Once upon a time there was a children’s picture book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” about a bunny with white fur who marries a bunny with black fur. Written and illustrated by Garth Williams, best known for his artwork for “Charlotte’s Web” and the “Little House” books, it was published in 1958 at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
If you know your American history — and are paying any attention to current outrage over the “controversial” content of books aimed at young people today — you can imagine how Williams’ beautifully illustrated kiddie book was greeted back in the time of the Jim Crow South.
This is the true story of a banned children’s book. The story of a librarian who wanted to protect it. The story of a politician who wanted to burn it. The story of an illustrator who wanted to delight young readers. What follows is some history behind a play that I wrote — Alabama Story — about the time, place and people in this larger than life freedom-to-read tale, which seems tremblingly relevant in our 21st century moment of renewed challenges to book and libraries.
Set in what I call “the Deep South of the imagination,” Alabama Story has been produced in more than 40 cities in North America. In 2023-24 it will appear in at least a dozen other cities, in Texas, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia, South Dakota, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and beyond. You can order a script directly from renowned theater publisher Dramatists Play Service here.
Drumming up outrage over perceived threats to the innocence of children is a recurring strategy of conservative politicians seeking to push suggestible voters toward a certain conservative political party. Challenges to books and persecution of librarians are with us again, made more combustible in the age of far right media and social media.
What’s endangering our kids today? Mostly stuff that was criticized throughout history. Frank language! Nudity! Violence! Religion! LGBTQ experiences! Race! Sex!
“It is as old as Gutenberg,” observes librarian Emily Wheelock Reed in my highly theatrical six-actor drama, which chronicles her tribulations in 1959 after she refuses to remove “The Rabbits’ Wedding” from the shelves of Alabama libraries. “Not everyone is going to want to read every book in a library. A library must be the repository of all sides of a question. A librarian must make books available. I believe that the free flow of information is the best means to work out problems facing the South, the nation and the world.”
Here’s a 2022 report about the 50 most banned books in America. And here’s PEN America’s report on how “book bans and restrictions are on the rise in classrooms and libraries across the country.”
In racially segregated Alabama, a state senator known as E.O. “Big Ed” Eddins wanted “The Rabbits’ Wedding” (and other titles) removed from the shelves of state libraries. He said that the picture book made the rabbits’ marriage analogous to interracial human marriage (illegal at the time). Eddins complained that the book — aimed at children three-to-seven years old, according to publisher Harper and Brothers — was meant to make children believe that racial integration was acceptable. He said it should be burned. He threatened to withhold extra funding for Alabama libraries in the coming year if his demands weren’t met.
The promotion of materials inconsistent with Southern thinking — that is, thinking outside established norms and traditions — was part of a communist plot, said segregationist politicians and citizens of the day. Sound familiar?
Also aimed for the bonfire in 1959 Alabama was Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Stride Toward Freedom,” his book about the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most successful non-violent protests in world history. When there is Black achievement, it always seems like there is white derision, backlash, protest.
Meanwhile, down in Florida that same year, a segregationist named David Hawthorne took issue with a picture book of “The Three Little Pigs,” published by Whitman Publishing Co. The book depicted each pig with a different skin color — white, mottled and black. Of the three porcine friends, the black pig built the sturdiest house, keeping the wolf at bay. Not great advertising for white superiority. Hawthorne complained to the Florida legislature, seeking to have the book removed from state libraries. The legislature was unmoved, but he got some headlines, as did Eddins. They were eager to arouse their base.
“Black and white are sharply contrasting colors as shown by the black ink universally used for printing words on a white page,” Lloyd E. Smith, of Whitman Publishing, said in a statement. “For this uncomplicated reason black and white animals are sometimes shown together in children’s books.”
Senator Eddins, from tiny Demopolis, in western Alabama, hated Garth Williams’ bunny rabbits with the heat of a thousand Elmer Fudds. But it was hard to aim a bazooka at characters in a picture book. So Senator Eddins’ tangible, reachable human target became Alabama’s chief librarian, Emily Wheelock Reed, director of Alabama Public Library Service, the state agency that Eddins helped fund.
A white woman in power in a world of white men in power, Emily Reed had an office in the State Archive Building directly the street form from Eddins’ office in the State Capitol. On the front steps of that Capitol, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the President of the Confederacy in 1861. A little more than a hundred years later, in 1965, the Capitol was the terminus for the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, where Dr. King spoke.
It’s not that Senator Eddins didn’t like books. His legislative duties included helping fund state libraries. He believed in books — the right kind of books. Since there is no record of him supporting the integration of Alabama libraries, it appears that he was quite content that the one branch location reserved for Black citizens was enough in the segregated Montgomery library system. Black citizens were taxpayers, of course, and their tax money supported libraries they had no access to until 1962.
Eddins’ primary political objective was keeping the South racially segregated, and one of the paths he knew how to navigate to insure that was the battle to keep pro-integration media — books, materials, information — suppressed. A losing battle, but he rattled his saber and made international headlines.
Harmful books were on Eddins’ mind in 1959 when, in a library budget meeting, he grilled Emily Reed about her background, her political leanings and her feelings about “The Rabbits’ Wedding.” (The local white supremacist paper The Montgomery Home News, had earlier broken the news of “The Rabbits Wedding” being on state library shelves.)
Reed declined to share her opinion of the book, and refused his demand to remove it from state libraries; instead, she put it on the reserve shelf, which protected it and required patrons to ask for it. Eddins and his colleagues retaliated by proposing a change in the hiring requirements of the state librarian, stating they must be a native of Alabama. Emily Reed was born in North Carolina and raised in Indiana.
“Like a grocery store, a library should have a wide selection of items,” Emily Reed tells a reporter in Alabama Story. “The librarian, like the store manager, should not refuse to stock prunes just because he has no taste for prunes, or onions because he is allergic to onions.”
Much of Emily’s dialogue in Alabama Story is based on words that she spoke in media interviews at the time. Clear and inspiring, her language — sentences like “the free flow of information” — struck me as powerful and deeply American rhetoric for a play of ideas that I would create to tell the story of how people act and how character is tested in times of social change.
Alabama Story is about censorship, civil rights and American character. It’s about black and white, north and south, conservative and progressive, insiders and outsiders, introverts and extroverts, male and female, access and barricades. It freely mixes fact with fiction to offer an artistic impression of issues swirling within the state library, which was officially called the Alabama Public Library Service. Technically, Reed’s title was Director of the APLS; her official title wasn’t “state librarian,” but that’s what she was.
And now everything old is new again: Books perceived as tools to groom children toward subversive thinking or unnatural behavior; conservative politicians demanding the removal of “controversial” materials from public libraries; librarians questioned for protecting access to materials. History repeats. When I was a kid around 1980, books by Judy Blume — like “Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret” — were pulled from shelves. In the 1950s, “Peyton Place” was banned. In the 1930s it was “The Grapes of Wrath.” Today, books are targeted for the usual reasons — violence, racial slurs, sexually explicit content, frank language. But banned also for anti-racist discussions (by thought leaders such as Ibram X. Kendi), depictions of magic (“Harry Potter” is seen as anti-Christian), flatulence (“Larry the Farting Leprechaun”), and LGBTQ life (arguably the most challenged category of books).
Here’s a list compiled by the ACLU. It’s a modern snapshot of what politicians don’t want us to read.
The accusation of “grooming children” is a handy tool to activate the general public over something they didn’t care about until a politician put it front and center. In 1959, book sales for “The Rabbits’ Wedding” picked up once the story of its banning in the South made international headlines.
The year 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of the attack on Emily Reed. I can’t help but wonder what she might say about today’s parents and politicians who seek to remove certain books not just for their own children, but for all children. I have no problem with parents who think they know what’s right for their kids, but when they speak for all children we’re getting into the textbook definition of censorship, particularly when government leaders begin calling for books to be challenged. Check out the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 2015, when Alabama Story premiered at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, I naively thought I was writing a period piece that was a mashup of a courtroom drama, a political thriller, a romance and a memory play. Traditional. Entertaining. Almost old-fashioned. It never occurred to me that the piece would become more relatable as the years went on.
The Washington Post called Alabama Story a play with “national relevance”: “[It] feels timely, resonating with this era’s racial tensions, the ‘she persisted’ meme and continuing controversy over the Old South’s legacy. The topicality of Alabama Story infuses a theatrical moment that feels spontaneous yet intriguingly layered.”
The St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote, “At a time when intolerance is on the upswing and empathy is under siege, Alabama Story is just the play we need.”
By early 2024, Alabama Story will have appeared at theaters in 50 markets around the U.S. A dozen productions are planned for the coming year. The play, which Repertory Theatre of St. Louis billed as “a stirring testament to free expression,” takes place over the course of the year 1959, but it has proved to be no museum piece. It might as well be a docudrama set in the 21st century.
What’s “The Rabbits’ Wedding” about? With words and artwork by the illustrator known for his artwork for “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” “The Cricket in Times Square” and “Little House on the Prairie,” it’s a puerile but lushly drawn and painted tale of a black-furred male rabbit repeatedly expressing sadness about the possibility of being alone in his life. It was published in 1958 and became notorious in 1959.
“I just wish I could be with you forever and always,” he tells his white-furred female companion. “I wish you were all mine.”
The white rabbit replies, “Then I will be all yours…forever and always!”
Williams writes, “The little white rabbit gave the little black rabbit her soft white paw.”
Talk about your pro-monogamy stories!
In a moonlit ceremony in a meadow on the edge of the forest, in the company of other woodland creatures, there is a wordless wedding ceremony. The rabbits tuck dandelions in their ears. Their friends dance around them in a wedding circle. There is dancing all night. “And so the two little rabbits were wed and lived together happily in the big forest.” And the final line of the book? “And the little black rabbit never looked sad again.”
The rabbits were black and white not for political reasons but apparently as a result of the publisher’s choice to not print in full color, a costlier process. The book was published in black and white with some green and yellow tinting, so, necessarily, Williams made one rabbit white and one black., for visual contrast. (For the record, the artwork is technically ink wash, pencil and charcoal.)
Garth Williams told the press in 1959, “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque — and my rabbits were inspired by early Chinese paintings of black and white horses in misty landscapes.”
Priceless. And maybe a little disingenuous. The bunnies drinking from the same cool brook can be read as emblematic of the interracial sharing of a drinking fountain, verboten in the Jim Crow South. But that may be a view from the 21st century. Drinking from the same creek was hardly what shook racists in 1959. It was the proximity of two bodies of different hues — it was the holding of paws, the wedding, the implication of interracial sex. The book was published nine years before the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision legalized interracial marriage in the U.S. (Garth Williams was certainly pro-marriage; he married four times before his death in 1996 at age 84.)
At any rate, Williams never publicly admitted that the book had political motives. When I read Garth Williams’ public statement about his book, I knew that his words, in some form, would appear in the script of Alabama Story, which would go on to be a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center and recommended for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
I’d never heard of “The Rabbits’ Wedding” until I read the New York Times obituary of librarian Emily Reed in 2000. I instantly thought that her story would make a fascinating play, filled with complex characters in a complicated time. I knew that I wanted Garth Williams himself as a character. A New York-born, New Jersey-bred, European-educated artist, he is our host character in what I call “the Deep South of the imagination.” In a world that echoes the punch and surprise of a pop-up book, Garth plays not only himself, but multiple roles, populating and watching over that turbulent year in the life of Emily Reed.
Today, categorized by the publisher as “juvenile fiction,” “The Rabbits’ Wedding” is still in print in the 21st century, from HarperCollins. It’s available on Amazon.com and wherever books are sold. Its pages remain printed in black and white, with that green and yellow tinting.
I’m also gratified to see copies of “The Rabbits’ Wedding” being sold in theater lobbies, auctioned or raffled off in fundraisers for companies, and exchanged between cast, crew and their wider families. I like to give the book as a baby shower gift. It first sold for $2.50. It now goes for $17.99.
I’m thrilled to have shed light on Emily Wheelock Reed (1911-2000), a forgotten hero in the Freedom to Read movement in the United States. Following her travails in Alabama, she was a founding member of the Freedom the Read Foundation, a not-for-profit that provides assistance for librarians facing discrimination or defending intellectual freedom. The FTRF — like the American Library Association, which promotes awareness of challenges to materials in the annual Banned Books Week https://bannedbooksweek.org/ every early autumn — espouses the “free flow of information,” one of the core tenets of librarianship. Few things are as American as the right to read and think freely. These are ideas worthy of great drama.
After dozens of productions, Alabama Story was finally published in 2021 by Dramatists Play Service, which also handles licensing for productions of the play by amateur, professional and school theaters. If you care about theater, books, libraries, social justice, Civil Rights, history and the freedom to read — and you wish to support a living playwright — please consider ordering a copy online. (It’s available in a softbound Acting Edition or as a digital ePlay.)
If you’re interested in learning the history of censorship and efforts to integrate libraries in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, I recommend Patterson Toby Graham’s book “A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965,” for which he interviewed Emily Reed (and many others).
Check out historian Cynthia Greenlee’s essay that appeared in The New York Times under the headline “Banned Bunnies” (April 26, 2023). It offers more history behind this unique censorship story.