Literally overnight, the biggest star in the literary world has become a gay bunny named Marlon Bundo.
On Sunday night John Oliver announced on HBO’s Last Week Tonight that A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a children’s book about a gay bunny, named after a pet rabbit owned by the family of Vice President Mike Pence, would be available immediately. That meant it beat a rival children’s book, Marlon Bundo’s Day in the Life of the Vice President, written by Pence’s daughter Charlotte, and illustrated by his wife, Karen, by mere hours to the digital shelves.
As of Monday afternoon, Last Week Tonight’s book—which was written by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, an artist from Pence’s home state of Indiana—was the No. 1 seller on Amazon, with the Pences’ book lagging noticeably behind at No. 6. With over 1,200 user reviews by that time, the Last Week Tonight book earned a rare five-star rating. The Pences’ effort had less than 50 reviews, and a woeful one-and-a-half-star rating.
The battle of the books began after the surprise release of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo Sunday night, orchestrated in response to the Pence book tour’s stop at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that the Human Rights Campaign calls “one of the most well-funded anti-LGBTQ organizations in America.”
Yes, the vice president’s history of promoting anti-LGBTQ policies infiltrates even his daughter’s seemingly innocuous children’s book about their pet rabbit.
Oliver cheekily pointed out the differences between Marlon Bundo as portrayed in the respective books. For one, his Marlon wears a jaunty bowtie. “Also, our story is about Marlon Bundo falling in love with another boy rabbit, because our Marlon Bundo is gay—just like the real Marlon Bundo.”
To add nobility to his trolling of Pence’s politicized homophobia, Oliver also said that all proceeds from the book will go to The Trevor Project and AIDS United. An audiobook version features the voices of Jim Parsons, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and RuPaul.
Regnery Publishing, which released Pence’s book, blasted Oliver in a statement for bringing partisan politics into the release of a children’s story.
“It’s unfortunate that anyone would feel the need to ridicule an educational children’s book and turn it into something controversial and partisan. Our and Mrs. Charlotte Pence’s goal is—and will continue to be—to educate young readers about the important role of the vice president, as well as to highlight the charities to which portions of the book proceeds will be donated,” a spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.
It’s certainly true that Oliver is intending the purchase of his Marlon Bundo book to come with a partisan message. (He listed “selling more books than Pence will probably really piss him off” as one of the reasons his viewers should purchase it.) But as he also pointed out, it was the Pences who cast the first political stone by partnering with Focus on the Family to promote it, underlining the partisan idea that family-friendly means “not gay.”
Oliver also stressed that this isn’t just some adult parody middle finger to Pence, but a legitimate children’s book meant to entertain, inspire, and be read by kids. We’ve read through a review copy of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, and while that’s 100 percent true—this is a sweet and vital story about love that children can and should read and enjoy—it’s also as political as it is touching. (We couldn’t even get past the “for every bunny who has ever felt different” dedication without gently weeping at our desk.)
While hopping through his day as a pet of the vice president, Marlon Bundo spots another bunny named Wesley, and is smitten. “He was a big, fluffy bunny with the floppiest floppy ears and the bushiest tail. He was bunny-beautiful,” Marlon Bundo narrates. “I was standing still. But being near him made me feel like my heart was still hopping.”
Marlon and Wesley hopped around all day. At the end of the day, Marlon says, “Wesley, I don’t want to hop without you ever again.” Wesley says back, “That’s funny because I never want to hop without you, Marlon Bundo, ever again.” They decide to get married and hop together forever.
The illustrations are beautiful. You see the couple staring lovingly at each other next to a fire. You see them adorably holding hands. It’s love portrayed as matter-of-factly as it ever is when it’s between a boy and a girl in a children’s book, which is important. But there’s a political point to be made still, and the book makes it pretty powerfully.
While all of Marlon and Wesley’s friends cheer their decision to get married, the Stink Bug, who is in charge of all the animals and bears a not-so-subtle resemblance to Mike Pence, announces that boy bunnies are only allowed to marry girl bunnies. “You. Are. Different,” he shouts. “And. Different. Is. Bad.”
Marlon and Wesley are crestfallen. “But this is the Bunny I love,” Wesley says. Marlon says the same. “Just being next to Wesley made me a little braver,” he narrates, a description of love so simple and true that we defy your heart not to break.
Their friends rally around Marlon and Wesley, recognizing that each of them is different in their own way, and they devise a plan. They must vote the Stink Bug out of office so that love can win again.
As a stunt, this whole gay bunny book thing is a brilliant, headline-making gag to giggle over and applaud—trolling at its best, from John Oliver, the master of trolls. But as a book, it defies all of that. What a beautiful children’s book, with a simple message of love.