The Unexpected Surrogate

story and pictures by Clare Turlay Newberry
Harper & Row Publishers, 1942
Reissued: HarperCollins Publishers 1991

Many of us have always wanted to write a book all about our own house rabbit and illustrate it with wonderful drawings that show what a great companion a rabbit is. Some of us are continually bogged down with jobs and families and haven’t quite gotten our own rabbit book to the publisher. Amidst the deluge of children’s books on the market with rabbits as main characters, there are very few true stories like the ones we could tell. There is one, though, that has been in libraries for over 50 years (and was reissued to bookstores in 1991). A winner of the Caldecott Medal, it’s called Marshmallow.

Back in 1942, the same year of publication as Margaret Wise Brown’s well-known children’s book, The Runaway Bunny, a talented lady named Clare Turlay Newberry wrote and illustrated a lesser-known rabbit classic. It is a simple and seemingly implausible story about the meeting of her new baby bunny, Marshmallow, with her big spoiled Tabby cat, Oliver. As a follow-up to Amy Shapiro’s article, “Cats and Rabbits?…Really?” (HRJ vol.II, no.2), Marshmallow would be worth looking into, as much for the pictures as for the message that cats and rabbits can cohabitate, and do so peacefully.

Critics praise Clare Newberry for the compassion for animals she instills in her young readers. Much of this appreciation is a result of the author’s priceless drawings. Merely done in thick pencil strokes with occasional monotone color, the sketches are so alive, sweet, and amusing that the animal characters are irresistible.

All but three of Mrs. Newberry’s books feature cats. One title in particular, T-Bone the Baby-sitter, is a gem. Like some house rabbits I know, T-Bone the cat is a natural baby-sitter in that he stays all day long right in the baby’s bassinet or playpen as a constant companion and source of entertainment, albeit a sound asleep one.

As Mrs. Newberry relates

People often ask me where I get my ideas for books. To tell the truth, almost all my stories are drawn from my own experience. I have usually acquired a pet, made studies of it for several months in pencil, pen and ink, charcoal and pastel, and then thought up a story based on actual incidents. The story of Marshmallow and his friendship with Oliver the cat is all true and the drawings done from life. I recall wondering, as I sketched Oliver with the bunny in his arms, if anyone would really believe me.

Yet, some of our own house rabbit scenarios are as mellow as this one. It all starts with Oliver, a bachelor house cat who rules the roost, a Manhattan apartment. “Peace and quiet was all he wanted and his meals (chopped beef and liver) on time.” Oliver has it made until the day the housekeeper, Miss Tilly, brings home a baby bunny. Never having seen any other animal in all his life, Oliver is at first afraid of the little creature. He is also none too happy to have a usurper in his midst. Marshmallow, the unassuming source of competition, is such a baby that all he really wants is his mother back. Bit he is unable to communicate his real motivations with a mew or bark or cry because he is a rabbit. Of course he is silent. And this, among Marshmallow’s other obvious virtues, Miss Tilly really appreciates.

From that point the book becomes quite a piece of house rabbit promotion. Miss Tilly begins writing corny tributes to Marshmallow, such as “A Poem in Praise of Rabbits.” Its last stanza reads

A bunny, though, is never heard
He simply never says a word.
A bunny’s a delightful habit,
No home’s complete without a rabbit.

Although when Miss Tilly soon catches on to Marshmallow’s more destructive side, she drafts another poem, “A Solemn Warning to Rabbit Lover,” pointing out that

A bunny nibbles all day long,
A bunny doesn’t think it’s wrong.
He nibbles mittens, mufflers, mops,
He only pauses when he hops.

But this aspect of rabbit behavior does nothing to quell the housekeeper’s general enthusiasm about her new pet.

Sensibly Miss Tilly keeps Oliver, who is inherently predatory, and Marshmal-low, who is initially unaware of Oliver’s existence, in separate rooms when she can not be there to supervise. But one night when dinner is not delivered on time to Oliver, as Miss Tilly is unusually late getting home, Oliver breaks into Marshmallow’s room, and finds him in the midst of a playful session of rabbit aerobics. What ensues is an adoption process made in heaven. (I won’t spoil the scene for you.) Miss Tilly then arrives home in time to witness the surrogate mother and baby bunny cuddled together asleep on the floor.

Our own stories may be more hair raising than the incredibly sweet and rapid bonding process portrayed in Marshmallow. And our illustrations may not be quite as animated and charming as the charcoal line drawings that are Clare Newberry’s trademark. But here is a book that we can enjoy with our children as we ponder how to find time to write our own accounts which in essence would say to the world as Clare Newberry does in the last line of Marshmallow, “Oh, brighten your home with a bunny!”

by Diana Murphy

Illustration from MARSHMALLOW by Clare Turlay Newberry.
Copyright © 1942 by Clare Turlay Newberry.
Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 2, Spring 1994