On any given day, when my two-and-a-half-year-old heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth before bed, his other mom and I find ourselves with some creature other than a human child. Sometimes he is a robot, off to brush his robot teeth. Other times he is Te Ka, the lava monster from Disney’s Moana, and he has hot teeth which he has to brush with hot paste (to keep them hot, of course). Sometimes he is simply the neighbor’s dog. But more often than not, he is a baby rabbit, someone he calls “Little Brown Hay-er!” That would be Little Nutbrown Hare. The classic children’s book "Guess How Much I Love You" by Sam McBratney was gifted to us while I was still heavily pregnant.
The illustrations by Anita Jeram are charming – Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare are rendered with feeling, but also a kind of ease. They show both visible brushstrokes and a kind of familiarity with rabbits that makes them seem more real, and they are both very animal-like and oddly human-like at the same time. I’m a sucker for classics (you should hear me wax poetic about Winnie The Pooh) so I really wanted to love it. I did. But I did not love it. I didn’t love it to the moon and back, and I didn’t even love it as high as I could reach. For the uninitiated, the book features two characters: Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare. Their relationship is never explained, but it can be assumed that they represent parent and child, and both are identified as male with “he” pronouns.
The plot surrounds Little Nutbrown Hare getting ready for bed (so great for bedtime stories), and trying to express how much he loves Big Nutbrown Hare. He’s trying to use physical measurements – I love you this much, I love you as high as I can hop, I love you down the lane as far as the river – to describe something immeasurable and unknowable. It’s the sort of desperate reaching for language that anyone who has ever been overcome by love would be familiar with. And Big Nutbrown Hare, his caregiver, responds by one upping him. He does this every single time. If Little Nutbrown Hare loves as high as he can reach, the joke is on him, because Big Nutbrown Hare has longer arms, so he must love more. He turns a simple expression of love into a contest, telling the smaller hare that he will never be able to love as much. It ends with Little Nutbrown Hare exclaiming “I love you right up to the moon!” and then (spoiler alert) Big Nutbrown Hare counters with “I love you right up to the moon … and back.” I think it is supposed to be cute and all in good fun, and certainly that is how most people read it. But it got under my skin. I hated Big Nutbrown Hare. With time, I came to hate the book itself. I squirreled it away somewhere where I wouldn’t have to read it. I didn’t care how adorable the illustrations were or how perfect it was – Big Nutbrown Hare was a jerk, and that was that. Furthermore, the whole book was just another example of every non-human animal in children’s literature being assumed male. It wasn’t even realistic.
I am not a zoologist, but I am fairly certain father hares do not care for their offspring. Which is why I was not excited when I discovered that there is a "Guess How Much I Love You" television show. Why did there have to be a show? It’s a short book with hardly any plot. How was there even anything to expand upon? I was sure it was going to be stupid, so with the certainty of a dedicated naysayer I tried to veto it before my wife and I could even preview it. But then reality set in. Winter had just started, we had watched every single episode of "Sarah & Duck" approximately twelve hundred times already. I got a terrible cold. Nobody wanted to go outside, and there it was, staring at us on Amazon Prime, taunting us. We cracked. The show uses the original book as a jumping off point, to tell the story of a Little Nutbrown Hare who lives in a meadow and who is friends with a lot of other animals (Little Field Mouse, Little Gray Squirrel, Little Redwood Fox, etc). During the day he of course plays and has adventures, and at night he goes home to the hollow log he lives in with his father, Big Nutbrown Hare. Big Nutbrown Hare is everything you want a parent on kids’ show to be. He allows his son to try and fail sometimes, but he is endlessly loving, endlessly patient, and always ready to explain a full moon or show which berries are good to eat.
The show takes place in the natural world, without human characters, and despite my reservations, it is really cute and sweet. The lessons are good and there seems to be a decent amount of gender diversity among the animals of the meadow. Plus, whereas in the book making both hares male feels like an assumption about animals, in the show it reads differently. Big Nutbrown Hare is a progressive single father who just wants the best for his son, and who is more than willing to be emotional and talk about love at the end of each and every episode. He’s basically a parenting hero.
My kid was instantly hooked. He was already very interested in bunnies, but Little Brown Hay-er was somehow more appealing than any floppy eared critter he had ever seen. We had to play Brown Hay-er constantly for weeks, in endless games of make-believe in which he would sternly instruct me. “You,” he would say, pointing at my chest, “you, dad hay-er.” Reluctantly, I got the book back out. And you know what? In the time I spent away from it, time while my son was growing bigger and learning to walk and talk, something changed. Either the book changed or I did, because now when Big Nutbrown Hare says “I love you to the moon … and back” I don’t get angry. Instead, I find my eyes getting wet. He’s just a parent assuring his baby that no matter what, a parent’s love is bigger than everything. It is a love big enough to always keep you safe, to be there when you need it, to always have your back no matter what. As far as you reach to try to describe it, you will never be able to reach the ends of it, because it goes on forever. I love that right up to the moon … and back. Find it on Amazon Prime, here. (And not because they've paid us to tell you that.)