Elys Dolan, Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory

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I first read Dolan’s book when it appeared on the Little Rebels shortlist last summer. Since then it has won a Lollies award, but the first context I read it in was, specifically, as a “radical” children’s book. It’s about striking workers! And they’re chickens!

Going into this, there I had two other books in mind–Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Willy Wonka exploits his immigrant Oompa-Loompa workers and pays them in chocolate) is the obvious one, but also Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, a picture book about a set of crayons informing the boy who owns them of their various work-related traumas. As you’ll see from the link above, my main concern with regard to Daywalt and Jeffers’s book is that it doesn’t go far enough in its protection of the crayons’ rights and general wellbeing–Duncan’s use of them is killing them (this is implied in the premise) and the best solution that can be offered is that this violence be exerted more equally and more humanely. This isn’t so much Jeffers and Daywalt’s fault as an issue with the analogy itself. It only works if we accept the bleak (true?) premise that our bosses are destroying us–the only way the crayons could survive would be for Duncan not to exist. The Day the Crayons Violently Overthrew the State would be a more coherent book, though perhaps not as popular with children or adults. I also thought of John Yeoman and Quentin Blake’s The Wild Washerwomen, in which seven overworked women in a laundry decide to quit, shove their dictatorial boss in a giant pile of laundry, and embark upon a wonderful spree of lawlessness, causing chaos and disrespecting property and generally being magnificent until they find some men to marry and return to a more civilised lifestyle. It seems children’s books about people standing up to their bosses are pretty much guaranteed to disappoint me.

Mr Bunny’s factory specialises in chocolate eggs, which are made by making chocolate, pressing it into bars, and then feeding the bars to a group of egg-layers, who subsequently “after a bit of squeezing” produce this product. (To fully commit to the obvious toilet humour, Dolan has one particularly large egg stuck in the chute into which they are laid, and another chicken with a plunger attempting to tackle the problem.) Think this Safely Endangered comic, but with a production line. The eggs are wrapped and packed, then passed by the quality control unicorn (Edgar) before going out into the world. The egg-layers are female chickens–this is unsurprising. It’s nice that the majority of the factory workers, in all aspects of the business, are also coded female. (In a later scene in which we’re afforded a look at the village outside the factory, we see a few roosters who appear to be doing largely domestic work–cleaning and laundry.)

Unfortunately, Mr Bunny’s greed for more profit leads him to force the chickens to increase productivity. Everyone is exhausted; the machines are breaking down and there’s no time allotted to fixing them (duct tape is employed instead); the egg-layers are sick from being force-fed so much chocolate; worst of all, Debbie, a new employee, has fallen into a vat of chocolate and disappeared and no one seems to care.

The chickens unionise (or were in a union already? I’m not sure) and go on strike. These are my favourite pages of the book–there are good signs (“Power to the Poultry”), stickers, and one lone hen still loyally demanding an enquiry into Debbie’s disappearance. All protest is abandoned when Mr Bunny’s attempts to run the whole show alone (even Edgar has deserted him) cause an explosion and a horrific accident. The workers choose to help him because “doesn’t every bad egg deserve a second chance?” (does it, though?); Debbie is found, thankfully still alive; Mr Bunny learns a valuable lesson (“Oh, I see! You’re all important too, not just me!”) and conditions in the factory improve. It’s a happy ending!

Or is it?

Imrbunn the final pages of the book, the factory has diversified its products; the chickens can also now avail of aerobics classes, a salad bar and a ball pool and can even play table tennis while they lay eggs. There are beanbags everywhere. Mr Bunny has undergone an image change and is rolling along on a segway, wearing his black turtleneck and little glasses. It’s not a subtle allusion, though it might be lost on the book’s younger readers.

But the adults know, don’t we, that a ball pool and a salad bar don’t necessarily make for great working conditions, or a healthy relationship between a company and its employees? Even leaving aside the question of whether Mr Bunny and the chickens (it’s not clear whether they now have some degree of structural power; it wouldn’t surprise me, that a group so willing in the main to ignore the missing Debbie should also throw other workers under the bus) have started exporting their labour rights abuses to other countries, what I really want to know is how much time off the chickens get; whether there’s pressure to stay late hours at work now that they can have a nap! in a hammock!; what contractual changes have been made; what Mr Bunny even contributes in this system where the chickens are doing both the “creative” stuff and the actual work.

I don’t, obviously, expect a children’s picture book about chickens laying chocolate eggs to provide me answers to any of those questions. But I’m fascinated by a book about unionising and protest and labour rights that presents us with Steve Jobs as its happy ending. I’ve complained at a couple of points in this post about children’s books on this subject that fizzle out, and I wonder how much that’s ingrained in the genre–if funny, light books about work can at best expose it as inherently horrifying.

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