Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Velveteen Rabbit

For me, one of the great childrens' stories is Margery Williams' 1922 tale The Velveteen Rabbit. Like many good childrens' stories it's about the world, about all of us.

The voice is perfectly pitched, for the era, and comes alive off the page, begging to be read out loud with verve and rise and fall of voice. Here's a link to an online copy with some superb illustrations. Like some of the best Dr Seuss stories there are pointers in here to human behaviour which reward an adult's reading, while never sacrificing the enthralling style, to keep a young reader engaged.

There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the Rabbit was quite the best of all. For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.

For at least two hours, that says so much.

The story contains all the elements of good fiction - including:

  • Character - the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse are hard to forget. Even the minor characters like the toy motorboat stand out. The Skin Horse reminds me of some of John Steinbeck's later ragged and wandering wise men (e.g. Jim Casey from The Grapes of Wrath.)
  • Plot -  the introduction of scarlet fever, which threatens the boy's life - darkens the story and takes it into new and poignant territory. Like all the most effective plot, it develops, raising the emotional stakes at the same time it raises the tension (this is crucial in strong storytelling) and contains subtextual echoes that go way beyond the specific context of the story. 
  • Conflict - at the same time the boy is saved, the rabbit is endangered (by the same act) which cleaves a split in the reader's loyalties
  • A transcendent scene (best put in either just before the plot climax, or at the emotional climax) - the moment when the Velveteen Rabbit waits, shivering, to be incinerated, thinking of the good times in the past, is heartbreaking. 
I'd advise anyone looking to write for children to study this story. Think about how you might adjust the voice for contemporary audiences, or the plot (do children still relate to fairies?)

The two stories that moved me most from my own childhood were The Velveteen Rabbit and The Lorax (Dr Seuss.) Each generation has its favourites, and it's interesting to think that Margery Williams story predates me by four decades. I guess the best stories really are timeless and always open to contemporary re-assessment and interpretation. I once read an online review of The Lorax by a political conservative who described it as 'tiresome environmental, anti-business agit-prop,'

Jesus wept.

But that's a whole 'nutha story.

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