People sometimes talk about the book that made you into a reader, and I usually answer that Encyclopedia Brown and Paddington Bear were the first books I read voraciously. But the real answer is The Velveteen Rabbit, a book that did more than make me into a reader. It made me into a re-reader.
I loved this book. I implored my brothers to read it and was furious when they wouldn’t, “I’m telling mom!” I complained. We laughed about that for years (and still do), but that’s how important it was to me that I could share the experience of reading a profound book with others.
It is a serious and sad story, with themes that run deep. The idea that loves makes you real, leaves you worn and threadbare, is a significant one, and I wonder at how such a life lesson would be written for six-year-olds, who are otherwise gobbling up contrived three-page mysteries and stories about affable bears eating marmalade.
Books like this one have fallen on hard times. We want to turn kids on to reading with bright, upbeat and fun tales. We do not want kids to associate books with loss and sadness. The dogs used to die, in kids books, and now they never do.
But I think back and know that THIS book, not Paddington, is what changed me. It was a revolutionary moment in my reading life, not because it was fun to read, but because it felt important to read. I felt like something in me had changed by reading it, that I had attained a new level of wisdom. I knew I was a better person for having read it. I had become real along with it’s titular hero.
I was interested (and inspired) to read that its author, Margery Williams, was a pretty unsuccessful author of “grown-up” novels before she turned her hand to kids books, and that this one–twenty years into her writing career–was her break-out book.
It’s the kind of book that made me think writing, and writing for children, was a higher calling. It’s the kind of book that makes me accept the setbacks and disappointments and frustrations of publishing and continuing to do what I do.