‘The Rabbits’ is a picture book by Australian author and illustrator Shaun Tan and author John Marsden. Those familiar with Tan’s work, perhaps though ‘The Lost Thing’ or ‘Tales of Suburbia’, will know that he is a genius in all respects. Tan’s illustrations are beautiful and so detailed but the stories he weaves also explore themes and concepts central to what it is to be a modern Australian.
‘The Rabbits’ is the tale of the colonial invasion of Australia and the near eradication of those that were already here but not recognised by those arriving. Tan and Marsden use the analogy of rabbits, representing the British colonists, and bandicoots, representing the indigenous inhabitants, to make a pointed comment on the damage done to those losing their land and way of life.
Australian’s understand the damage that introduced species, such as rabbits, have on our eco-system and native wildlife. Tan and Marsden are able to leverage this understanding into a poignant and evocative depiction of the conflict resulting from white settlement and the resultant carnage.
This is not a picture book for young children, or perhaps it is. The idea is accessible and relevant, it reflects the impact of the initial settlement, the expansion into traditional lands and the impact on living conditions into the modern day, ultimately asking whether we are prepared to accept responsibility and do something to reconcile our past.
I have used the picture book when teaching units on Indigenous history or as a companion text to other pieces exploring Indigenous issues. Recently, I used it as a darker text compared to the musical ‘Bran Nu Dae’ but I have also used it with ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ and ‘Deadly Unna?’ Each double page spread serves as a snap shot of a stage of colonisation or the impact of invasion and allows students to see the progressive spread of the figurative introduced species and the increasing marginalisation of the native inhabitants.
As would be expected of Shaun Tan’s work, the illustrations are laden with symbolism and imagery and there can be a great deal made of the tiniest of details in each page turn. Students continue to find additional meaning, allusion and subtext every time I use the book. The colour pallet is earthy, slightly dark and brooding as would be expected of the subject matter. There is a grandness to the depiction of the rabbit’s world but when contrast against the warmth of the soil and less confronting image of the bandicoots the sharp and haughty appearance of the rabbits certainly drives home the values entrenched in the piece.
For those feeling that picture books should be relegated to the primary school classroom, ‘The Rabbits’ offers a wake-up call. It is not just a piece that proves the educative power of illustrated storytelling but an important message for a nation still marginalising its traditional custodians.