In the Spring of 1979, Bunnicula hit shelves.
And it stayed there.
And it stayed there.
And it stayed there.
For forty years, Bunnicula has endured. Despite the ways in which the lives and interests of young readers have shifted since 1979, it remains a perennial favorite. Why? What is it about this book in particular? How does Bunnicula capture young readers so effectively?
The people who wrote Bunnicula didn’t craft it with a legacy in mind. James and Deborah Howe were two struggling actors in their late twenties, married and underemployed, and they thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re part of a couple for a long time—a joke catches you, and it lives between you and takes on a life of its own. The joke spawns in-jokes that only make sense within the context of the relationship, and you try to painfully explain them to other people, which never works. You make each other laugh until you can’t breathe, and sometimes the memory of that laughter is enough to set you off again hours later. The joke lives because there’s something vital about the feeling of making your partner laugh, and so you do it again and again, bringing joy to the person you love with a stupid joke that neither of you ever tires of.
That’s where Bunnicula came from. Some things are intrinsically funny, like butts, or tuba-noises, or dogs’ faces. But a vampire rabbit isn’t funny all by itself, not without whatever context James and Deborah Howe built around it together.
With that context, it was funny enough for them to decide to make it into a book.
They sat down together at their kitchen table, and they made the joke into a story. Then the wrote the story into a book. That book is not for kids. It’s appropriate for kids, and it’s accessible to kids, but it’s not for them. It’s for James and Deborah. It’s a book that they wrote to make each other laugh the same way the idea of the vampire rabbit made them laugh. There are jokes about tax brackets and therapy—jokes that are funny to grown-ups and relatively meaningless to most kids.
Those jokes are filtered through the lens of the family dog, who has a lot of thoughts about ham sandwiches and chocolate cake. His narrative voice is also textured by adult humor. He counts Russian Wolfhounds among his ancestors, and as a result, he is able to read a note that is written in, “an obscure dialect of the Carpathian Mountain region.” He also asks in-narrative questions like, “what’s an area?” To a young reader, these moments won’t necessarily stand out as funny—but to an adult returning to the book for the first time in decades, they jump off the page.
Like the opening of The Muppet Movie, in which Kermit the Frog is discovered by a Hollywood talent agent who happens to be lost in his swamp, Bunnicula plays with nuances in suspension of disbelief. For a child, a Hollywood talent agent kayaking through a swamp carrying an audition notice for, “frogs wishing to become rich and famous” is exactly as plausible as a singing frog existing at all. For adults watching the film—and for the adults who wrote it—suspension of disbelief is part of the joke; this is why it’s even funnier in The Great Muppet Caper when everyone buys that Fozzie and Kermit are twins.
The jokes stack up without ever leaving the youngest members of the audience behind. And because of that, the jokes never lose the feeling of having been funny to their original authors. The joy that went into the writing comes through, and invites the reader to be part of an inside joke along with the writers.
That’s why Bunnicula is still in print and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this month with a new anniversary edition: it’s joyful. It doesn’t have a Significant Moral Lesson to impart, and it doesn’t condescend to the reader just because it’s for a young audience, and it doesn’t try too hard to be funny. It was written by a husband and wife who wanted to make each other laugh, and who decided to invite the world to laugh with them.
Deborah Howe never got to see anyone laugh along with the joke she and James shared. While they were writing Bunnicula, she was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away ten months before the book made it into print. James Howe has spent the intervening years keeping their legacy alive. Bunnicula has won countless awards. It has been translated into several languages. It spawned a series of chapter books and picture books and activity books and even a joke book, and a stage play, and a cartoon series. It’s been the subject of countless book reports. It’s gotten children interested in literacy, because they want to be able to read this strange book for themselves—a book about a vampire rabbit, written by a dog who likes cupcakes.
All of that, because James and Deborah thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny. They wanted to make each other laugh, so they wrote a book about the vampire rabbit.
Thank you for letting us in on the joke.
The 40th Anniversary Edition of Bunnicula will be published May 21. Sarah Gailey plans to read it to their dog.