Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Secret Life of Playthings: Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

Blame it on Winnie-the-Pooh! There's a wonderful genre of children's books which depicts the lives that toys live apart from their human friends, and Emily Jenkins' recent Toys Go Out is the charming story of how Stingray, Lumphy the Buffalo, Plastic, Sheep, and Mice hang out and try to figure out the meaning of life, at least when Little Girl is not around.

One sub-plot deals with Plastic, who wonders exactly what she is. After all, she has no fur, legs, arms, nose, or mouth, so she's clearly not a toy animal like Stingray and Lumphy. A visit to the sage TukTuk, all-knowing bathroom towel, reveals that she is a bouncy ball, whereupon she glories in her destiny when Little Girl takes her on a trip to the beach.

On the other hand, Lumphy is racked with washer anxiety when he is mussed with peanut butter, until he finds that visiting Frank, the Washing Machine, and his inarticulate partner, Dryer, can actually be a bit of fun worth repeating. But Lumphy is still torn with jealousy for his friend Stingray, who is the only toy who gets to sleep with Little Girl. When Stingray generously uses sleep suggestion to get Little Girl to choose Lumphy as a bedtime buddy as well, Lumphy feels honored but still misses the midnight fun with the other toys so much that he sacrifices his tail to join them.

Rivalries and personal angst aside, the toys discover that as special birthday gifts from yesteryear, they all belong to a marvelous fraternity, all beloved by Little Girl. When your personal portraits are done by Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky, (see his exquisite Rumpelstiltskin) what could be finer?

This good-natured interplay between toys is also found in Jane Hissey's wonderfully illustrated stories Little Bear's Trousers, available as a board book, and Splash!

A much deeper understanding of the bond between children and toys can be found in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. Edward Tulane begins his pilgrimage as a supercilious and impeccably dressed china rabbit who cares not a whit for his kind owner Abilene Tulane. When lost overboard, Edward suffers a series of indignities and loss of physical beauty until at last he learns to open his heart and love another child. It's an oft-told theme, but never better expressed than in the "achingly beautiful, spare" prose of DiCamillo.

Another unusual "secret life of playthings" story is the 1947 Newbery Award book Miss Hickory. With a body carved from a hickory twig and an acorn head, Miss Hickory is left behind by her human child and winters in a sheltering tree with the help of a group of personable animals. When a squirrel gives in to temptation and actually eats her obviously tasty head, Miss Hickory, ever resourceful, plugs herself into a knothole and becomes a graft on the tree, thus being, through the transmuting power of nature, reborn.

And speaking of transformations, there's that classic story of the rebirth of a toy, The Velveteen Rabbit, a toy rabbit who is made real by the transforming power of love between him and the Boy who believes him to be so.

Toys, sometimes our first friends and first loves, seem to have a life of their own--in our own childhood and in literature as well.



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