“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
from The Velveteen Rabbit
written by Marjory Williams Bianco
illustrated by William Nicholson
Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1922
Miss Kimack, my Kindergarten teacher, was probably well aware of the power magical thinking held over her classroom of 5-year-olds. When she asked us, “Who forgot to put the crayons away?” or “Who left the restroom light on?” or “Who spilled water all over the floor?” we’d all look at each other, but no one spoke. Not wanting to be accusatory, she’d throw up her hands and say, “Well, it must have been Mr. Nobody.” Someone would be assigned the particular task, or we’d work together.
I’m sure she had no idea that my little brother would engage so thoroughly with the Nobodys. When I suggested Mr. Nobody forgot to hang up my jacket, my mother didn’t believe me, but my brother conjured up a whole family. They might even have had a dog. Mr. and Mrs. Nobody and their little girl, Karen, and her siblings whose names I’ve forgotten, lived with us for a long time. They weren’t naughty, but they helped us stay out of trouble.
The Nobodys were not True, but they were Real. And the question What is real? is different from the question What is true? Truth can be proven. Grass is green. Fish depend on oxygen in their water. Washington DC is the Capital of the United States.
Mathematics depends on proofs. Statements of reason and deduction follow each other in a logical order to prove a conclusion is true. Scientific premises are determined through experiments that can be replicated. Geographers and cartographers use calibrated measurement tools to show where on Earth a land mass or a mountain or a wild animal preserve is in relation to other formations and places. (This same idea also works in inner and outer space.)
Reality is a bit more subjective.
The Skin Horse told the Velveteen Rabbit “…[O]nce you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Red Blond, my older daughter’s babydoll used to be pretty. Now, Red Blond’s beauty lives within my daughter, alone.
Just like the Velveteen Rabbit and his friends, lots of kids have closets full of toys that party when the lights go out, and suitcases full of cars that zoom and zip around after everyone is asleep.
Magical thinking is a psychological term used to describe a young child’s belief in their ability to control their immediate environment by wishing a thing was really so. A young child might believe that holding a special stone will cause pizza to appear on the dinner table. Or they might believe their stuffed rabbit can really talk. A research study conducted several years ago concluded that magical thinking helps children be more creative.
Sadly, for most of us reality becomes much more concrete by the time we’re about 10 years old. Wishing won’t make me thin or graceful. Grasping a stone will not ensure someone else will cook and serve dinner. I know my cats can’t really talk.
But I can pretend.
Truth is true facts, mostly. Even though it’s a theory, gravity is an example of Truth. Given the right conditions, an oak tree will grow from an acorn, never from a maple seed. Death in all its complexity and simplicity is True, too.
Reality is more subjective. Beauty is defined differently in different cultures. The meaning of a poem or a symphony depends in large part on the creator and the participant. And a little boy’s sawdust-stuffed rabbit can believe it is Real.
While Truth endures because of its particular qualities, gravity, magnetism, and such, Reality endures because of its emotional connections formed by people with similar beliefs.
The Velveteen Rabbit has endured for 100 years (and has never gone out of print and doesn’t show any signs of doing so) because Marjory Williams Bianco still gives adults, far away from the magical thinking of our childhoods, another chance to feel the pure emotions of childhood and gives us the opportunity to share that magic with a child, if we are lucky.
The games a boy plays with his toy rabbit and the comfort that the toy rabbit gives back to his boy are undeniably, unfalteringly, and unconditionally Real.
The University of Pennsylvania has digitized the text of Mrs. Bianco’s story and William Nicholson’s original illustrations. Enjoy them here.
-—stay curious! (and keep believing in what is Real)