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By bringing classic storybooks to life, a new museum aims to promote a love of reading

"The Rabbit hOle" in Missouri takes visitors into a world of children's books and their characters, from "Where the Sidewalk Ends" to "Strega Nona."
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NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With book bans reaching historic levels and libraries becoming increasingly politicized, a new museum called “The Rabbit hOle” aims to shine a spotlight on the timeless magic of children’s books.

The capital “O” in the title is a nod to the large, round rabbit hole visitors walk through to enter the exhibit. Inside an unassuming former tin factory, visitors make their way down a dust-colored grotto stacked with books squished between towering layers of replica rocks. 

They are brought to the purple, glowing rabbit hole with shiny, golden words of the opening lines from famous children’s books on the walls. A swirling galactic clock entices curious minds to enter through the portal. 

A child reads next to a large bunny sculpture that hugs a mushroom
A child reads at "The Rabbit hOle."Courtesy The Rabbit hOle

After meandering through the winding twists and turns in the dark, lantern-lit tunnels, visitors land in a vast and vibrant storybook exhibit. Familiar faces such as Madeline and Strega Nona are some of the first characters to greet readers. 

A couple of books corresponding to the exhibits are stacked in nearby shelves and are accessible to those who pass by. There are also plenty of lesser-known storybooks sprinkled around the space. 

Life-size sculptures of characters from “No, David,” “Harry the Dirty Dog” and “I Am Bunny” have kids flocking to them like celebrities. 

The kids eagerly point out the images from the books in their hands, and match items in the exhibits that are in front of them in real life. Parents aren’t too far behind, snapping pictures to capture the excitement.

Michelle Huettenmueller and her daughter Eleanor read at the "Harry the Dirty Dog" section of the museum
Eleanor and her mother, Michelle Huettenmueller, read at the "Harry the Dirty Dog" section. NBC News

"The Rabbit hOle" was created by Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid, who for almost three decades owned a locally renowned bookstore called Reading Reptile but dreamed of something bigger.

 “'The Rabbit hOle' is a really unique hybrid of an experience,” Cowdin said. “It’s also a labor of love. We’ve been working on it for eight years, and it’s never going to be finished.”

The pair raised more than $15 million in eight years to create the one-of-a-kind showpiece. The capital came from national grants, local foundations and donations from regional families. 

The museum officially opened April 27, but in the first three weeks of a "soft opening" before then, more than 13,000 people from more than 32 states visited.

Pete and Deb Pettit at The Rabbit hOle museum
Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid view an exhibit.NBC News

Currently, only the first floor of the 150,000-square-foot building is open, with more than 40 immersive storybook-themed exhibits.

Future plans include a café filled with storybook-referenced food like Strega Nona’s pasta and Bobo’s jum-jills from the book “The Funny Thing.” There also will be rooms for crafts and other activities, Cowdin and Pettid said, as well as more storybook immersions.

“We were really into trying to get kids to really love reading, rather than being able to read,” Pettid said. “You know, I think they are pretty different things and they’re both important, but I think our love lies in trying to get people to become readers.”

She said she believes people who want to ban or politicize books or “decide who reads what” are not serious readers.

“I think they’re often people that have had poorer or few experiences with actually reading,” Pettid said. “And it’s like they’re afraid of what they don’t know.”

She said she hoped the exhibit would expose new and not-so-new readers to characters, cultures and experiences that might be unfamiliar to them. 

Children play on a carousel with tiger characters as the seats
Only the first floor of the 150,000-square-foot building is open, with more than 40 immersive storybook-themed exhibits.Courtesy The Rabbit hOle

“That’s the beauty about books, nobody’s making people read the book. It’s a choice. And just because I choose not to read something doesn’t mean that what I like or don’t like should be enforced upon somebody else,” she said. 

Visitors will not find high-tech touch screens or blaring buzzers inside the exhibit, and Cowdin said that was by design. 

“We’re only 20 years into social media and the internet,” he said. “People are still figuring out what that is and how it’s impacting people. We’re not ‘anti’ anything but I think there’s an imbalance.”

Pettid said the magic can happen when a book is connected to memory.

“A lot of your memories when you read a book are because you’re sitting next to someone or you’re sitting in their lap,” she said. “There’s a kind of coziness to it, too.”

A dimly lit cartoon-like bedroom with a fireplace, bed, window, tiger rug, and balloon on the ceiling
The “Goodnight Moon” room.Mara Stein / NBC News

Those memories are triggered in the dimly lit green “Goodnight Moon” room, where a crackling fireplace, a red balloon floating in the corner and a yellow rocking chair are illuminated by the glowing moon outside the window.

The classic bedtime story can help children understand their place in the world and realize that their own personal stories can be treasures, Cowdin said.

“The stories that we have here have already been told, and they can be experienced over and over again,” he said. “We want every kid, especially, to know that they have a story that matters.” 

CORRECTION (May 14, 2024, 5:11 p.m. ET): A previous version of this articled misstated the type of venue the Rabbit hOle is. It is a museum, not a permanent exhibit. It also misstated the last names of the creators. They are Deb Pettid and Pete Cowdin, not Pettit.