You’re a stuffed rabbit given to a little boy. But you yearn for more than simply to be one more unremarkable toy.
Do you remember:
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, illustrated by William Nicholson (Avon, c1922)
Here, folks, is one of the original toy stories. It’s a strange little book that’s never quite disappeared from the canon of classics, yet lurks on the edges–often overshadowed by Winnie the Pooh or Charlotte’s Web. At only 40 pages long, it usually falls into the young reader section . . . or creeps into picture books. This is one of those stories that’s often forgotten about until it’s mentioned by another and then everyone remembers it fondly.
The story opens on Christmas Day, where the velveteen rabbit is a present for a young boy. The rabbit isn’t of much interest to the boy at first, shinier and more active toys take the boy’s attention. It’s only after the boy needs something to sleep with one night that the rabbit becomes a favorite toy. Over time he is worn down, as most stuffed toys will become. But the wise old Skin Horse has told the rabbit about Nursery Magic and how a toy goes from being just a toy to being Real. The rabbit yearns for this to happen to him, even though becoming Real is a long process.
This bittersweet story of loss, magic and toys is, in some ways, as much a story for adults with its message about how to become real.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I was thinking about how this process of becoming real has a lot to do with 4D vision. We see in three dimensions all the stuff we are just encountering or go by day to day without forming attachments. But for those people and things that become important to us, we don’t see them as a single moment in time, but all the times, all the memories, all the relationship in one go. I see my daughter as the three year old she is while still seeing the newborn I brought home and every age in between. I have my old Real toys as well. A bear who has no stuffing left, has lost his mouth and nose and has part of an ear accidentally burned off. But I see him for all the countless nights spent cuddling, of every overnight stay he was packed for, for all the games we played.
For such a slim book, this has an awful lot of power. I actually was first introduced to this story by a children’s TV movie in the 1980s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66uS7nqEXj0 . Please check this version out rather than the more recent 2009 version if you’re interested in televised versions of the story.
The author, Margery Williams (also known as Margery Williams Bianco) wrote this book at 41 years of age, and it is her best known work. However, she has authored other books for children. In looking her up, I found that The Velveteen Rabbit is actually part of a loose trilogy of stories about children’s toys. The other two: The Skin Horse (1927) and The Little Wooden Doll (1927) were likewise bittersweet stories about toys and the children who loved them. However, neither of these brief tales had the staying power or elegance of the first story.
Most readers today will be familiar with the Toy Story movie, maybe it’s time to introduce them to a book that was written well before then along similar themes.