Experiencing children’s literature like never before

Mural behind ticketing area depicting the Rabbit hOle’s true founder and spirit guide, Fox Rabbit

Driven by artists, visionary Rabbit hOle opens March 12

When the doors to the Rabbit hOle officially open on March 12, 2024, it will mark a major milestone for Pete Cowdin and Debbie Pettid, the husband-and-wife creators of the innovative children’s literature museum.

But their journey is far from over.

The couple first announced plans to build a museum devoted to children’s literature in 2015. For nearly five years the attraction has been taking shape in an old four-story warehouse in North Kansas City’s Iron District.

The work has proceeded in spite of a pandemic, a big-ticket price tag and the fact that no one has ever done anything quite like it before.

Here’s how Cowdin describes the go-for-broke approach they’ve chosen to take.

“We’ve got one shot. We’re 60 years old. We know what we would like to see, and we know what’s going to be impactful. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it. But that was always the thing, like, we’re going to do this in the biggest way.”

“Goodnight Moon,” written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

large-scale displays portraying “The Fire Cat,” written and illustrated by Esther Averill

And it’s more than just big. The Rabbit hOle is also a true homegrown effort.

Instead of outsourcing their exhibits, Cowdin and Pettid have built a team of Kansas City-based artists and fabricators to craft large-scale displays portraying scenes and characters from books like “Goodnight Moon,” “Frog and Toad,” “Curious George,” “My Father’s Dragon” and many more.

A giant panda, a cat that slides down a firepole, a young Indian boy at a desk, a school bus that chugs through a cityscape. Each has been reimagined from the original words and pictures into fanciful, free-standing forms.

Nearly 40 exhibits are ready to roll. Many of them employ tech in one way or another — motors, lights, video projections — to help engage kids and drive home the narrative.

But as artists themselves, and longtime owners of the Reading Reptile bookstore, the founders are adamant about staying true to the source materials they’ve selected.

“What we’re building here is curated,” Cowdin says. “It’s direct experience. So you don’t go in there and read signs. You don’t go in there and be told what to see or how to feel. You’re in association with the books . . . you get in touch with the characters.”

Not surprisingly, plenty of books are sprinkled liberally throughout. So that even amid all the multisensory splendor, kids and their handlers can pause to turn a few actual pages.

Large-scale display portraying “Perez and Martina,” written by Pura Belpré and illustrated by Carlos Sanchez

Engaging Children Through Discovery

Pettid points out that what you won’t find here are things like text on the walls. Or the kind of fancy phone interfaces that start to steal focus from the experience itself.

“We have no buttons,” she states flatly. “We have no levers, because those are things that kids just do — maniacally at worst and disinterested at best.”

“If you want a kid to discover that there’s a tree in “Fire Cat” that they can climb up, you don’t have to have an arrow pointing at the tree. Seeing Pickles go down the pole and seeing the pole behind Pickles is going to make them think, ‘Well, how do I get up there?’ And then they’ll see the hole in the tree and climb up. We have a lot of things like that.”

The process of discovery at the Rabbit hOle begins by heading down. Visitors enter through the subterranean lair of an elusive character named Fox Rabbit. Clues about exactly who this mysterious fellow is and where he might be hiding help build buzz for what’s in store upstairs.

With its old-school industrial setting and playful nature, the hOle brings to mind the freewheeling fun of St. Louis’ City Museum, or another of the couple’s favorites, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe.

And it bears little resemblance to one of the few institutions that does spotlight children’s literature, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.

“It’s for grownups. It’s about the art of the picture book and elevating it to fine art, and they do a great job,” Cowdin says.

But he admits that a trip to the Carle several years ago left him confused.

“They had one sculptural item on the floor that was based on a kid’s book. It was a rock. It had a sign on it that said, ‘Please do not climb.’”

Cowdin shakes his head. “For some reason, they don’t think they can serve two masters. Like if we do too much for children, then it’ll take the seriousness out of the art. Right?”

On that note, I’ve enlisted an age-appropriate assistant to help gauge the Rabbit hOle’s lure for young readers—my granddaughter.

Large-scale display of “Madeline,” written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans

Choosing the Books

Isla Hargrave, age 11, hasn’t been able to tour the facility yet — too much construction was still underway — but she’s seen pictures and heard stories. She knew nearly all of the titles listed on the website and smiled at the memories they seemed to evoke.

After looking over a map of the densely packed first-floor layout, she suggested that I ask, “How did you choose the books?”

Good question, Isla, and something that Pettid and Cowdin have put a great deal of effort into.

They knew they wanted to cover more than 100 years of children’s literature, which meant a healthy dose of classics alongside more contemporary titles.

And they’ve doubled down to ensure that women writers get their due at the Rabbit hOle, as well as authors and illustrators of different races, cultures and nationalities.

“I think we’ve spent a lot of time making sure that there is a balance and a diversity that it would be difficult to not acknowledge,” Pettid says.

Though the exhibits are all created as self-contained experiences, the way they’ve been arranged inside the cavernous space is equally important.

Because they vary so much in size and design, the net effect, Pettid hopes, will be greater than the sum of its parts, and even more fun because of it.

“I think things will bleed together,” she explains. “You might get some foreshadowing of a story that you’re going to experience, or it might help you step into the next one in a different way.”

The Reading Reptile was long known as a place where children’s literature and those who create it were truly respected. That, in turn, has helped the Rabbit hOle secure rights to certain books that might otherwise have been beyond its budgetary reach.

Shel Silverstein’s estate, for example, seldom licenses his writings. But it did sign off on an exhibit featuring several poems from Silverstein’s collection, “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”

Living authors are big fans of the Rabbit hOle too. Daniel Handler, the man who writes as Lemony Snicket, actively advocates on the museum’s behalf, and Jon Scieszka, author of “The Stinky Cheese Man,” serves on its board.

More to Come

The way Pettid sees it, this spring’s opening is really more of a reset — a pause point where people will finally be able to get a peek inside the huge gray building with rabbits on the roof.

But the work, she says, is never ending.

With that in mind, portions of the second floor will be cordoned off to let visitors view the work in progress on installations like the massive “Mike Mulligan: Steam Shovel” exhibit.

Eventually, the second level will also showcase a panoramic history of children’s literature and more exhibits that Pettid promises will be distinctly different from the ones below. After that, work moves up to the third!

Add a bookstore, print shop, food service (in an automat style) plus dedicated spaces for readings and workshops, and the scope of the project shifts from grand to epic.

In a world where digital experiences for kids have far outpaced real ones, Cowdin says he believes that the Rabbit hOle presents a “beautiful” alternative — the kind of place with “so much going on that you won’t notice it all on your first visit.”

The Rabbit hOle, 919 E. 14th Ave., North Kansas City, will open March 12, 2024. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. Closed Monday. Admission is $16. The museum will hold a grand opening celebration, Fox Rabbit Spectacular, with special guests, music, crafts, food trucks and more on April 27. Tickets are $15; $12 for members. For more information and tickets, 816.492.7915 or www.rabbitholekc.org.

all photos by Jim Barcus

Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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