With simple metaphors and evocative pictures, a children’s book can powerfully convey what a wrenching experience feels like. By depicting painful experiences with empathy and insight, picture books can be wise and empathetic guides for readers of any age. The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld is just such a book; its story will help children think about loss and grief and how to console someone when something terrible happens.
In the story, a child named Taylor creates a beautiful castle in blocks that is suddenly destroyed by a flock of birds. (Taylor is ambiguous in both gender and ethnicity, so all children can see themselves in the story.) A variety of animal friends try to help, in ways that cleverly mirror their nature. The clucking chicken wants to talk, talk, talk about it; the bear is angry and shouts; the elephant wants to go over old memories; the ostrich buries its head in the ruins; and the snake hisses about revenge. The vivid expressions on the helper animals are almost comic, but they capture the tumultuous feelings that a crisis brings out. Still, “Taylor didn’t feel like doing anything with anybody. So eventually, they all left … and Taylor was alone.”
As Taylor mourns in the quiet, the rabbit gently approaches. “It moved closer, and closer. Until Taylor could feel its warm body.” When the rabbit settles in, Taylor senses its genuine concern. With the rabbit close by and listening, Taylor is finally able to talk and shout and feel vengeful and remember and laugh. Eventually, Taylor feels ready to start rebuilding. “And through it all, the rabbit never left.”
Author Cori Doerrfeld said in an interview, “At some level, I feel like this book has been with me for many, many years.” A childhood friend had told her what it was like for him when a family member died, and how his pet rabbits helped him cope with his grief as “a quiet, peaceful presence he could turn to.” She remembered how “The story of his rabbits was something I thought about from time to time. I made art and stories over the years about rabbits.” Her hope is that the book “is something readers can absorb even if everything is just fine, so when times do get difficult, they are more capable and confident about how to cope.”
The Rabbit Listened is a story that can be shared over and over with children. Its meaning will change as they experience different kinds of losses over the years, but its message will endure: In painful times, we all long for someone to sit with us, patiently waiting for us to be ready to work through our feelings.