A picture book that pairs lines of text narration with intricate two-page illustrations, The Rabbits is narrated by a collective “we” narrator who tells the story from the perspective of Australia’s indigenous marsupial population.
The narrator begins the story by commenting that “the rabbits came many grandparents ago.” The text is paired with an image of curled-up marsupial skeletons sketched in white against an underground cross-section of black earth. Above ground is a giant red snake-like figure. White seagulls fly in the open blue sky, and there is a small black smokestack of an approaching boat in the distance.
The narrator says that the marsupials initially didn’t know what to think when the rabbits arrived. The many rabbits looked somewhat similar to the marsupials, and some were friendly. The illustration shows the marsupials and rabbits meeting on land. The reddish-brown marsupials, who have curly tails and white stripes on their backs, stand across from black rabbits, whose white ears stick straight up. The marsupials carry staff-like sticks while the rabbits are followed by a black wheeled vehicle with puffs of black smoke coming from its exhaust pipe. The landscape features blue peacock-like birds, and impressionistic imagery of colorful flora and rocks.
The narrator says their old people warned them to be careful, because the rabbits wouldn’t “understand the right ways” and that the rabbits only know their own country. The narrator says that more rabbits came. The text accompanies an image of a surreal red landscape dotted with tiny grey rocks casting black shadows. The marsupials sit with curious expressions atop rocks rising from the landscape while the rabbits use scientific instruments to measure and quantify the territory. One rabbit uses a telescope, another lowers a lizard by its tail into a beaker of turquoise liquid, while a third takes notes in a book using a peacock feather pen while holding a turquoise orb that appears to function as a compass. Shown close up, the rabbits wear brown jackets with collars, sleeves, and pants. Their skinny white ears stick straight up or straight back. Their expressions are serious and their eyes glow red as they evaluate their findings.
The narrator says that the rabbits came by water. The simple statement is contrasted with a massive and imposing sharp-nosed ship comprising many intricate pieces and an ornate constellation of dozens of white sails. The sky behind the ship is a gradient of turquoise to black; great golden clouds blow the ship toward shore.
In the foreground of the illustration, a group of rabbits march onto the shore with an air of determination and purpose. Their shadows stretch long and black in front of them. These rabbits are ornately clothed in martial uniforms and elaborate hats. Some hold long musket guns while others carry red flags. The flags are emblazoned with a design made up of four two-sided arrows that collectively point in the cardinal directions of north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest.
The narrator says the rabbits didn’t live in the trees as the marsupials did. Instead, the rabbits made their own houses. The marsupials couldn’t understand the way the rabbits talked. The narration is accompanied by a split image: Spread across the top of two pages is an illustration of a group of marsupials sitting meekly along the bough of a tree; this image is contrasted with a picture that takes up eighty percent of the page. It depicts rabbits with black coats and gold-rimmed monocles in the foreground as they gesture at a painting framed in ornate gold.
The gold-framed painting is of the land in the background beyond the frame, only it is full of square white buildings with tiny black windows. The buildings are raised up on curved legs and have narrow ramps leading to a central pathway. The buildings stretch endlessly toward the horizon. The actual landscape behind the painting shows the first two buildings being constructed, and their foundational structures line up perfectly with how they are shown in the painting. The unfinished edges of the buildings are ragged like jigsaw puzzles, and the rabbits constructing them are using pulleys and ropes to raise up jigsaw-shaped pieces to click into place. The blue sky is full of wispy white clouds.
Although brief and uncomplicated, the opening line and illustration of The Rabbits subtly introduces the picture book’s thematic concerns with colonial invasion and grief. In stating that the rabbits came “many grandparents ago,” the collective narrator—who represents the perspective of the marsupials the rabbits colonize and displace—establishes a mournful, lamenting tone, particularly when the narrator’s words are set against a backdrop of marsupial skeletons buried deep underground. Juxtaposed with the image of the skeletons is the distant figure of a ship approaching the land. With this detail, Tan’s illustration manages to exist both in the present day from which the narrator looks back and from the day the rabbits arrived by boat in the marsupials’ country.
The second illustration shows how the rabbits’ colonial invasion initially appears benign to the marsupials, who meet the few rabbits with curiosity. The illustration hints at the difference in the creatures’ access to technology: While the marsupials carry staffs made from the white trees in which they live, the rabbits have a wheeled combustion-engine vehicle with them. The foreground of the illustration depicts the diverse array of flora and fauna in the marsupials’ country. The narration implies that the marsupials had no reason to fear the rabbits, who looked similar to the marsupials and were few in number.
However, the third illustration counters the marsupials’ initial curiosity with a warning from the marsupials elders: The narrator recounts how elders warned the younger generations to be careful around the rabbits, because the rabbits, knowing only the way of life in their imperial home country, would not understand the marsupials’ way of life. The diction of this passage is significant, because while the elders are right to be wary, they are unaware of the extent of the rabbits’ lack of understanding. Beyond not understanding the marsupials’ ways, the rabbits will completely disregard the indigenous cultures of the marsupials and destroy the environment with which the marsupials have lived in harmony. The illustration emphasizes the foreshadowing of the elders' warning by depicting rabbits using scientific instruments to measure and appraise the marsupials’ land. One rabbit even lowers a lizard into a beaker of turquoise liquid, showing an indifference to the lizard’s life that will later be replicated in the brutality the rabbits show toward the marsupials.
The handful of rabbits who make first contact with the marsupials are soon joined by hundreds more rabbits, who come from the rabbits’ homeland to settle the marsupials’ country and turn it into a colony. Marsden introduces the themes of cultural erasure and environmental degradation by showing how the rabbits build housing that stretches endlessly toward the horizon in an illustration that squeezes the marsupials and their trees into a smaller portion of the overall frame. The marsupials sit by powerlessly as the rabbits enact their project of colonial expansion.
While the historical analogs are somewhat obscured and abstracted, the events of the book allude to the British colonization of Australia, which began in the 1780s. The historical underpinnings may not be apparent to all readers, but the story’s allegorical nature becomes undeniable as the story progresses and the rabbits’ colonial atrocities mount. In the opening illustrations, Tan hints at the historical basis for the story in the design of the rabbits’ flag: With four double-sided arrows that point in the major cardinal directions, the rabbits’ flag is emblazoned with a design reminiscent of the intersecting crosses of the British Union flag.