Bob Seeney On Books

The Knuffle Bunny Phenomenon

May, 2018

While working on another project, I discovered that Mo Willems has published the third book in his (and his daughter’s!) Knuffle Bunny Series. Mo Willems broke onto the picture-book scene with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2003, Hyperion Books), a Caldecott Honor book in 2004. Eight more Pigeon books followed, but the firstremainsone of my all-time favorites. Additional awards for his books include two moreCaldecott Honors, twoGeisel Medals, and fiveGeisel Honors.

What makes Willems’ work truly significant is not just his characteristic artwork, but the poignant messages that we find in both text and illustration. This is especially true in the three-book Knuffle Bunny series:

The first two are Caldecott Honor books.

In the first book, we meet Trixie, Willem’s daughter, and her Knuffle Bunny, her stuffed rabbit and constant companion. After Knuffle Bunny gets “lost,” Trixie and her father have a hilarious adventure in finding him, which results in Trixie’s first words. The story here is of relationship and the joy of a toddler growing up.  Delightful! 

In book two, Trixie is off to pre-kindergarten with Knuffle Bunny, where she meets Sonja, who surprisingly has a Knuffle Bunny, too! At first, the two don’t hit it off — a little bit of Knuffle Bunny rivalry, which results in the teacher confiscating the two bunnies and then returning them at the end of the school day. This story of relationships and first best friends takes an exciting turn when it’s discovered — at 2:30 in the morning — that the bunnies have been switched. Both daddies come to the rescue.

Book three is a surprising end to the series in which there is a loss, a finding, and a wonderful gift of sacrifice and generosity. It involves travel to the Netherlands to visit Trixie’s grandparents and Knuffle Bunny’s own adventures. I won’t spoil the story; you must read it for yourself.

While each book certainly stands alone, taken together they present a fun chronology of family events and important life lessons, especially in terms of relationships. Not to be overlooked is the artistic media that Willems has chosen for this series. The characters, drawn by hand in ink in Willem’s distinctive cartoon style, are colored and then superimposed over photographs of Willem’s neighborhood: the actual setting of the stories. The interplay between text and illustrations is just another example of Willem’s artistry. To my knowledge, the Knuffle Bunny series is the only place where he has used this technique. The careful reader will find many fun events and sub-stories in the illustrations.

What is significant about these three books is that they perfectly demonstrate the importance and significance of the five overexcitabilities defined by Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) in his Theory of Positive Disintegration, also known as the Theory of Emotional Development. While overexcitabilities (OEs) are only part of this theory, they provide a framework in which we can more completely view and understand the gifted individual. Sharon Lind (2000) has provided a succinct and easily understood definition of OEs:

Inborn intensities that indicate a heighten ability to respond to stimuli. Found to a greater degree in creative and gifted individuals, overexcitabilities are expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity and represent a real difference in the fabric of life and quality of experience.

The five areas of overexcitability are psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional. Dabrowski believed that the emotional OE is central and that it is the energy center from which the other OEs are generated.

Stephanie Tolan (1999) described OEs in this way:

Highly gifted people tend to have all five of these, but different people lead with different OE’s. The engineer types lead with intellectual, the poets with emotional and imaginational, etc. But variations in the levels of the individual OE’s explain a great deal about the temperamental differences we see! These five describe the unusual intensity of the gifted as well as the many ways in which they look and behave “oddly” when compared to norms.

[See the sidebar below for more on Tolan’s views of OEs.]

Our concern here is the emotional OE, expressed in the intensity of emotions and the expression of a very broad range of emotions. Individuals with the emotional OE often display a need for deep connections with other people or animals as well as an in-depth sense of right and wrong. Since individuals with high emotional OE often find it difficult to find close and deep friendships, they may invent imaginary friends or have a close relationship with pets or stuffed animals. (On a personal note: I still have my Teddy that I received for Christmas when I was three years old. He has been a constant and beloved companion ala The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.)

It is this important deep relationship that Trixie and Sonja experience with each other and with their Knuffle Bunnies. Through the reading, sharing, and discussion of the Knuffle Bunny books, you can support and nurture the emotional overexcitability of your students or children. I think this may be of even more importance for our 2e students, for whom creating deep and close relationships can be a challenge.

More on Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities

The following description of the five overexcitabilities (OEs) is adapted from Stephanie Tolan’s Dabrowski’s Over-excitabilities: A Layman’s Explanation, written for Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page (www.hoagiesgifted.org), February, 1999.
—RWS

Overexcitability

How it may Appear in Individuals with this OE

Psychomotor

  • Lots of physical energy and movement: fast talking, lots of gestures, sometimes nervous tics
  • Difficulty smoothing out the mind's activities for sleeping

Sensual

  • A love for sensory things textures, smells, tastes, etc., or a powerful reaction to negative sensory input (bad smells, loud sounds, etc.) 
  • Sensitivity to bright lights and harsh sounds
  • Sensory sensitivity (e.g., the "cut the label out of my shirt" demand, the child who limps as if with a broken leg when a sock seam is twisted, the baby who cries when the wind blows in his face, or the toddler who cries at the feel of grass on bare legs and feet)
  • Aesthetic awareness (such as the child who is awed to breathlessness at the sight of a beautiful sunset or cries hearing Mozart)

Imaginational

  • Being a strong visual thinker who may be identified as a dreamer, poet, or "space cadet"
  • Using lots of metaphorical speech
  • Daydreaming, remembering dreams, and often reacting strongly to them
  • Believing in magic (i.e., taking a long time to grow out of belief in Santa, the tooth fairy, elves and fairies, etc.)

Intellectual

Seeming to be the embodiment of the usual definition of "giftedness":

  • Displaying a strong "logical imperative" and love brain teasers and puzzles, enjoying following a line of complex reasoning, and figuring things out
  • Having a love of things academic, new information, cognitive games, etc.

Emotional

  • Appearing to be "happier when happy, sadder when sad, angrier when angry" 
  • Displaying emotional intensity as well as a broad range of emotions
  • Having a need for deep connections with other people or animals
  • Inventing imaginary friends or making do with pets, stuffed animals, etc., when unable to form close, deep friendships
  • Displaying empathy and compassion
  • Being more susceptible to depression

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Happy Reading!

References

  • Daniels, S. & M. Piechowski (Eds.) (2009). Living with intensity. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
  • Lind, S. (2000). Overexcitability and the highly gifted. Gifted Education Communicator, Spring (6).
  • Tolan, Stephanie S. (1999). Dabrowski’s Over-excitabilities: A Layman’s Explanation. [Written for Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page, February, 1999].
Bob Seney

Happy Reading!

Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. He has been 2e Newsletter's children's book columnist since 2007. Reach him at bseney@muw.edu.

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