Jeremy: "The Tale of an Honest Bunny" by Jan Karon, illustrated by Teri Weidner, Viking, 82 pp, $15.99

A writer friend once told me that her best bet for breaking into publication was to write a children's book. "How hard can it be?" she asked. "You slap names on a few animals, teach the kids a little life-lesson, and 12 pages later you're done." She was kidding, but she had gotten to the heart of the Zen-like paradox of writing for children: It's exceedingly difficult to create something simple.

If anyone is up to the challenge of children's books, it's Jan Karon, the bestselling author of Christian fiction for adults. As an editor at a Christian parenting magazine, who sees hundreds of children's books a year, I know that religious stories in particular are often simplistic, trite and plain dull. It's hard enough to write a story that will engage children (and the parents who read it to them), much less manage to convey a spiritual truth. In her first children's book, "Miss Fannie's Hat," Karon's messages-love your neighbor, drink deep the cup of life-were subtle, but clear. I am also a fan of Karon's Mitford series, her novels about an Episcopal priest living in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. They are lushly and vividly described, populated with well-rounded characters and laced with threads of faith that never feel put-on or preachy. Her stories wander along gently, surprising you with their quiet lessons.

Jeremy is a stuffed bunny who comes to life when Lydia, the woman who stitched him together gives him his name. When Lydia tells him he is to be sent to someone in America, Jeremy decides to make the journey on his own rather than be shipped in a dark, lonely box. Before he leaves, Lydia hands him a snippet of Psalm 91 to take with him: "For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways." She also gives him two pieces of information. One is the address of the person to whom she is sending him (but no directions how to get there.); the other is an admonition, perhaps a reassurance, that she made him to be an honest bunny. No matter what happens, he will always remain an honest bunny.

That sounds like the setup for a great plot. I envisioned an allegory, with Lydia as the Creator Who sends Her handiwork out to find his greater purpose. But in fact it's hard to figure out what this book is getting at. Jeremy duly makes his way to America, guided by a number of creatures-a grumpy human gardener, a noisy parrot, an ornery owl-any of whom might be, Jeremy starts to think, the "angels" who were to keep him in all his ways." But that brief mention is the Psalm's only reappearance in the story. The same is true of Jeremy's honesty. Despite it's appearance in the subtitle, Jeremy's supposed central trait never plays much of a part in his interactions with other characters.

The book reads beautifully, and parents could do worse than to spend a few nights working through Karon's lovely prose. But what' s missing here is what is so present in Karon's novels: moments in which readers discover something about themselves and about their world. With more focus and a stronger sense of purpose, "Jeremy" could have been that kind of book.

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