Be More Bernard by Simon Philip and Kate Hindley
"I tried to pretend that all was normal, that my dreams didn't matter."
Be More Bernard is a refreshing, entertaining and affectionate story about a rabbit who resists the pressure to conform, with spectacular results. Although this is a recent addition to our picture book collection, the three-year-old, the five-year-old and I absolutely adore it, and it is quickly becoming a favourite.
Bernard is a bunny that feels different to his fellow rabbits, who appear to only like carrots and being identical to one other. Bernard attempts to act just like them, and suppress his true self, until he gets tired of pretending.
Bernard starts small, bouncing when the others hop and hopping when the others bounce. Soon he is sneaking out of the warren at night to pursue his disco dancing passion in secret.
By the end of the story, Bernard has gained enough confidence to reveal his roller disco alter-ego to the rest of the bunnies.
Not only do the other rabbits accept Bernard and all his flamboyance, but his honesty encourages them to be more open. It turns out, they all like different things, and think about much more than carrots, but were concealing their interests too. "As they shared their dreams, I could tell their hearts were dancing, just like mine," says Bernard.
Be More Bernard demonstrates why we shouldn't hide who we are, ignore our dreams or worry about what others think. When Bernard follows his heart, it doesn't just improve his own circumstances, it benefits the whole community. Bernard's concluding line, "being yourself is the best a bunny can be," gently reinforces the book's beautiful message.
This positive and uplifting tale is accompanied by gorgeous images that are every bit as bright and cheerful as the story, and incredibly cute too. As with all characters drawn by Kate Hindley, the rabbits' facial expressions are priceless, especially Bernard's toothy grins. He looks so happy as he skates to work with a boombox in his wheelbarrow at the end.
The illustrations are full of action and clever, amusing details. We see Bernard munching on grass sandwiches and less appetising breakfast baps. His disco outfit, complete with a cape and roller skates, is magnificent. I find how his earphones perch on top of his head hilarious. I wish there was an animated adaptation of this book; Bernard's dance moves are begging to be seen in action!
The bunnies' real aspirations, indicated by their thought bubbles, are brilliant. There are astronauts, circus clowns, ballerinas, detectives, chefs and even a ventriloquist (with the most adorable dummy ever). One of my favourite parts is the spread at the end showing the rabbits at work in the warren. As it's so busy, it reminds me of the Richard Scarry books and it's great fun to see what the characters are doing (and wearing).
Although the rabbits are all dressed alike at the beginning of the book, by the end, most have developed their own distinct style. One wears a tutu, another embraces their inner Viking, while a bunny in a smock paints an avant-garde mural. I love that they're installing a disco ball in one of the rooms.
I'm an enormous fan of both this book's author Simon Philip and its illustrator Kate Hindley. They also collaborated on Simon Philip's first book, the excellent You Must Bring a Hat, which won “Book of the Year” at the Sainsbury Children’s Book Awards in 2016.
Simon Philip is an extremely talented and bestselling author who has written lots of inventive and hilarious picture books and chapter books for older readers. Simon has a YouTube channel featuring his work and here's a video of him reading Be More Bernard.
Kate Hindley has illustrated some of my favourite books and many more that are on my wishlist. As well as working with some of the most prominent and celebrated authors of the last few years, Kate recently launched her own series called Treacle Street.
It's interesting that the author chose the disco scene as the embodiment of Bernard's departure from conventional rabbit culture, which makes the story even more meaningful. Although disco music is often dismissed as trivial, it was the product of a significant, and exceptionally subversive, social movement (here are two great podcast episodes if you're interested in learning more: You're Wrong About's Disco Demolition Night and Blindboy's Disco is the Real Punk Rock).
In an article about how disco changed the world for The Guardian, Adam Mattera writes: "More importantly it created a place – or rather it soundtracked a space – outside the mainstream... This wasn't a place where difference was just tolerated, it was actively celebrated. And for the first time." It's appropriate that the introduction to disco is what encourages individualism and promotes a sense of freedom and acceptance in the rabbits.
Speaking to the BBC about why disco should be taken seriously, James Hillard says: "Disco music was the perfect conduit to foster this sense of togetherness through diversity." In the same piece, pioneering DJ/producer Nicky Siano says: “In the beginning, all the songs were about spreading love, getting together, making the world a better place.” This is exactly what Bernard and the bunnies are doing by the end of the book, and it's thanks to disco too.
I don't think I could have chosen a more suitable story for New Year's Day! January is my least favourite month, and this one is even gloomier than usual, but the sight of a strutting and sashaying rabbit has already cheered me up. Bernard is a fantastic role model and I certainly intend to be more like him in 2021. I hope that wherever you are, this coming year is brighter for you and brings lots of Bernard magic.
Title: Be More Bernard
Author: Simon Philip
Illustrator: Kate Hindley
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Read a review of I Have to Start at School Today by Simon Philip and Ged Adamson