When the children’s bookstore The Reading Reptile closed its doors in 2015 for the final time, owners Debbie Pettid and Pete Cowdin weren’t tossing in the towel. The independent children’s bookstore was a Kansas City staple, the kind of place that seemed to have as much magic in its walls as the books on its shelves. Generations of kids had learned to read there. Dozens of authors had visited. And the ever-evolving interiors, a chaotic mix of whimsical art and characters made manifest with paper mache and paint, were legendary.
“We left no surface uncovered,” Pettid said with a laugh.
But after 27 years, it was time to pivot. Pettid and Cowdin are about to open something new: The Rabbit hOle, a museum focused on bringing American children’s literature to life for all ages. It was inspired in part by the faces the two would see when parents and kids would enter The Reading Reptile.
“People would have this immediate, visceral, emotional reaction when they saw the gorilla from Goodnight Gorilla hanging off of his tire in the store,” Pettid said. “Or when they saw the fire cat, you know, coming down a pole. And different ages of people in the same family would recognize different characters or references to books.”
The idea of crafting a museum after that look sprang up in the mid-’90s. The duo visited the City Museum, an artist-built playground consisting of repurposed architectural and industrial objects, in St. Louis, Missouri. There, the two realized they could bring their love for children’s literature and interactive discovery to life.
“We walked in and we’re like, ‘Wow, what if you did this with books?” Pettid remembered.
Making the Unimaginable Possible
It took decades to begin making that a reality. Construction for The Rabbit hOle began in 2018 after the purchase of a 165,000 sq. ft. building in north Kansas City, but work began on the project soon after The Reading Reptile closed. Since 2015, the team has been developing concepts, fundraising, designing and executing full-scale exhibits for future programming in a temporary workspace.
Just like the City Museum, The Rabbit hOle will be interactive and allow visitors to immerse themselves in the world of their favorite books. At any moment guests could be walking with Madeline in Paris, going click, clack, moo with the cows that type, or having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day with Alexander.
But in order for that to happen, Pettid and Cowdin first needed to get the rights. That’s where the years of owning The Reading Reptile really came in handy. They had strong connections with hundreds of award-winning authors and illustrators. Those relationships allowed the pair to secure the rights to over 70 books while also using their images to help fundraise millions.
At The Rabbit hOle, though, the idea is to bring those stories and illustrations off the page. Sure, it will tap into the magic of The Reading Reptile, but it will be more than that. Pettid and Cowdin hope those who visit The Rabbit hOle will completely absorb what is in front of them. Yes, visitors will be able to learn new facts about their favorite books. And yes, they’ll get to learn about the authors too. But they also get to live in the world of those books.
“When you are looking at Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, you are in the environment of Mike Mulligan,” Pettid said.
The experience doesn’t stop at discovery. There are several program areas in the building, including a letterpress print shop and story lab, a bookstore, a resource library and reading room and a traditional gallery space. The hope is that this abundance of programs will make the museum more than just something parents take their kids to on the weekends. Instead, parents have the opportunity to bring their children to a place filled with learning and imagination where they too can find their inner child and dream alongside them.
Falling Into The Future
After almost eight years of brainstorming, designing and construction, The Rabbit hOle still has a long way to go. The first part of the museum is set to open to the public in October 2023; however, Pettid made it clear that The Rabbit hOle will continue to expand.
“The basement, first and second floors will be the first to be open to the public. We’ll continue raising money to complete the third and fourth and the roof,” Pettid said.
Even if it takes 10 more years for another level of the museum to open up, Pettid and Cowdin are excited about it all and cannot wait to share their love and discovery of children’s literature with the world.