I walk in the river valley and ravines of my city. It is my daily exercise, but more than that, it is my meditation. In the solitude and loveliness of nature, my cup runneth over. I’ve seen many miraculous things, but none that touched my heart more than an unlikely creature spotted one morning, nuzzling yellowed grass in the dead landscape of November. A small brown rabbit had taken up residence on a hill near the city’s centre. Large, sturdy-footed hares are ubiquitous in Edmonton, but this fellow was clearly domestic. Lost or abandoned, he had found a home beneath a set of stairs in full view of trail walkers like myself and the ever vigilant predatory wildlife who make their home in the river valley. I observed Brown Rabbit (pictured on the right) on numerous occasions, but after the first snow, I was surprised to find him in his usual spot, nibbling a branch. After that, I began filling my pockets with vegetables and making strategic drops near the staircase. On good days, he would come out and feast on the bounty. Some days, usually cold days, he was nowhere to be found. I worried about Brown Rabbit, and I was not alone. Remnants of other ‘care packages’ were visible in the area, but calls to various wildlife rescue organizations proved fruitless. On the remote chance that he could be lured into a cage, no one was really interested in another abandoned domestic rabbit. “Best not to move him.” I was told.
On a blue-sky December afternoon near Christmas, I sat on the steps in the park and watched Brown Rabbit emerge from beneath the stairs, nearer to me than he’d ever previously dared. Perched on the steps just above the rabbit, the sun fiercely bright and cold on my face, I listened as he nibbled on vegetable tops and straws of timothy hay. In that moment it felt like I’d entered a state of grace with this little life. On some level, Brown Rabbit understood that I meant no harm. An animal’s trust is a gift. Once earned, it must be safeguarded.
On a Snowy Night by Jean Little, with illustrations by Brian Deines, is the story of a broken trust. It is also a story of compassion, and unexpected friendships. When a young boy named Brandon is given a rabbit for his fifth birthday, he names her Rosa and proclaims her ‘perfect.’ For awhile, the boy is attentive, but as is often the case with children and pets, interest wanes, and Brandon begins to neglect Rosa, even forgetting to feed her. Excited by the freshly fallen snow on Christmas Eve, Brandon brings Rosa outside and inadvertently leaves her there when he runs inside to answer a call. Rosa tries to find her way back, but gets lost. The chickadees warm Rosa with their down feathers and a squirrel finds Brandon’s lost mitten (apparently this kid is easily distracted), and gently nudges the still shivering rabbit onto its woolen surface. A raccoon pops the nose off a snowman and offers Rosa the carrot. “I thought wild animals ate each other?” says Rosa. “Not on this night,” replies a hawk, who leads the rabbit back to her home, where an anxious Brandon is reunited with his lost bunny. Interestingly, Jean Little ends the story ambiguously. While Rosa is happy to be back home, she is a realist (if rabbits can be realists.) On a snowy night, on Christmas Eve, kindness and friendship may be found in unlikely places.
When I first read On a Snowy Night, I did not exhale until the very last page. The idea of a poor animal freezing to death is an uncomfortable subject matter for a children’s picture book, or any book. Jean Little is making a blunt statement about animal neglect, yes, but she has framed it within the context of love. It is, after all, a Christmas story, and in particular a Christmas Eve story in that it plays on the theme of ‘magical’ beasts on the eve of Christ’s birth. In Little’s story, the animals do not talk (to humans), as is the tradition, but they do show remarkable compassion. Brandon adores his rabbit, but like most young kids does not fully comprehend the responsibility of caring for an animal. On a Snowy Night is a parable; sometimes harrowing but ultimately redemptive, if not for Brandon, then for Rosa, and the kindly creatures who care for her that night.
What makes this book truly breathtaking is Brian Deines’ depiction of Rosa’s perilous journey from coddled pet to endangered animal, elevating what could have been a very stark storyline to one of intense beauty. The softly applied oils mirror the gently wafting snowflakes and snow-flecked animal furs, and Deines’ winter palette of deep blues and mauve-shadowed white radiates peace even as Rosa’s plight unfolds. On a Snowy Night plucks at our heartstrings, but Deines steers (mostly) clear of overt anthropomorphism. Though undeniably cute, the animals remain recognizably natural. Features are not exaggerated to engender greater sympathy; Rosa’s situation is inherently sympathetic. As we pull for her, we are pulled in by Deines’ spirited and beautifully realized illustrations of Rosa and her animal rescuers amidst the pillow-soft winterscapes. With a deft hand and a tender heart, Deines makes this cold, cold night infinitely warmer, and unforgettable.
On that snow-covered hill in Edmonton a few years ago, a small brown rabbit was lost. There were moments of respite and even fellowship, but ultimately, he likely succumbed to the elements, or a hungry coyote. Or maybe, he found his way back home. I will never know, but he is often in my thoughts, especially on snowy days.
Jean Little was born in Taiwan in 1932, but grew up in Ontario. A graduate of the University of Toronto, Ms Little is the author of over fifty books, including Mine for Keeps, The Stars Come Out Tonight, Pippin the Christmas Pig, and Jess Was the Brave One. In addition to many awards, she has received six honorary degrees, is a member of the Order of Canada for her outstanding contribution to Canadian children’s literature, and was recently presented with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. Jean lives in Guelph, Ontario, with her sister, great-nephew and a house full of dogs including her guide dog, Honey.
Brian Deines has illustrated numerous award-winning picture books, including One Hockey Night, Bear on a Train, Our Canadian Flag, Fox on the Ice, Dragonfly Kisses, The Road to Afghanistan, and the exquisite Skysisters, a native tale about the northern lights. Coincidentally, he is the original illustrator of Caribou Song, written by Tomson Highway and recently reviewed in a previous post. According to the jacket flap, Deine’s inspiration for Rosa came via a neighbour’s pet. Born in Red Deer, Alberta, Brian Deines graduated from the Alberta College of Art and currently lives in Toronto, Canada.
On a Snowy Night by Jean Little, with illustrations by Brian Deines. Published by North Winds Press, an imprint of Scholastic Canada, 2013
Brown Rabbit by Donna McKinnon