Who Would You Want To Be?

Wolfie the Bunny coverIf you haven’t read Wolfie the Bunny, you’re in for a treat. It’s a bright yellow picture book about a family of rabbits that takes in a baby wolf they find in a basket on their front porch. The parents are immediately infatuated with baby Wolfie; the daughter, Dot, is much more suspicious. It’s a sweet book that includes, among other things, repeated threats of homicide.

It’s one of my favorite books to read aloud to a group. Older kids love it as much as younger ones. There’s humor, action, and a bold illustration style that plays well to a room.

And when the projector won’t start and you need to stall, it’s a tremendously fun book with which to ask a group of second graders: Which character would you want to be?

It’s always an interesting question to consider, in books for both kids and adults, because it can be a tricky one. Do you decide based on the character’s history? Their skills and interests? The people they surround themselves with? The place they live? And what about disqualifying factors? Maybe you really love a character and they’re good at something you’ve always wanted to try, but you can’t stomach the way they treat someone else. Or you share a character’s passion for music and get very excited about the way she talks about it, but you have to balance that with the fact that she spends much of the novel in the hospital, and you’re deathly afraid of needles. It’s a strange thing to think about, borrowing an entire existence in one go.

So I asked these kids about Wolfie the Bunny. The conversation went like this.

CAP: Which character would you want to be? Go ahead, shout it out. (They did. Some of them yelled “Wolfie!” and some of them yelled “Dot!”) Okay, show of hands, who would want to be Dot?

(All of the girls raised their hands.)

CAP: And who would want to be Wolfie?

(All of the boys raised their hands. I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was a little disappointed, so I nodded like that answered the question and switched topics entirely.)

CAP: Okay, shout it out, who do you think is the bravest character in the book?

KIDS (gleefully): Dot!!

CAP: What makes her brave?

(They raised their hands and gave me a bunch of really good answers here—she stood up to a bear even though he could eat her, she told her parents what she thought even though they didn’t agree, etc.)

CAP: Okay, wait, I’ve forgotten, who did you say you wanted to be? Shout it out.

And here this hilarious thing happened, where all of the girls—and some of the boys—shouted “Dot!” with great enthusiasm, and several of the boys shouted “Wolfie!” with equal enthusiasm, and about a dozen of the remaining boys sat there with their mouths half-open, unable to decide. You could watch the gears turning behind their eyes. Some of them mumbled “Wolfie” a beat behind everyone else, and some of them said “Dot,” and some of them didn’t say anything at all.

I asked a different question, and we moved right along, and eventually the projector was fixed and the presentation went on as scheduled.

Who would you want to be? It’s a game, an idle one with no winners or losers. Try these lives on for size and see if one of them fits. No winners and no losers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself unexpectedly discomfited when the person whose life intrigues you most doesn’t look, talk, think, or act like you. You like people across a range of genders and they only like girls, and you have to wrap your head around how that matters to you. They have all of the skills you covet, but they also have a terrible singing voice, and singing is the primary thing in your life after food and water. They have blond hair and you like your brown hair; is that a sticking point for you? Do you find yourself trying to squish and twist the text to accommodate the parts of yourself you can’t give up, or are you willing to stretch yourself instead?

Plenty of people have already talked about how good it is for us to get outside of ourselves like that sometimes, and how important it is to tell a broad swath of stories because of that. We repeat aphorisms on the subject from Atticus Finch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is my favorite examination of the subject; she’s compassionate and needle-sharp at once.

What’s interesting to me about the who-would-you-want-to-be game that’s a little different from the diversity, inclusivity, etc. discussion is the limited circumstances the game places in front of you. Who would you want to be in this story? You can be a sweet wolf or a brave bunny (or, I guess, a homicidal bear), but in Wolfie the Bunny you can’t decide to be a sweet bunny or a brave wolf, because we don’t meet anyone like that on the page. Sure, Dot has her moments of empathy, and Wolfie has his moments of determination, and we can go searching those out. We hope that characters show nuance even in picture books. Still, no matter how nuanced, each character is given a specific set of circumstances and actions, and nothing else; and we have to decide exactly how far we can see ourselves going along with them.

In a limited field of options, we may sometimes get lucky and find our dream selves exactly center on the page, but much more often, what we’re going to have to decide is, which of these lives fits well enough?

That question demands not only empathy but an active choice to reconcile ourselves to imperfection. Our answer requires us to ask, will I stand by this character’s decisions even if I don’t agree with them all the time? Even if I don’t love them, even if they’re someone I wouldn’t get along with in real life? Even if I wouldn’t really want to be this person if I could help it? In this specific context, we ask ourselves, can I understand them, and perhaps admire them, enough?

You’re a boy, and you identify with Wolfie in that regard; and you want to be brave, so you identify with Dot. Now choose between the two. It’s artificial. It’s mind-bending. It’s often uncomfortable. And then you reach the end of the book, and you’re back in your very own skin, in your very own life, and the choices in front of you still aren’t perfect. They never are. We tell our kids that you can grow up to be whatever you want to be with hard work, talent, determination, pick your poison, but we can recognize in our own lives that that’s simply not true. I will never have the lungs to run a marathon no matter how hard I train; I am not wired to teach in a public school classroom; I will never work in Mission Control on a NASA mission to the moon because we don’t do that these days, and so I made different choices in high school and then in college, and now I’m here instead of somewhere else. I’m as happy as anyone can be right now and wouldn’t trade my life for all the moon landings in the solar system, though that, too, is partly a matter of chance, and anything can change.

The choices in front of us aren’t perfect, and they’re limited in scope no matter who you are; but that’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It just is. (The fact that some people face more limits than others because of the way society is structured is, as always, a point worth taking note of, and it can absolutely be a bad thing.) Our lives are messier and more complicated than any book we’ll ever read—Wolfie the Bunny or War and Peace—and stories are both how we make sense of the chaos and how we practice the decisions we may need to make.

Who would you be in this story? It’s a game.

It doesn’t mean anything unless you want it to.