It has been said that a good artistic or literary creation is one that can be enjoyed differently at various stages of life. Recall a book you read or a movie you watched as a child, and consider how richly different the experience was when you repeated it as an adult.
Yesterday I sat down to read the beloved children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit (or How Toys Become Real), in preparation for an outing to Seattle’s Children’s Theatre with my six-year-old grandchildren. Written by Margery Williams and first published in 1922, the book chronicles the story of a stuffed rabbit’s desire to become real through the love of his owner.
In addition to experiencing fading fur, glass eyes that are losing their shine, and back legs that don’t move, the Velveteen Rabbit feels dull and inadequate among the more expensive, mechanical, wind-up toys (remember, it’s 1922) “that arrived to boast and swagger.”
It all got me wondering for whom Margery Williams wrote this book.
Was it for poor children who could not afford the more expensive toys of the 1920s? Or is the story perhaps a way for young children to voice their attachment to their toys, a way to help the adult reader understand the importance of toys and animals in their children’s lives?
Was it written for bigger children on the path to adulthood, struggling with the notion of personal identity, the becoming of self? Is the story intended to address one of the life’s pervasive questions related to that becoming of self: What is real, good and true; what is beautiful? Or to help them distinguish their imagined desires and goals with those that are real and authentic for them?
Might The Velveteen Rabbit have been written for young parents who would struggle a century later to find a balance between the quiet joys of yesteryear (reading! stuffed animals!) and the persistent call of beeping robots and the mesmerizing allure of video games?
Or, perhaps, for the grandparents, reading the book decades later to their little ones, with the Beatles’ song humming annoyingly and continually in their heads: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” (Full disclosure: I am currently 63 years old).
Perhaps it is simply about the power of love, and perhaps all of the above….
Wherever you are in life, enjoy this touching selection, in which the Rabbit has a chat with the Skin Horse who “had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces.” The Rabbit assumes that the Skin Horse had been around so long, and had seen so many swaggering mechanical toys break and pass away, that he certainly must have some wisdom to share that would help address his angst.
* * *
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“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 suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.