‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams

When I was two, my family – Mum, Dad, and my new-born brother – left the UK, and settled in a suburban town around thirty miles from New York for a few years. We lived in a stocky, clapboard house; the garden was enclosed by tall strands of yews and firs. In winter, you had to use a shovel to excavate the car from the heaped-up snow. My memories of The Velveteen Rabbit – certain scenes, some intermittent sense of its tone and feel – have become so confused with the patchy impressions of childhood that when I re-read the story now, the narrative unfolds into those impressions – the terrible bonfire of toys is about to take place in that snowy, out-of-town garden; the woodland in the story – initially the site of the rabbit’s shame but where his final, joyful liberation takes place too – belongs both to Margery Williams’ description, and to some dim, watery sense of early life. Mum must have read the story to me again and again: the velveteen rabbit’s humility, his yearnings and disappointments, the finely judged material presence of the bedroom and garden settings – the “mechanical toys with their superior ideas” and “the games in the raspberry thicket” – the first story I consciously remember bringing with it some kind of atmospheric change.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1921 and widely in book form since

‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams

Children’s stories often get overlooked. Staying with a theme, I’m going to look at TheVelveteen Rabbit. As much as I love sparsity on the page, children’s writing has depth and complexity that gets bypassed. They can include social commentary, and usually have a perfect 3-part / 5-part structure. William’s rabbit “was fat and bunchy as a rabbit should be”. The other toys ignore him because he’s made of velveteen; the mechanical toys are the most superior and “Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers and should have broader views”. When I taught creative writing in prisons so many people I taught didn’t get access to books. But often we could touch base by looking at fairy tales. At the first male prison I worked in – HMP Littlehey – we looked at these texts together. The men were working on a project called Story Book Dads where they wrote their own stories for their children and then we recorded them in the prison and then sent them back home. Children’s books were essential. They proved a great touchstone. The Velveteen Rabbit is one of those books – descriptive, emotional, powerful, symbolic beyond its 40 pages. The concept touched all of us – a velvet rabbit who becomes real through love.

First published 1922, George H. Doran. Available to read online here