The other night Madeline asked to read The Velveteen Rabbit. Our copy is the same one I read as a little girl. I can prove it; my five-year-old self wrote my name in the front cover complete with backwards letters “f”.
The story is about a stuffed rabbit that wishes to be “Real”. His friend the Skin Horse tells him how he became “Real”: by being played with and loved for many years by a little boy. The rabbit soon begins to play with and be loved by the nephew of the Skin Horse’s boy. He takes the rabbit with him outside to play in the fields and the bracken; he builds him burrows in his bed sheets at night. After months and months of love, the velveteen rabbit’s fur begins to become dingy and worn. His seams are coming loose. But it does not matter; for the boy has decided that the rabbit is “Real”.
Not long after, the boy falls ill with scarlet fever. The rabbit sees the boy through the illness, and comforts him during the sleepless nights. Once the boy is well, the doctor and nanny decide to burn all of the boy’s toys and books that he used while ill, including the rabbit. After narrowly escaping a bonfire due to the gardener’s busy schedule, the rabbit encounters the Nursery Magic Fairy. It is she who makes the rabbit REAL. His shabby velveteen becomes real fur, and his body, once sewn as one piece, has front and hind legs that allow him to run, jump, and hop.
The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child because I had a bear that was “Real” to me. My grandmother gave Teddy, or later Theodore, to me for my first Christmas, and he never left my side all through my childhood. I took Teddy with me everywhere: he went to the grocery store, he went to school, and he played outside. I took Teddy to college with me, and he even ventured abroad with me to England. When I tell you Teddy looks worn, he looks worn. That bear has had his face eaten not once, but twice, by my childhood dog, and he has been dragged by one paw so long that the seams on that arm are loose.
There had been times over the course of my childhood when I thought I had lost Teddy. The story of the Velveteen Rabbit was always a comfort to me. The Nursery Magic Fairy would surely turn him into a real bear, since I had loved him so much.
Now that I have children, they have their own stuffed animals, of course, but I have added Teddy to their collection. He sleeps on Madeline’s bed, and I notice her hugging him in her sleep sometimes. In my mind, I imagine that Teddy is like the Skin Horse. He is old and wise, and I have already made him “Real”. I picture him talking to Madeline and Clara’s stuffed animals, explaining to them lovingly that being hugged tightly, dragged around, and squished in bed are all part of the process of becoming “Real”. Teddy is the newer stuffed animals’ mentor, just as the Skin Horse was the Velveteen Rabbit’s mentor. He is further along in his “journey of life”, and he has much wisdom to share.
I had to grow up and face reality eventually. Teddy isn’t Real, and he isn’t “Real” either. He is just a stuffed bear that has been loved so much his eyeballs have fallen off. That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t remember fondly the time in my childhood when my imagination was so active that I felt like my Teddy was my best friend. I can only hope that Teddy is “teaching” my girls’ stuffed animals to play along, too, so they can have a special friend like I did.