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15 Scary Fun Facts About Bunnicula

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Since it was first published in 1979, the beloved children's classic Bunnicula—about a vampire bunny who sucks veggies dry, turning them white, and the cat and dog who try to expose him—has sold more than 8 million copies, won a number of awards, and spawned a couple of cartoons. Here are a few things you might not have known about the book.

1. JAMES HOWE WAS A STRUGGLING ACTOR WHEN HE CAME UP WITH THE IDEA.

“I was doing what a lot of actors do and staying up too late and watching movies on TV,” Howe told Book Page in 2011. “It was watching all those bad vampire movies in the '70s that led to the idea of Bunnicula.” Howe told Scholastic that many of the movies were more silly than scary. “I don't remember the moment when the character Bunnicula came into my head,” he said. “I suspect it came from asking the question, what's the silliest, least likely vampire I can imagine?”

2. HIS MOTHER-IN-LAW SUGGESTED WRITING A BOOK ABOUT BUNNICULA.

After he came up with the character he called “Count Bunnicula,” Howe made “a little greeting card … of a vampire rabbit,” he told Teaching Books—but he never thought about writing a book featuring the character.

“I was not writing then—even though I always loved to write, I wasn’t thinking of it as my work,” he told NPR. “It was actually [my wife] Debbie’s mother who said, ‘That would make a great character for a children’s book. Why don’t you two try that?”

So one night after dinner, just for fun, the Howes started writing the book that would become Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery. “One of us would hold the pad of paper and essentially be secretary,” Howe said. “We wrote that book completely out loud—we told the story; one of us would begin a sentence, and the other one might jump in and finish the sentence.”

3. THE OPENING SENTENCE NEVER CHANGED.

“The final, published story is essentially there in the first draft, just as we told it,” Howe told Teaching Books. “In fact, it only took maybe three or four drafts, and mostly that was fixing and polishing.” From the time the Howes sat down to write until the time Bunnicula was published, the very first sentence, spoken by Harold the dog—“I shall never forget the first time I laid these now tired old eyes on our visitor”—never changed.

4. DEBBIE DIED BEFORE IT WAS PUBLISHED.

Several months into writing Bunnicula, Debbie was diagnosed with cancer. At first, Howe said, they put the book aside. “We had other things to deal with,” he told Teaching Books. “But, after a few months, we needed to laugh. We needed something to put our minds to that wasn't so serious and difficult, and we went back to writing Bunnicula. Writing that book really made us laugh; it served the greater purpose of easing the pain and lifting our spirits.”

Sadly, Debbie wouldn’t live to see the book in print. She passed away in June 1978 at 31; Bunnicula was published the next year.

5. THE MOST CHALLENGING ILLUSTRATION FOR ARTIST ALAN DANIEL WAS THE FIRST ONE. 

When illustrator Alan Daniel—who has created art for books like Fireside Al’s Treasury of Christmas Stories, Get Out of Bed!, and The Best Figure Skater in the Whole Wide World—received the Bunnicula manuscript from his agent in 1978, “I laughed all the way through it,” he told mental_floss in an email, “and could hardly wait to get to work.” When he got down to drawing, “I would be so deeply into what I was doing that my children would come into my studio and see the expression of the character I was drawing reflected in my face.” 

He received no art direction. “All the information on the characters is implicit in the text, which I read carefully several times,” he said. So when choosing which scenes to illustrate, Daniel looked for dynamic situations. “I want to show all the characters and make sure the pictures are well placed throughout—not bunched up,” he said. “The story is told from the animals’ point of view so the illustrations are also from that POV. The family is part of the animals’ world so they need to be there, but they only appear twice.”

The most challenging illustration to create, he said, was the first major one: “It is a dark and stormy night so the lighting is tricky. Bunnicula is just a pair of eyes within a dark bundle. A lot had to be established in that illustration. I wanted to present a world that was real so the fantastical elements of the text could play against it.”

Daniel used three different pencils to create the illustrations. An HB graphite pencil got the most use. A 2H pencil “let me get a grayer look for things I wanted to recede,” Daniel said, while “2B gave me real darks. Everything was built up with fine lines except the chair for which I used the texture of the illustration board. Having a full-color cover was a challenge because I wanted to keep the look of the inside pictures. I used muted watercolor over pencil.”

He said that, even now, 38 years after the initial publication, “[people] come and tell me stories about their discovery of the book.”

6. ACCEPTANCE WAS AN ACCIDENTAL THEME OF THE FIRST BOOK.

“Writers are drawn to themes that we write about, but we don't necessarily know what they are,” Howe told Teaching Tolerance magazine in 2006. Howe didn’t know what his theme was until a fourth grade student wrote to him after Bunnicula was published. “In the book, a strange rabbit is suspected of being a vegetarian vampire after he comes into the home of, in my view, a typical suburban family,” he said. “This girl wrote, ‘I learned from this book to be accepting of someone who's different. Harold just accepted Bunnicula. He said, He's different. So what? Chester was suspicious of him and wanted to destroy him.’ There it was. There was my theme.”

Howe also related this story to Scholastic, saying that acceptance has “become a theme in much of my work and it's interesting that it might have unintentionally been a theme in my first book.”

7. THE FIRST SEQUEL WAS INSPIRED BY AGATHA CHRISTIE ...

When it came time to write a sequel to Bunnicula, Howe had a bit of trouble. He told Scholastic that, with his initial sequel idea: “I felt I was rewriting Bunnicula itself, so I knew I needed to make a big change somehow. I asked myself where else could animals go to have an adventure if they didn't stay at home? One of the first thoughts I had was a boarding kennel. As soon as I thought of a boarding kennel, I thought of the mysteries of Agatha Christie, where often a group of strangers come together in a holiday setting, one of the guests is murdered and the other guests become suspects. That gave me my basic plot structure for Howliday Inn.” It was published in 1982.

The initial idea he’d been trying to write would become the second sequel, The Celery Stalks at Midnight (1983), which was inspired by a friend who wondered if the vegetables Bunnicula drained also became vampires. There were four other Bunnicula sequels: Nighty Nightmare (1987), Return to Howliday Inn (1992), Bunnicula Strikes Again! (1999), and Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow (2006).

8. … BUT THERE’S SOME SHERLOCK HOLMES IN THE BOOKS, TOO.

“As much as I was influenced by vampire movies in writing them, I was also influenced by watching a lot of Sherlock Holmes movies,” Howe told Teaching Books. “It took me a while to realize this, but Chester is Sherlock Holmes and Harold is Watson, and they are kind of bumbling detectives who try to figure things out.”

9. THE BOOK WAS ADAPTED INTO TWO MUSICALS ...

Jon Klein adapted the book into a musical for Seattle Children’s Theater in 1996; music was composed by Chris Jeffries [PDF]. Since its debut, Bunnicula the Musical has been performed around the country. Another musical called Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Musical Mystery featured a book by Tony nominee Charles Busch, with music by Sam Davis and lyrics by Mark Waldrop. It played off-Broadway in 2013.

10. … AND AN ANIMATED SPECIAL.

Bunnicula: The Vampire Rabbit debuted in 1982 as part of ABC’s Weekend Specials; you can watch it above. The 23-minute film was directed by Charles A. Nichols, who had previously served as animation director on series like Scooby Doo, Where Are You! and Josie and the Pussycats; he would go on to direct episodes of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

11. THERE WERE OTHER BUNNICULA BOOKS, TOO.

Bunnicula spawned two spin-off series: Tales from the House of Bunnicula, whose books were narrated by dachshund puppy Howie (he made his debut in Howliday Inn), and six oversized picture books called Harold & Chester. There was an activity book, written by Howe and illustrated by Alan Daniel, which contained stickers, puzzles, riddles, and word games; it was published in 1993. Bunnicula's Frightfully Fabulous Factoids: A Book to Entertain Your Brain! was published in 1999, and in 2005, Bunnicula and Friends—simplified versions of the books for early readers—debuted.

12. HOWE’S FAVORITE CHARACTER WAS HAROLD.

When Scholastic asked Howe who his favorite character was, he chose Bunnicula's canine narrator. “I would have to say Harold because I'm closest to him since I write as him,” he said. “But in the series I also really enjoy writing Howie.”

13. THE MONROE FAMILY NEVER FOUND OUT ABOUT BUNNICULA.

“They remain in the dark the whole time,” Howe told NPR. “They just think their pets act very strangely at times, as we all do.”

14. BILL HADER WAS A BIG FAN.

“The first series I was obsessed with was James Howe’s Bunnicula,” Hader told The New York Times“I read all of those.

15. THERE’S A NEW CARTOON BASED ON THE BOOK.

Bunnicula, which debuted on the Cartoon Network and Boomerang in early February, does away with the Monroes and Howie completely. Instead, the show follows a girl named Mina and her two pets, Chester (Sean Astin) and Harold (Brian Kimmet), who discover Bunnicula (Chris Kattan) after they move to an apartment in New Orleans, left to Mina’s dad by a mysterious aunt.

It’s different from the books, but Howe was apparently OK with the changes. “The only thing he really wanted was for us was to be true to the characters,” producer Jessica Borutski told TV Insider. “Bunnicula’s very different, but he wanted us to stay true to Chester and Harold and honor their personality types. That’s what we did.”

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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