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PAT THE BUNNY, Dorothy Kunhardt. Western Publishing Co. - Golden Books.

Responses to literature through rhythm and rhyme begin when a child is still in the crib, with "This Little Pig Went to Market" and other nursery rhymes. Later, the toddler discovers sturdy books in shared story times. Particularly enjoyable are books that encourage the child to participate by pointing, chanting along with the text or touching objects on the pages. "Pat the Bunny," often one of the first books in a child's library, is one such book.

This perennial children's best-seller is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Not only is this an extraordinary feat for any title, but most amazing is the simplicity of its outward appearance, compared with the remarkable statistics that make book publishers and sellers sit up and take notice.

"Pat the Bunny" was written in 1940 for the author's then 3-year-old daughter, Edith. "The book was part of my life from the very beginning. It is about the senses . . . and about discoveries . . . that's its secret, interaction."

While the interaction is shown with characters, Paul and Judy, it is suggested that babies even at 9 months learn to touch, smell and smile using the tactile pages. One-year-olds probably make up the mass of the audience, but the appeal lasts until 2 or 3. By then the pages have been literally worn out!

Robin Warner, publisher of Golden Books, admits that the older readers rarely recall the book as "one of my favorites" since they experience it so early in life, but when they do remember it, it's time for them to buy it for their own children. "Parents like the book because it takes only a few minutes to complete and is sensitive to a baby's short attention span."

Besides patting the fur in a cutout shape of a bunny, activities include playing peek-a-boo by lifting a tiny square of gauze, smelling painted flowers (which are really scented), looking in a mirror, feeling a scratchy beard (sandpaper) reading a miniature book, poking a finger through a cutout and waving bye-bye.

Since its first printing in 1940, "Pat the Bunny" has sold close to 5 million copies, making it an all-time best-selling hardcover children's book, second only to the 90-year-old classic, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," by Beatrix Potter.

Measuring 5 inches high and 4 inches wide with a spiral, plastic ring binder, this diminutive book is packaged in a gift box. It boasts of much more than a combination of a little fur, sandpaper and cardboard, however. At Western Publishing's main headquarters in Racine, Wis., coated board paper stock is imprinted with copy and graphics. These, with the cutouts, are shipped to Fayetteville, N.C., where, in addition to the folding and binding, the fur for patting the bunny, the cloth, mirror, sandpaper and miniature book are all attached by hand on the appropriate pages.

Approximately 250,000 books are produced each year with the following materials: 2,266 yards of acrylic fur; 24,583 square yards of peek-a-boo cloth, 40,799 square yards of metalized polyester for the mirror and 124,028 square yards of paper for the tiny inside book.

Dorothy Kinhardt's belief that books should not only be looked at but smelled and felt and tasted have all been realized. She was the mother of four children, and at the time of her death in 1979, she had 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Without doubt, "Pat the Bunny" had been reading fare for all of them.

While "Pat the Bunny" is by far the best-known of her works, she also wrote and illustrated "The Telephone Book," "Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather" and "Pee Wee the Circus Dog." With her son, Philip, Kunhardt authored two books, "Twenty Days," which detailed the assassination of President Lincoln and the 20 days of mourning that followed, and "Matthew Brady and his World," featuring works of the renowned Civil War photographer.