BOOK (1979)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am

by Deborah and James Howe
Atheneum Books

In the spring of 1977, Deborah and James Howe sat down at their kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York, after dinner one night and began to write a children's book. At the time, they were both 30 years old, and had been working in theatre.

Though they were not sure of the plot of their story, the couple wrote with a character in mind: Bunnicula, a vampire rabbit. Their cat, Moose, became the inspiration for a feline character named Chester. A few months later, when they had written about six chapters, Deborah was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Still, they continued to write the novel, and finished it before her death a year later.

The book, Bunnicula, was published in 1979. That same year, Bantam Books published the first three titles in their popular series Choose Your Own Adventure, which allowed readers to select the narrative outcome of each novel. And Beverly Clearly published Ramona and Her Mother, part of her popular series about a young girl named Ramona Quimby. There was an established market for books aimed at elementary school-aged readers, though the Howes had not been aware of this while they wrote.

Bunnicula is a middle-grade children's novel about a family, the Monroes, their dog Harold, their cat Chester, and the latest addition to their household, a strange rabbit that they named Bunnicula. The book is told in the first person from the perspective of Harold (in fact, the fictional editor's note at the beginning of the book claims that Harold, whose 'full-time occupation is dog', wrote the book) and uses elements of mystery and thriller.

One stormy night, the Monroes find Bunnicula in a movie theatre showing Dracula. The family adopts the rabbit, taking him into their home. Bunnicula sleeps all day, and only wakes when the sun sets. He never speaks to Harold and Chester, adding to his mysterious persona.

Soon after, vegetables in the Monroe household turn up sucked dry and devoid of colour. But rather than suspect their pet, the family's dialogue reflects the concerns of the late 1970s in the United States, and the pesticide DDT gets the blame. Chester, who reads a lot, surmises that Bunnicula is responsible, and begins to worry that the bunny might soon start drinking blood. He devises a plan to prevent the rabbit from straying, draping his cage with garlic. Harold thinks Bunnicula is harmless, and begins to worry that he is starving. A humorous struggle between the animals ensues.

Bunnicula cleverly feeds the fascination with vampires in a way that's suitable for children, minus the sex and violence found in most bloodsucking tales. A bunny who drains the juice from vegetables is adorable, not scary. The novel proved popular, and James wrote another five books about Harold, Chester and Bunnicula.