crash into the big bad bear of harsh reality, we had better realize that we need a human (or bunny) support system to help each of us in that struggle.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.
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