Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review: Stories told by toys

Book Review

Kate DiCamillo: The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, 2007)

Rachel Field: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (Aladdin, 1998; orig. published 1929; Newbery Medal winner)

Margery Williams: The Velveteen Rabbit (there are too many editions to count; orig. published in 1922)

Mariana: Miss Flora McFlimsey’s Christmas Eve (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1949)

I am the last one in our house to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane. My mother gave it to AJ for Christmas and he’d read it immediately on his own and then moved on to other things. Recently, when Mr. Spy was looking for something to read out loud with AJ, I happened upon it on the bookshelf and suggested it. They both loved it, although Mr. Spy had been worried that it was too sad or dark for AJ. AJ liked that it was a little dangerous. They both thought the ending was perfect.

Last night, after I tucked AJ in, I slipped the book off his table and sat up to read it. It is a beautifully written story about an elegant China rabbit, Edward Tulane, who begins as the favored toy of a young girl who loves him. But Edward does not appreciate what he has. He is arrogant and he is irritated when he is not treated in just the right way. Each night the little girl tucks him into his own bed next to hers and tells her she loves him. But he does not love her. He doesn’t love anyone.

The girl takes Edward on a boat to England. On the trip, some boys grab him from her and throw him overboard. He sinks to the bottom of the ocean. It is then that his trials begin. Many terrible things happen to Edward and often also to the people he takes up with. This is not an easy book. There is death and abuse and violence. The illustrations, which are beautiful, only accentuate this – a picture of Edward nailed up as a scarecrow looks for all the world like a crucifixion. But in the end, there is also redemption through love. The ending is, perfect, too perfect for me to want to give it away. Suffice it to say that Edward’s adventures changed him for the better and he was ultimately rewarded.

A number of reviews I’ve read of this book question whether it is suitable for children. It is indeed very dark and as such may not be for all children. But many children, my son included and myself when I was his age, like darkness. I know I always thought it seemed more interesting and somehow more trustworthy. I obsessively read the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen when I was young. And it doesn’t get much darker than that.

The book put me in mind of a number of other books told from a toy’s point of view. The first, and the one with the greatest similarity, is Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. I first picked up Hitty at my grandmother’s house when I was probably about AJ’s age, or maybe a little younger. And I loved it. It is the memoir of a doll who was carved by a peddler for a little girl. Like Edward, Hitty has many adventures, some of which are similar to Edward’s – both, for instance, have run-ins with birds. But Hitty’s adventures are not all sad, nor are they meant to teacher her anything, but rather to showcase her optimism and willingness to make the best of situations that she is powerless to control.

Margery William’s classic tale, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which you can read in its entirety here, always struck me as unspeakably sad as a child. The Velveteen Rabbit, a Christmas present to a small boy, becomes his favorite. The Rabbit loves being the boy’s favorite, but he longs to be Real (with a capital “R”). The part that always disturbed me was when the boy contracts scarlet fever and the rabbit is tossed in a trash pile, along with all the boy’s sheets and clothes, to be burned, in order to kill the germs. It seemed so heartless. The Velveteen Rabbit is rescued in an unexpected way and has a happy ending. But the adults in the story came off as careless and unobservant.

It is this separation of adult and toy world view in all three of these stories that also makes them appeal to children. The toys have hard lives. By the ends of these tales they are battered and broken and they have transformed into something beyond mere object. The adults, however, are mostly thoughtless, selfish, mean and careless with something that has feelings and little or no control over its own circumstances. Frequently, the adults don’t even notice the toys, much as children feel ignored or overlooked or misunderstood by adults.

The fourth book on my list is much slighter than the others, but is similarly wistful. It’s a picture book I adored as a child, and the pictures are a very large part of this book’s appeal. Flora McFlimsey is a doll who, when she was new, was given as a Christmas present to a little girl, who loved her. But now she is stuck in the attic on Christmas Eve with all the other unwanted things and a mouse named Timothy. But Flora McFlimsey has a wish: she wants to see a Christmas tree again. And she has another wish too: to be loved by a little girl again. And because it is Christmas, sometimes wishes come true. Even this book, though, is not all sweetness and light. There is the sadness of Flora’s abandonment in the attic. And once she makes it down to the Christmas tree, as a replacement for a doll that is missing from Santa’s bag, she is taunted to two brand-new and fashionable dolls. But in the end, the three sisters who come down on Christmas morning all like Flora best. She is old fashioned and not in fashion, but she is lovable.

In all of these books, the toys’ lack of agency is placed front and center. In three of them, the toys gain some amount of visible agency. In Hitty’s case, it is through writing her memoirs. In the case of the Velveteen Rabbit and Flora McFlimsey, there is a magical intervention that allows the toys to gain movement and thus control. Edward’s case is different. He gains control not of his surroundings, but of himself.

The difficulties the toys go through are exactly why we should let children read these books, why we should read them with our children, why writers should keep tackling difficult topics for children’s books. As parents, we tend to want to protect our children from the darker side of life. But children’s lives are often darker than we know. Like the toys in these books, they have little control over their lives. They are told where to go and when to go there. Things are taken away from them, and they often don’t understand why. Other children are sometimes cruel. Adults, even those who love them, don’t always listen to them as well as they should. Children will find familiar ground here, whether parents wish to admit it or not. None of these stories are depressing or hopeless. Quite the opposite. For a child who feels trapped and frustrated by his status in the world, the message of resolution may be a welcome one.

Edward Tulane may be an even more important figure for children than the rest. His character flaw is selfishness, and it brings about his downfall. Learning to connect with others redeems him. He is punished, repents and is forgiven. There is no magic. It is his own internal journey, a lesson taught by hardship, that transforms him. These are all issues that young children wrestle with but often cannot articulate. And as a parent, I worry that punishment looms larger than the forgiveness. Edward Tulane ends with forgiveness and reward.

Have any of you read The Miraculous Adventure of Edward Tulane? What did you think? What do you think of it as a book for children? Do you have any other books about toys to add to the discussion? I thought also of the Lonely Doll books, but I don’t remember them very well. I’d love to hear of more.


FreshHell said...

I haven't read it. I'll have to look for it. I do think children relate well to darkness. My favorite story as a child was "The Red Shoes" - the horror of dancing forever, her feet turning bloody, etc. I don't know why I was so fascinated by it - I had an active imagination. The Lonely Dolls was a favorite of mine but its sad and kind of creepy. But, the doll lives all alone in a house but is sort of adopted by a father bear and his son. The little bear and the doll get into trouble and she gets spanked but they care about her and for her and she's not lonely anymore. There is, I think, a threat that the bears might leave her - which is one of those childhood fears that your parents might, at any time, esp if you're bad, leave you.

lemming said...

I loathe abominate and despise Velveteen Rabbit and The Giving Tree. Does this make me a bad person?

There's a terrific trio of books told from the point of view of dolls in a doll house - must look up teh titles