Let's not mince words: I hate The Little Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings. Like several other print works that have appeared on the site, I've had this around since childhood -- and while I've been planning to review it for quite some time, for whatever reason I haven't done so until now. I did sit down to write this article several years ago, though, and upon googling the title I was appalled to discover that the story is widely read kindergarten classes. Yes, the events of the tale are fairly innocent -- and it stars personified animals; kids love those -- but, as you'll see, impressionable children should not be reading such a hateful piece of work. In a way, it has much in common with another unfortunate moral story: The Scorpion and the Frog. The caution against trusting a thing with a potentially harmful disposition might certainly be worth remembering when dealing with wild animals, and, while we should generally strive to give people the benefit of the doubt at first and within reason, there certainly are people in the world who will never change their wicked ways and should not be trusted under any circumstances. But, that said, a racist might use the very same story to malign minorities, and a Christian homophobe might use it as a cautionary tale to discourage associating with gays -- especially given the scorpion's "penetration" of the frog and a possible interpretation of the river as Hell.
Anyway, while the book I have is a 1978 edition written by Newbury Medal winner Carol Sherwin Bailey and illustrated by Chris Santoro, there are apparently multiple versions of what one Amazon.com listing describes as a "classic American folk tale." From what I can tell, the basic elements of the story remain the same, though some other versions (like the one that begins on this page of children's stories) add a scene to the story that's absent from this version. This arguably makes those versions even more hateful than the Bailey book I've despised all these years, but we'll talk about that change as we come to it.
The story begins with a Little Rabbit (the words are capitalized throughout the story as if they're his name or something) who doesn't like himself the way he is -- and for the next few pages he points at various animals and names one of their features that he'd like to have. The squirrel has a bushy tail, so he wants that. The porcupine is covered in spines, so he'd like those. The duck has webbed feet, so he's all about that action. (Curiously, the book describes the webbed feet as "red rubbers." If those are all the Little Rabbit wants, he just needs to swing by a certain aisle at the neighborhood drugstore!)
But so far so good, right? The Little Rabbit clearly has body image issues -- which are not at all uncommon in this country, as evidenced by our general preoccupation with looks and weight -- so it's good that (one assumes) these will be dealt with in a kid-friendly way. The story does go out of its way to point out that this particular rabbit is "a beautiful little rabbit," which suggests that his unhappiness might be more justified if he were in fact ugly, but even so there's nothing terribly objectionable on these early pages.
So one day Mr. Groundhog overhears the Little Rabbit pining for attributes he does not possess -- and since Mr. Groundhog has eldritch knowledge of sundry arcane arts and mystical spots of power within the sylvan expanse, he directs the Little Rabbit to a secret wishing pond that will make his dreams come true. This, too, is not especially objectionable and seems particularly pertinent in today's society. After all, one could just as easily replace "wishing pond" with "plastic surgeon," and I'd support anything that seeks to dissuade children from growing up to abuse medical advances to modify their appearances in superficial and unnecessary ways. We don't need more Heidi Montags and Michael Jacksons making themselves look like... well, Heidi Montag is still quite attractive (though I prefer the pre-surgery version), but ah, poor Michael Jackson. Not to speak ill of the dead, but, if a new movie about Michael Jackson's life is made, his final form should be played by a puppet and voiced by John Kassir. Just saying.
Anyway! Upon finding the magic pond, the Little Rabbit spies a red cardinal -- whereupon, on a whim, he wishes for the titular red wings. After a moment, he begins to feel "as if he were cutting teeth in his shoulders" -- great simile, no? -- and suddenly red wings begin to sprout from his shoulderblades! Overjoyed, the Little Rabbit dances around the wishing pond all day waiting for them to finish growing in... and finally, just before sundown, we see that the metamorphosis is complete. THE LITTLE RABBIT HAS RED WINGS!!!
The Little Rabbit goes home at once to show his mother, and here's where things begin to go south -- because, upon seeing him, his mother doesn't appear to recognize him and slams the door in his face.
That. is. fucked. up.
Now, the book tries to explain this by noting that "she most certainly did not know a little rabbit with red wings," but that's complete horseshit. It's not as if the Little Rabbit's facial features rearranged so as to render him unrecognizable, nor did he quadruple in size or gain green scales or raptor claws or some other vastly different or monstrous physical attribute -- he just sprouted relatively small red wings from his shoulders. Now, if you and I are supposed to be good friends, and I happen to sprout red wings someday and come to call on you, I'll understand if you slam the door in my face out of fear. If you think that the wings signify my transformation into a demonic entity who's come to feast on your tasty human flesh, just say so from the other side of the closed door: I'll understand and fly off to leave you to your small-minded ways and world devoid of magic and wonder. But assuming everything else about me remains unchanged, don't you fucking dare pretend you don't recognize me because of a couple of feathered appendages protruding from my back. That would just be dishonest, and both you and I would know it.
Yet that is how the Little Rabbit's own mother responds to him in this story. Worse yet -- she's not alone! The Little Rabbit goes from door to door seeking shelter for the night, and both the squirrel and the duck pretend not to recognize him and turn him away. These animals are assholes.
But aha, thank goodness for that wise old sorcerer Mr. Groundhog! Due to his mystical prowess -- or possibly the fact that he's nowhere near as dickish as the rest of the forest critters -- he recognizes the Little Rabbit at once and invites him into his burrow. Hurray! I mean, one would think it's a good thing that the rabbit has finally encountered a friend who acknowledges him for who he is rather than what he looks like, right?
Instead, the story stresses how uncomfortable the rabbit is in Mr. Groundhog's hole, what with the way he's got beechnuts strewn all over the place. As such, despite having found his only true friend in the whole goddamned story -- look, Mr. Groundhog even loans the Little Rabbit a toothbrush, and who knows how rare those are in a forest setting? -- the poor fellow wakes up so depressed and despairing that he wants to get rid of his lovely red wings at once. Nodding sagely, Mr. Groundhog suggests that he return to the magical pond of wonder and wish the wings away.
And so the Little Rabbit returns to the wishing pond and speaks his desire. When his wings immediately vanish, he returns home -- where his loving mother greets him and he is at last happy to be himself.
I. call. bullshit.
You see, the Little Rabbit might be feeling better for the time being, but that's not because he's learned a great lesson about being happy with himself -- it's because the other characters (or at least his mother) have stopped treating him like absolute shit for daring to be different. Once the novelty of that change wears off, he'll likely be back to moping about the attributes he lacks. Even worse, he'll have cause to mourn a fantastic attribute he once had but willingly gave up because the people who are supposed to love him treated him like utter shit for it. For a time, he was the Little Red-Winged Rabbit. Of course, all individuals are unique, but this particular rabbit had attained a magical and damned cool attribute that distinguished him from all other rabbits in the world. He'll never be that awesome again.
And then there's the emphasis on how uncomfortable it was in Mr. Groundhog's den. It's almost as if the story is saying that it can be difficult to be yourself and be around people who really care about you -- and admittedly, I imagine that could be fairly trying at times; love is pain and all that jazz -- so you should just take the superficial road and be like everyone else and surround yourself with the shallow affection of people who wouldn't give a Gambian pouched rat's ass about you if you ever seemed to be anything but ordinary.
Another thing: I've always hated that this story chose wings as the attribute that the Little Rabbit gained. Unlike a bushy tail or webbed feet -- which probably wouldn't have been all that useful -- wings would've enabled him to fly. Flight is among the coolest superpowers ever! And yet, because his friends mostly treated him like shit and he slept poorly for one night, the Little Rabbit wished his lovely red wings away without ever even testing his newfound ability. Actually, at least one version of the story does include a scene in which the Little Rabbit tests out his wings. It doesn't end well, as he lands in a prickly bush and gets all tangled up (again, Mr. Groundhog comes to his rescue), but it's not as if his wings don't work; he just hasn't learned to control them yet. This is how it goes with almost any skill one wishes to learn. With sufficient determination -- or support from his friends and family -- the Little Rabbit might have kept trying until he mastered the power of flight and became a great hero of the forest, flying through the night skies and rescuing mice and rabbits from the owls and other predatory birds that strike fear into the hearts of the woodland critters. Instead, owing to his poor self-esteem and the shitty treatment he received from even his own mother, he just gave up.
Look, I've had a similar experience. I wouldn't say that I spent or spend my days especially depressed -- at least not because of body image issues -- but at one point I thought it might be cool to dye my hair blue, especially given that there was an anime convention a few weeks away. So I bought the necessary supplies from Sally's and Hot Topic and did that over the course of a week (I had to bleach my hair first and leave it alone for a few days before dyeing it blue), and I really did like the look. It didn't define me or enrich my life significantly, mind you; I just thought it looked cool. My mother, on the other hand, did not -- and while perhaps that's to be expected, she showed her disdain for my new appearance by snarling at me and calling me a "blue-haired faggot" every single day, multiple times a day, for as long as I kept the look. "Hey, it's the blue-haired faggot," she'd say. "Never thought I'd have a blue-haired faggot for a son." "I've made some chicken for dinner, you blue-haired faggot -- would you like some?"
I absolutely hated hearing it, so finally -- the day after the anime convention -- I shaved all of my hair off in the hopes that my mother would stop calling me a blue-haired faggot every flipping time she saw me. She did -- but unlike the Little Rabbit in the story, I wasn't left feeling happy and convinced that my mother loved me and that everything was okay. You see, while the blue hair had never really been that important to me, I had quite liked it and was sad to have been essentially bullied into abandoning the look. More significantly, the fact that my mother could be so completely horrible to me for two weeks straight led me to realize that, on some significant level, she doesn't really care for me -- because no one who truly loves anyone could possibly be so unapologetically awful to him or her, let alone because of something as trivial as dyed hair. I now find it difficult to believe anything kind that anyone ever says to me (not that this happens often): I know how easily one superficial detail can render apparent love into oppressive cruelty.
At any rate, I suppose that kindergarteners -- or anyone so shallow that he/she believes happiness is a simple function of being treated kindly by others (no matter what they really think of one or how they might treat one under slightly different circumstances) -- might read The Little Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings and conclude that its message is positive. It is not. Because of some red wings that couldn't possibly have obstructed her ability to recognize her own son (I mean, Buffy ultimately recognized Giles when he was a Fyarl demon by looking into his eyes), the Little Rabbit's mother left him to fend for himself in the forest at nighttime -- and in addition to the foxes and owls and other earthly predators that would just love to gobble up a tasty white rabbit, who knows what kinds of beasts lurk in a forest with supernatural landmarks like wishing ponds? Later in life, when a slightly older Little Rabbit reflects upon these events and understands the empty truth about his relationships, he might even be sufficiently depressed to slip a noose around his furry white neck and rock back and forth atop a chair until he loses his footing and gravity takes him from this world. And if such an outcome were to obtain, it would be noteworthy that the tragic ending might easily have been avoided had the Little Rabbit retained his ability to fly.
I think the ending of this story needs a rewrite... don't you?
nstead of returning to the magic pond, wishing away his red wings, and returning home to the mother who had so unceremoniously turned him away, the Little Red-Winged Rabbit asked Mr. Groundhog where he might find creatures who could teach him to harness the power of flight. Scratching his bushy chin, Mr. Groundhog related the tale of a clan of immortal vampire bats that dwelled in the haunted black peaks at the farthest edge of the forest. There was a reason this area was seldom visited by the woodland critters -- the bats were not known for their hospitality, but they were known for their hunger for blood -- but Mr. Groundhog himself had dealt with them on a number of occasions and they had always been fair with him.
And so, following the wise old sorcerer's directions, the Little Red-Winged Rabbit located the haunted black peaks at the farthest edge of the forest and encountered the immortal vampire bats of legend. Several of them indeed eyed him hungrily, but they gasped in awe when they spied the red wings on his back -- and after hearing his tale of woe and noting that he was a friend of Mr. Groundhog, they agreed to train him to use his red wings. They also permitted him to live among them in their haunted cave -- and although he found their lair frightening at first, he eventually grew to love his new home and delight in the company of his new friends and instructors. After some time, the vampire bats even decided to sire him: a process that granted the Little Red-Winged Rabbit even greater powers and supernatural gifts.
Several years later, the Little Undead Red-Winged Rabbit returned to the forest with his family of immortal vampire bats, whereupon they drained the blood of every pitiful creature they could catch (they spared Mr. Groundhog's residence, not that they could have defeated him anyway). Of course, the first to perish in the gory massacre was the rabbit mother who had so cruelly rejected her son on the night of his initial transformation.
When the carnage was finished and the vampires were sated, they returned to the haunted black peaks at the farthest edge of the forest... and there, being immortal, they lived happily forever after.-- Wes --