At the time this post is published, I’ll be at the Writer Unboxed UnCon in Salem, MA, where I’ll be leading a discussion on the impact of language on storytelling. So it seems appropriate to post something along the same lines, particularly given the interesting experience I had just prior to drafting this piece.
My daughter’s 30th birthday was several days ago, and as I prepared to shop for birthday presents, I asked a couple of female friends for book recommendations. One of those recommendations surprised me: The Velveteen Rabbit, the classic children’s book by Margery Williams.
The friend who recommended it – an educated and extremely intelligent woman who’s probably in her late thirties – said that she re-reads the book several times a year. I told her I had read it (or had it read to me) as a child, but couldn’t remember reading it as an adult. (Crap. This means I probably never read it to my daughter. Bad parenting, Keith. Bad parenting.)
My friend remarked that she had never read it as a child, but had discovered the book as an adult, and it remained one of her favorites. Intrigued, I bought an inexpensive ebook version of it, and read it in probably 15-20 minutes. It was a fascinating experience.
Getting reacquainted with a classic
First of all, I totally did not remember the story. I mean, I remember liking it as a kid, and had some vague recollection about it revolving around a toy that becomes shabby and worn, but I couldn’t recall any more details than that. So I was surprised multiple times by where the story went, including its conclusion (fear not – no spoilers).
Next, I was surprised that for a short book intended for children, the language is actually very adult, with a hint of subtly satirical humor that would have sailed right over my head as a child.
For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. The model boat, who had lived through two seasons and lost most of his paint, caught the tone from them and never missed an opportunity of referring to his rigging in technical terms. The Rabbit could not claim to be a model of anything, for he didn’t know that real rabbits existed; he thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself, and he understood that sawdust was quite out-of-date and should never be mentioned in modern circles. Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by the disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with Government.
I’m sure his kind of sophistication in a children’s book made it much more easy for parents to endure when being asked to read the story aloud for the umpteenth time. In that respect, I think Ms. Williams’ book set an example that we see widely adopted today in the CGI-animated movies we see from Pixar and Disney. I absolutely LOVE those movies, and am always impressed at how they succeed in appealing to – and resonating with – viewers of all ages, from toddler to senior citizen. That’s good writing.
A talent for timelessness
Another aspect of The Velveteen Rabbit that surprised me is that for a book just six years shy of being a century old, it doesn’t seem dated. Probably the most outdated reference is the title itself: I don’t think most of us use the word “velveteen” anymore. But I think you’d agree, it makes for a far more poetic title than “The Plush Rabbit.”
Sure, there are references that make it clear this was set in another time, such as when one character is stricken with scarlet fever. But there is a timeless quality to the story that is really compelling, and – to me, at least – worthy of further study. After all, wouldn’t you like to write a story that people are still reading a hundred years later? I know I would.
Let’s get metaphysical
Okay, so Margery Williams succeeded in writing a book that is timeless and appeals to all ages. But she didn’t stop there. She also showed a willingness and an ability to use a very small book – just under 4,000 words – to ask some very BIG questions, such as this one:
“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.”
That’s probably what impressed me most about this book – and is likely why my friend re-reads it so often. Ms. Williams used the simple story of a stuffed animal to ask one of the biggest existential questions possible, and then created an entire mythos for answering that question. All in under 4,000 words. Again, that’s good writing.
Making an emotional connection
A theme we see echoed time and time again in the posts we read here at WU is how crucial it is to make an emotional connection with our readers. This is another one of the strongest aspects of The Velveteen Rabbit. Williams does a wonderful job of capturing the depth – and the purity – of the love that can exist between a child and his toy. If you’ve seen any of the “Toy Story” movies, I submit that they each owe a substantial debt to this book.
And like those movies, the book shows how loving relationships can grow, change, and evolve. Further, it shows how two beings who love each other may each be experiencing and perceiving that love in very different ways – again, a very adult perspective, but captured in a realistic and childlike way.
There’s a whole lot of story here
As you may have gathered, there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple story. I’ve spent a lot of time studying story structure over the past few years, focusing in particular on the theories and methodologies of Chris Vogler (modeled on Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”), Blake Snyder (“save the cat” approach to “story beats”) and Michael Hauge (six-stage plot structure with inner and outer journey).
While the theories these writers espouse each have their own distinct slant, they also have much in common, and are each laid out in a sequence of steps (also called stages or beats). So out of curiosity I tried mapping The Velveteen Rabbit to some of those steps (again, trying to avoid spoilers).
- Setup – a view of the normal world, and a statement of the theme: The book begins when the rabbit is first given as a gift. We are introduced to the other toys, including a Mentor figure, and the theme is stated: being loved makes you real.
- Call to action/catalyst/turning point: The boy’s favorite toy goes missing, so the rabbit is called into action to replace it (by a nanny who just wants the kid to go to sleep).
- The new world, giving the hero a glimpse of his potential essence: The rabbit and the boy share new adventures, and their love begins to grow.
- Complications and higher stakes: The rabbit is getting more shabby and dirty, and has a chance encounter with strangers who make him directly question his own reality. This is a great moment, which calls to mind the scene in the movie Shrek where the antagonist mocks Shrek for daring to think that he – a lowly ogre – could ever win the affection of the Princess.
- Point of no return: A very real hint of danger is introduced, as we are given a piece of information that makes us – but not the rabbit – aware that his life is in danger. The rabbit’s love remains steadfast, a factor that will be important going forward.
- Major setback/all is lost/dark night of the soul: It appears that there’s no hope for the rabbit, as a very final sentence has been issued.
- Resurrection/final push: The rabbit’s reaction to his situation attracts the attention of a force stronger than himself, and he is both saved and transformed.
- Aftermath/hero’s return/final image: The rabbit is now living fully in his essence, and has a very new and different encounter with the one he loves.
Those who are familiar with the story structures I’m borrowing from will note that I’m mashing them up and only roughly approximating them, and there’s a good chance that you might have assembled or aligned those components differently. But the main point I’m trying to make is that even in a very short story written for children, the author manages to take us on a rich and complete emotional journey, and the protagonist has distinct “before” and “after” states, in this wonderful tale of transformation.
I was different when I first read this: I was a child. Now I am an adult. But now I’m also something else: a writer. And as an adult and a writer, I’m both fascinated and humbled by how an author who wrote a children’s book about a stuffed animal nearly a hundred years ago has managed to create something so timeless, universal, and – to reference a thought-provoking recent post from Donald Maass – profound.
As I may have mentioned, that’s good writing.
How about you?
What are some books you loved as a child that you rediscovered as an adult? Do they still hold up, even when seen through an adult’s eyes? What about through a writer’s eyes? Have you encountered any other children’s books that had adult messages? (Charlotte’s Web comes to mind, but I suspect there are others.) Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
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