Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Margery Williams

The story of a boy who receives a toy rabbit as a Christmas gift, The Velveteen Rabbit is a beloved classic by Margery Williams. I enjoyed this tale as a child and, although my reasons for enjoying it have changed, to this day I have never tired of reading it. No matter how many picture books and chapter books I outgrew and passed on in my youth, The Velveteen Rabbit is one I knew I’d always keep.

As a child, at least part of the appeal of The Velveteen Rabbit lay in its fantastical element. As its subtitle says, it’s a story about how toys become real. In that way, it’s akin to Pinocchio, another beloved literacy character who wanted to be more than a toy. And, in my earliest years, I wanted to believe that my toys could become real. Not that my imaginings were straightforward. Rather, they were a mix of various fantasies. There was the one where my toys would talk at night when I was asleep. Or the one where my toys could invoke revenge on me if I allowed them to get damaged. And the one where all my discarded toys would end up in the land of misfit toys. All of these jumbled in my head, along with the one about where my toys would become real because of my love. And if I were to qualify any of my toys under the latter stipulation, it would have to be a floppy gaudy green and pink plush dog. It’s hair is worn bare, an eye is missing, and various appendages have been taped to hold them together. For years, I slept with that doll. Today I still have it and it serves as my gravatar.

Eventually, I outgrew my belief that toys could become real. Then the appeal of The Velveteen Rabbit lay solely in its message about love: “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.” In Christian circles, the Skin Horse’s advice can be used to explain to new converts how we start out as babes in Christ but through trials and tribulations become mature adults. Amongst friends, the advice can be used to explain why differences and disagreements are to be expected. As much as we might dislike it at the time, it’s only those individuals who love every good and bad part of us who will become our best friends. In every relationship, the Skin Horse’s advice can be applied. Back in our dating years, my husband and I used to quote the Skin Horse’s various lines about being real as a sentimental but profoundly true way of expressing what growing old together would mean.

While rereading The Velveteen Rabbit this past weekend, I felt struck by a couple of critical questions. Barely two pages in, Williams rambles about how the mechanical toys felt superior to the others. They apparently had modern ideas. A jointed lion even pretended he was connected with the Government. I don’t know what I thought of these lines as a child, but now I’m sure that I completely understand them. Then there was the fact that after the boy got sick with the scarlet fever, all the toys in the nursery were to be thrown away. Immediately I wondered whatever happened to the Skin Horse? Yet these two questions didn’t diminish my enjoyment of The Velveteen Rabbit. As Williams rambled on about the expensive toys snubbed by our hero, I felt mostly empathy for how insignificant and commonplace the Velveteen Rabbit felt. With regards to the Skin Horse, I can only surmise that either he escaped the fate of being tossed or he too experienced a visit from the nursery magic fairy. Only we just hear of her visit to Velveteen Rabbit, because the book is about our hero.

The Velveteen Rabbit has been around since 1922. Since that time, it has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children’s theater as well as on radio, television, and the big screen. Every generation will have a chance to experience its beauty in one form or another. What are your memories of The Velveteen Rabbit?

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A professional writer since the age of nineteen, Margery Williams achieved lasting fame at forty-one with the 1922 publication of The Velveteen Rabbit. It has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children’s theater as well as on radio, television, and the big screen. As I read scant online biographies, I discovered Williams was more than a one-book author.


MargeryWilliamsA native of London, Margery Williams was born in England in 1881 to successful and accomplished parents. Along with her sister, she received encouragement from her father to read and use her imagination. According to Wikipedia, Williams would later recall how vividly her father described characters from various books and praised the infinite world of knowledge that lay on the printed page. The desire to read, which soon transformed into a need to write, was a legacy from her father which would last a lifetime.

His death, suggests Wikipedia, proved to be a life-changing event affected all of her future creative activity. Her books contain an undertone of sadness, about which Pennsylvania Center for the Book notes that Williams believed that beautiful stories came out of sad tales because they depicted the essence of growth and change. Indeed, hearts acquire greater humanity through pain.

When Williams was nine, her family moved to the United States, first to New York, then settling on a farm in Pennsylvania. Here, Williams attended a Convent School until she was seventeen. After graduation, although her stories to date had been rejected, Williams decided to become a writer and shortly thereafter returned to England.

While visiting her publisher in England, Williams met Francisco Bianco, who was employed as the manager of one of the book departments. The couple married in 1904. When the couple became parents of two children, Williams suspended her writing activities to focus on motherhood. For a time, the family traveled back and forth across Europe, but finally settled in Italy, her husband’s home country. There, her husband fought for the Italian army in World War I.


As alluded to above, in 1901, Williams returned to her birthplace. There, she submitted manuscripts to a London publisher. A number of her children’s stories saw print, as did her first novel The Late Returning which was published in 1902 and aimed at an adult audience. None of her adult novels sold well.

However, her ambition to make a living as an author propelled Williams. In 1914, Williams wrote a horror novel, The Thing in the Woods, about a werewolf in the Pennsylvania region. The Thing in the Woods was later republished in the US under the pseudonym “Harper Williams”.

By 1921, the family received permission to return to the United States. Pennsylvania Center for the Book states that Williams found inspiration in watching her children play with toys and animals. She began to reminiscence about her childhood. While staying at home with her children, Williams also became interested in the work of Walter de La Mare, a poet she believed wrote clearly from a child’s point of view. She so greatly admired his work that she later wrote an essay “De La Mare” in honor of him.

The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real was her first American work. While it remains her most famous, Williams did write numerous other children’s books. Her son becoming the namesake of one of them, 1925’s Poor Cecco: The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World. A return to more sober themes marks other popular works by Williams, such as The Little Wooden Doll, illustrated by her daughter. Each year, for the remaining two decades of her life, Williams produced numerous books and short stories. Most of them continued her preoccupation with toys coming to life and the ability of inanimate objects and animals to express human emotions and feelings.

However, Williams also interspersed her children’s books with novels for young adults. These all featured young people who were in one way or another alienated from mainstream society. One of those books, Winterbound, about two teenage girls who are called upon to assume adult responsibilities in caring for their young siblings, won the 1937 Newbery Medal.

In 1939, as her native Britain entered World War II, Bianco began to include patriotic themes and references to European history in her works. Her final book, 1944’s Forward Commandos!, was a story of wartime heroism, which included as one of its characters a black soldier. Wikipedia points out that acknowledging the contribution of African-Americans to the war effort was extremely rare in literary output of the time and that fact was noted in the book’s reviews.

As Forward Commandos! went on sale, Williams became ill. After three days in the hospital, died at the age of 63, having penned more than twenty titles.

The children’s books we read  can teach us important lessons of all kinds. For example, a couple of years ago, Huff Post Books posted an article about writing tips we can garner from children’s books. This inspired me to scan my own picture books with the idea of posting a similar article. Of course, not all of my readers are writers. For that reason, I tried to instead brainstorm reading tips that we can garner from children’s books.

Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

I’ll start with one listed at Huff Post, which is also one of my favorites: Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. The story rewards authenticity, in that the rabbit became real by being loved as itself, which is important trait for an author to have. When thinking about what it might say about a reader, I can’t escape the image of that worn-out but much-loved rabbit. As I run my fingers along my shelves, despite my anal care of books, it’s easy to tell which books meant the most to me. They’re the ones with the worn edges, creased dusk jackets, and even the scatter dent. They’re also the ones whose plots, characters, and settings I can recite by heart. An obvious implication then is one should read a book, reread it, and then read it again. Multiple times!

Are You My Mother? by P.H. Eastman

The Huff Post article also lists Are You by Mother? by P.H. Eastman. The story teaches authors that they aren’t alone and that their stories belong somewhere. As I muse on that idea, I think of all my students who struggle to read. And then I think of those special students who one day show up in my room all excited about a book. Now instead of my having to reward and coerce them into turning just one more page, I have to figure out how to both encourage their joy of reading but also pay attention to their current lesson. Whether it be in reading, writing, or math. What a delightful dilemma to have! And so my students have taught me that there IS a perfect book out there for every reader. That one book which will keep them coming back for more. If we just keep looking hard enough, one day we will find that book. Because all stories belong with someone.

Paddington Bear books by Michael Bond

My other four choices are different from those listed by Huff Post. For example, there are the Paddington Bear books by Michael Bond. Whichever example you pick from the series, you’ll always find that this lovable bear is polite in each and every circumstance. And so we should be polite to our books. Do not buckle their spines. Do not turn their corners. After all, we want our books to stay around…. Yes, I know this lesson might sound forced. J Well, Paddington Bear is also curious. While this might land Paddington into heaps of trouble, curiosity will always be a welcome trait for a reader. It’s what makes us turn the pages of novels and seek out armfuls of nonfiction.

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

Next there is Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. The title itself immediately inspires some ideas. For example, how about we as readers “make way for books” by being patrons of our local libraries and independent bookstores? Another thought is we should always find time to fit (or “make way for”) books into our day. Then there’s the story itself, which begins as Mr. and Mrs. Mallard fly over various potential locations around Boston looking for the perfect site to raise a family. If you keep reading, you’ll find that the Mallards settle for the Public Garden Lagoon. In fact, when separated from it, they endure bikes and cars to make their way back to the garden. The lesson I draw from the Mallard family is that there are comfort books, ones which make us feel like we’re home. What a hopeful thought!

Pippi Books by Astrid Lindgren

Then there are the Pippi books by Astrid Lindgren. Whichever example you pick from the series, you’ll always find that Pippi is true blue to her friends. Well, as we readers know, books are our friends. In fact, in our loneliest moments, God and books may be our only sources of comfort. Let me extend my point by turning to Pippi on the Run, where Annika and Tommy run away from home. Although Pippi is perfectly content where she is, she worries enough about her friends that she joins them to keep them safe. Of course, my having a book with me won’t necessarily keep me safe from storms or other troublesome situations. And yet, the chances are remarkably high that I’ll know how to react to all the lows and highs of life because of a book. In the same way that Annika and Tommy had a better life because of Pippi.

Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik

Last, I’ll turn to the Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik. I recently picked up a used copy and enjoyed relieving Little Bear’s imaginative adventures. In Little Bear’s Wish, he tells his mother that he wishes to sit on a cloud and fly…. find a Viking boat and sail away with them…. tunnel his way to China and come back with chopsticks…. owned a big red car and travel to a castle where a princess would give him cake…. Of course, he couldn’t have any of these wishes. Yet we can all have them through our imagination and books. Mother Bear then asked Little Bear if she could tell him a story about him. When he said yes, Mother Bear recounted all his escapades, which was also great fun to hear. And so we can also find ourselves and lives in the fiction we read. Or write. 🙂

What picture books are your favorite? And what lessons are reading, writing, and life do they inspire?

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