With spring just around the corner, what images pop into the mind? Naturally, you’re thinking cherry blossoms and daffodils, spring lambs and fluffy chickens, dolls and kites, eggs and chocolate. But some of you will also be thinking rabbits, and you are in luck, because next month brings the publication of a new book that is not only all about a very unusual rabbit but is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a spring in your very step.
“Runny Babbit” is the title; “A Billy Sook” is the subtitle; and Shel Silverstein is the author. Those last two bits of information will alert you to the kind of book this is: It’s a children’s book that is not just for children, any more than Silverstein’s best-selling fable of 1964, “The Giving Tree,” was, although this one is funny where that one was heart-rending.
And it is the work of a man who was profoundly, playfully, in love with the English language; he liked to illuminate its rules by messing with them a little, especially in his many books of light verse. (The Chicago native died in 1999, but “Runny Babbit,” a collection that he worked on for over 20 years, according to his publisher, is a brand-new title.)
On both counts, the book is a laugh-out-loud pleasure for both those who already know English and those who are just getting a feel for it. Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem “Jabberwocky,” with its convoluted neologisms and portmanteau words, hovers in the background, but “Runny Babbit,” which uses the single simple device of transposing initial letters to make up silly new words, is much easier to grasp.
The question of why anyone would bother to do such a thing can be answered only by quoting bits to show the results:
Runny fad a hamily?
Matter of fact, he had
A sother and two bristers,
A dummy and a mad.
That’s from “The Funny Bamily.” The following tells what happened when Runny went looking for a snack at his friend’s place:
Runny went to Snerry Jake’s
To get some taisin roast,
But all Jake had was sea poup
(Which Runny mated host).
A man who can hear the echoes of “dummy and mad” in “mummy and dad” and “sea poup” in “pea soup” is no hack rhymester. He is a true poet — someone capable of taking language to a higher level, of putting words together in such a way that they release fresh meaning. But the appeal of this book is by no means all cerebral. Silverstein’s wordplay, unlike, say, Wordsworth’s, is just plain hilarious, though it’s hard to pin down why. Sometimes his neologisms simply sound funny, as children will recognize right away:
Runny got the picken chox
And had to bay in sted,
With sped rots on his belly
And sped rots on his head.
With Runny, however, Silverstein has done more than demonstrate a knack for quotable nonsense. He has created an Everyrabbit, a character whose ups and downs reflect our own and whose resilience is heartening. He gets sick, as we have seen, suffers accidents (“Runny be quimble,/ Runny be nick,/ Runny cump over the jandlestick./ But now — what smells like furning bluff? Guess he didn’t hump jigh enough.”), and is oppressed by his mama (“Tick up your poys!” “Spon’t dit!”)
But he also has fun (goes on a nicpic, plays garty pames, takes a trip to Rount Mushmore and enjoys a mancy feal in a rancy festaurant). What’s more, he is learning to look out for himself: “Runny Babbit with his axe/ Chopped down a trerry chee./ When Raddy Dabbit asked, ‘Do whid it?’/ Runny said, ‘Mot ne.’ “
Above all, Runny has his friends, who keep him from getting too big for his boots, even though he is starring in a book. Here is “His Kajesty, the Ming,” a timely reminder not just for Runny, but for Silverstein’s native America, busily trying to sprout a dynastic tradition, and Japan, which can’t seem to shake one off:
Runny wanted to be a king,
So he crot himself a gown.
He then put on a rurple pobe
And strutted up and down.
He shouted to his friends, “Dow bown,
Dow bown and riss my king!”
But everybody laughed and said,
“Oh stop, you thilly sing.”
It may be in a children’s book, folks, but that’s wisdom, delivered as lightly as a bring spreeze.
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