In the Public Domain: The Velveteen Rabbit Reimagined for New Audiences

Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real (1922) may have been booted off recent lists of 10 and 100 best children’s books by Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny (2004), but the book keeps rolling on. The original version with designs by William Nicholson is now in the public domain and continues to inspire covers in the form of reillustrations, retellings, and repurposings, even though it is not the equivalent of a catchy, accessible pop standard. William’s strange story about the three kinds of “realness” is much closer to an iconotext like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books where the author’s characters are inseparable from the illustrator’s figures to such an extent that future artists struggle to break away from it in their reinterpretations.

New sets of illustrations were commissioned for the picture book’s 100th anniversary and Erin Stead’s are easily the most elegant. She asserts her independence even as she pays homage to Nicholson in her redrawing of the famous first picture of the stuffed rabbit’s head peeking out of the Christmas stocking. Reproduced in three colors from woodblocks and delicately heightened with pencil, her pictures are full of light, perfectly suited to the brief summer idyll. More scenes in Williams’ story take place closed cupboards, sick rooms, and trash bags than the woods or gardens, so Stead put herself at a disadvantage in the scenes where the high notes are sadness and confusion. Her threadbare toy rabbit’s transformation into a living creature falls a little flat because all the pictures are so pretty.Publisher Nosy Crow gave former art director Sarah Massini the wherewithal to create a picture book with a large trim size, full color illustrations, endpapers reproduced from a hand-drawn design, and a lot of silver stamping on the binding and dustjacket. While William’s text is intact, but Massini’s illustrations shift the dynamics between the nameless boy and his stuffed rabbit to something more like parity, pushing the story’s visualization in the direction of a more conventional story about the friendship between child and beloved object. Showing their “splendid games together” bathed in light is a logical way for Massini to put her stamp on the text. Visualizing the pair’s happiness in such detail does make the rabbit’s grief in the trash heap poignant, but Massini’s decision to limit the expressions on the faces of people, the stuffed rabbit, and actual rabbits to the same pleasant half smile robs the story of drama.The popular Japanese illustrator Komako Sakai published her picture book version in 2007, well before the original’s centennial. The abridged text stays surprisingly close to the outline of Williams’ and it strikes me as the truest to its strangeness.The nameless boy appears frequently drawn in profile, from behind, or with closed eyes, a detail in characterization that makes him somehow makes him a little less important his wide-eyed rabbit. Light alternates with dark when the story calls for it, as did Nicholson. Sakai also references Nicholson’s drawing of the Christmas stocking at the story’s nadir, not at the beginning, which demonstrates how little protection becoming real has afforded him..   Sakai was careful to distinguish the real rabbits’ bodies from the soft immobile one of the stuffed one, a strategy that makes the page turn from the fairy to her hands holding a tiny rabbit a simple but brilliant realization of the toy’s transformation.The new Velveteen Rabbits includes one adapted and self-published for “today’s kids” by Rose and John Jimerson, a daughter/father team. Get Real is unusual because it is rare for modernizations of a classic to be simultaneously playful and respectful and let children of color see themselves in what was a very English story. Here’s the Jimersons’ summary from the rear wrapper: “Alberto, the toy rabbit, loves dirt. He also sometimes sleeps on firecrackers. But more than anything else, he wants to become real. The only problem is… He is not sure what “real” is.”   He thinks real rabbits are “stuffed with sawdust, and…made in the Philippines” just like him. A remote control is not essential to the process of being real, according to the old horse on wheels. Legs he does not learn about until a couple of curious rabbits challenge him to a game of bunny tag. When they find out he has front legs, a soft bottom, and no hind legs, they yell. “HORRIBLE!” Then they get in his face and take a good sniff, “He smells funny! He’s not real!”   Alberto is dumped in a plastic trash bag with all the other germy things after the boy’s serious illness and he cries, calling the soulful fairy of toy magic to his rescue. He is not so sure about a fairy that sings the blues instead of talking normally, but she scoops him up anyway for the flight across the night sky. She sets him down among the “fun bunnies” and introduces him as a new friend who needs to be shown the ropes. Positive they will remember he is legless, he nervously scratches his ear…Get Real stands apart from most of the new Velveteen Rabbits trying to create introductory versions of a cherished story now perceived as a little beyond its target audience. Carol Ottolenghi’s retelling has been around since 2009.Her brief version, which retains almost none of Williams’ vocabulary or syntax, shows how “the Velveteen Rabbit learns the value of friendship and the power of love as he encounters toys that tease him and live rabbits in the garden!”  The fairy is not responsible for his transformation despite making a cameo appearance. A bilingual version is currently available in the Bilingual Fairy Tales English/Spanish series published by Rourke Educational Media, which features more folk and fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and The Wizard of Oz. 100 public libraries reported copies to WorldCat, and another hundred college and university libraries have the electronic edition.

Will any of these new versions rise above the rest and become The Velveteen Rabbit for a new generation or two? Even in this small selection of Velveteen Rabbits, the artistic styles vary so much it takes some effort to establish the ways in which they adhere and depart from Williams’ text and how they specifically differ from one another. Presented with two or more of them in a bookstore or online, a book buyer who may not know or have seen the book recently may select one of the new ones on basis of a snap response to the cover design. The wealth of choice may divide readers into little pockets of fans who experience The Velveteen Rabbit through the reinterpretation they purchased without reference to the dark and troubling but stunning Nicholson illustrations.

Heads, Bodies, Legs: A Handmade Version of the Game from the Early 1800s

From the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Heads, Bodies, Legs is a chain game for three, popular with children and adults (especially artists) that requires pencil and paper.   The group is supposed to produce a drawing together without any player seeing what the others have created. The first player takes a sheet of paper and draws a head and neck as detailed or simple as desired.  Player 1 folds down the paper so only a little of the drawing’s bottom can be seen.  Player 2 draws a body from the waist up consulting only his or her imagination, then folds the paper to cover his work.  The legs will be drawn by the last player.  Once the drawing is completed, the three players unfold the sheet to see what the figure looks like—the sillier or stranger, the better. The drawing on the left was made by artists James Guthrie, Edward Arthur Walton, and Joseph Crawhall, who frequently played the game the summer of 1879.

Also known as Picture Consequences, Heads, Bodies, Legs is played at children’s birthday celebrations or family parties.  This familiar game, which has no winners or losers, has been repackaged as a type of moveable book sometimes called a horizontal flap transformation.   The illustrator designs a series of figures to be printed on pages of cardboard, which are divided horizontally into three sections—the head on the upper third, the body on the middle, the legs on the lower.  The reader/player can make new figures by recombining any three sections into a different one.  The pages are frequently comb-bound to facilitate the process of mismatching the heads, bodies, and legs into peculiar people with unlikely physiques and gender-bending clothes, as in this double-page spread from Walter Trier’s 8192 Crazy People in One Book (London: Atrium, {ca. 1949] Cotsen 1605).  Mixing in characters famous in popular culture, caricatures, national, and racial stereotypes is also common. 

Text can added to the sections, as Helen Oxenbury did in 729 Puzzle People  (London: Methuen/Walker Books, c. 1980, Cotsen 26110), which provides a nonsensical scenario for every figure in the same spirit as Exquisite Corpse, a game the Surrealists found delectable.  This one on the left reads “All dressed up I waddle to build up my body.”

Before the twentieth century, what appear to be variant versions of Heads, Bodies, Legs turn up on the antiquarian market. Cotsen acquired a set ca. 1810  of 1 hat, 14 heads, 18 torsos, and 22 limbs drawn on heavy paper with watercolor washes, apparently drawn by one person.  It may have been made to be played as a parlor game, similar to one of a supplement to an old Boy’s  Own Paper around 1880. “Some Social Transformations” has nine figures on the sheet, each to be cut in thirds and the resulting strips mounted on card.  All the strips were to be shuffled, then dealt to the group.  Player one lays down a pair of legs, then player two a body, and player three the head.

The figures that can be created  from this early nineteenth century set’s selections of heads, bodies, and legs are not anywhere as wacky as the modern ones because both sexes were required to cover the legs most of the time!  The gentleman in the black breeches with red slashings is wearing Elizabethan fancy dress, but his companion’s clothing is a mystery to me. Below them is a figure assembled from man wearing in the turban, a torso of another declaiming from a book, and the skirt of a pigeon-toed girl. The same thing holds for Metamorphosesn fuer Kinder= Metamorphoses pour les enfans=Child’s metamorphosis=Metamorfosi per fanciullia, a set manufactured in Germany for distribution across Western Europe between 1815 and 1825 (Cotsen in process).  although we have to concede the possibility that it could have been as titillating even shocking–for people then to see girls in trousers or boys in dresses as it is for us to see a chinless man in a frilly fairy’s tutu and saggy black tights with holes.