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This blog post is a bit lighter than most of my other posts that deal with weightier issues.  It’s about what it means to be “real” as seen through the lens of several prominent children’s stories.

Perhaps the best-known children’s story that explores what it means to be real is The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams and first published in 1922.  In that story, the velveteen rabbit, who starts out as a simple stuffed toy belonging to a young boy, yearns to be real like the other rabbits he sees.  These real rabbits can do things that the velveteen rabbit cannot, such as hopping and running, and they tease him for not being real.

The velveteen rabbit is counseled by his friend the Skin Horse – the oldest and wisest of the boy’s toys – who advises him that realness is not a thing; it’s something that happens when you are truly loved; in this case by the little boy to whom he belongs.  The little boy loved the velveteen rabbit despite his not being one of the fancier toys in his toy chest.   And so, in due course, the velveteen rabbit’s dream comes true, and he becomes real like the other rabbits.

But what does it mean to be real?  Basically, the velveteen rabbit wants to be like the other rabbits who can frolic, live on the outside, and, well, do what real rabbits do.  Query, however, whether such a transformation is desirable?  Well, on the one hand, he obtains the same “power” that the other rabbits possess; thus, he is looking for conformity.  But he pays a price in terms of losing what makes him unique – his velveteen fur, his innocence, his inquisitive nature, and his willingness to befriend and be tutored by the most worn out of the little boy’s toys.  It is, of course, for the velveteen rabbit to make that call and decide what is most important to him.  A cynical sequel to the book might find the velveteen rabbit reconsidering his wish to be like the other rabbits.

Now, it wasn’t any ordinary love that made the velveteen rabbit real.  It was the love of a child – an innocent love that does not look for anything in return and sees beyond surface appearance.  For the boy, it was enough that the velveteen rabbit was with him.  Compare this with other types of love we see in this world – relationships based on some sort of exchange, exploitation, or possession.  Suffice it to say that these types of love could not make anything real in the world of The Velveteen Rabbit.

Of course, The Velveteen Rabbit is not the only children’s story to address the concept of realness. The beloved story Pinocchio (with which most readers are no doubt familiar) tells the tale of a living puppet who yearns to be a real boy.  Pinocchio’s immaturity, disobedience, and naivete land him in a series of misadventures (some of which would be quite frightening to a young child).   In addition, Pinocchio’s nose grows when he tells a lie.  Fortunately for him, benevolent characters, in the form of a cricket and a fairy, help to extricate Pinocchio from threatening situations.  Eventually, Pinocchio shows maturity and responsibility in caring for his “father” Gepetto, performing farm work, and refraining from telling lies — the reward for which is his transformation into a real boy.  Thus, unlike the velveteen rabbit, Pinocchio’s path to realness required experiencing the outside world and building character as a result of his trials.

Notably, love plays a role in Pinocchio’s transformation to realness, though it is a different sort of love than that which made the velveteen rabbit real.  While the latter involved the innocent love of a child, Pinocchio involves the unselfish, protective, and instructive love of parental figures in the form of a cricket and a fairy.  Without their help, Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy would have gone unrealized.

In a shameless plug, I will now mention a story penned by yours truly that is a reverse take on Pinocchio and that also deals with the notion of realness.  Titled The Toy Prince and published in 2015, it tells the story of a virtuous and sensitive young prince who is made sick by a dark spirit who resented the prince’s happiness.  In response to the prince’s parents’ pleas for help, a good fairy arrives to say that she can save the prince, but the limits of the fairy’s powers require that she can only save him by turning him into a toy.

And so, the toy prince becomes a toy, though one that has the abilities of a real boy.  At first, the other children of the kingdom treat the prince much as they had before his transformation and refrain from telling him that he is now a toy, but the children then decide to treat the prince just as they treat their other toys.  The rough play of the children breaks the prince and for the first time he learns that he is a toy.   The children regret what they had done. Fortunately, the good fairy arrives and says that she can repair the prince but that he will have to remain a toy.  In return for her intervention, the children must promise to treat their toys – and each other – with respect and caring.  The story ends with the dark spirit fleeing the kingdom.

Thus, unlike Pinocchio, the toy prince starts out real and then becomes unreal, in a manner of speaking.  Again, he is aided by the intervention of a fairy responding to his plight.  But this story plays with the idea of what it means to be real.  As a toy, the prince seems to have most of the abilities he had before his transformation into a toy, and at first the other children treat him much as they did before.  Note the contrast with The Velveteen Rabbit, where his differences from the real rabbits is central to the story and of great import to the velveteen rabbit.  Although I am sure many readers would have liked an ending that saw the toy prince once again becoming a real boy, the end of the story sees the prince apparently content with being different.  And what does that say about realness?  It says that if you think and behave like a real boy, it doesn’t matter whether you are made of flesh and bones or wood and springs — you are a real boy nonetheless.

No discussion of how children’s literature addresses reality would be complete without mention of Harold and the Purple Crayon, a 1955 story authored by Crockett Johnson.  The work tells the story of a young boy who ventures out into the world with his purple crayon, which gives him the ability to create his reality by drawing it.  He uses this power to create various things during his journey, some of which are fanciful (e.g., a dragon, a city) and others which he needs for his sustenance or safety (e.g., a picnic, a hot air balloon).  Eventually, exhausted by his adventure, the boy makes his way back to the security of his bedroom.

If we regard the purple crayon as the boy’s imagination, the story seems to be saying that we create our reality with our minds, which are the repositories of our imagination and creativity.  If the boy can imagine a dragon, he can then draw it and make it real.  This notion, which bears some resemblance to Hindu concepts of how reality is an emanation of our minds, is a powerful statement of our power to create or morph our reality simply by thinking it into existence.  (In this connection, you might wish to take a look at another blog post on Prometheus Speaks titled My Friend Cecil’s Take on Reality and the Mind (Part I): The Play/Movie/Show.)

The stories discussed above deal with metaphysical or ontological realness, that is, the physical forms of the characters.  However, a number of children’s stories focus on a different type of realness – that which involves authenticity.  This is the type of realness meant when someone tells someone else “to be real” or “to get real;” (i.e., to be truthful or to be realistic).

One such story is You Should, You Should! which is about a hippo trying to “fit in” by heeding calls about what he should do.  He tries to match the talents of the other animals and finds that he can’t.  Eventually, he stops trying to fit in by being something he is not and decides to be his real self, finding that being your authentic self is the best way to fit in.

Similarly, I am Me: A Book of Authenticity, finds a child lamenting that they often feel that they don’t matter and don’t fit in.  Through a series of affirmations, the book celebrates diversity and individuality, as the child (perhaps in a nod to Ru Paul) declares their love for themself.  They describe themself as “perfectly imperfect” and declare that they will find acceptance of who they are, including of their imperfections.

In Red: A Crayon’s Story, a blue crayon is accidentally labeled red.  Others devise ways to help the blue crayon be red, but they succeed only in making the red crayon unhappy.  The crayon eventually builds up the courage to be true to himself and accepts that he is, in fact, blue.

Yet another book that highlights authenticity and non-conformity is the classic story of Ferdinand the Bull, by Munro Leaf, published in 1936.  The book finds the young eponymous bull peaceably enjoying smelling flowers rather than fighting with the other young bulls.  He eventually grows into a powerful adult bull, but still enjoys spending his time with the flowers under his favorite tree.  When he is mistakenly taken for a fighting bull, he finds himself in a bull fighting ring facing a matador.  Rather than giving in to  the goading of the crowd, Ferdinand sits down in the middle of the ring and starts smelling the flowers that the crowd has tossed into the ring, refusing to fight.  At the end of the book, Ferdinand has contentedly returned to his beloved flowers.

Ferdinand the Bull is a powerful tale about being yourself and ignoring pressure to be something you are not.  Despite all the pressure to be a fighting bull, he stays true to his pacifistic nature and preference for flowers.  And his defiance results in his winning the right to be accepted as just who he is.  Ferdinand is a profound symbol of how love can displace fighting  when one has the courage to see it through.  (Given its celebration of pacifism, it should come as little surprise that the book was banned in Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain.)

There are, of course, a number of other children’s books that deal with the themes of authenticity and individualism.  These books are noticeably less sophisticated than the other books mentioned above, but that is to be expected.  It makes sense that books that explore the metaphysical and ontological aspects of realness are inevitably going to be more complex than by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900.  The story is so well known that there is no reason for me to summarize it here.  Unlike the other stories discussed above, The Wizard of Oz’s focus is not on metaphysical reality or notions of authenticity.  Instead, it explores how our thinking creates our reality.

Each of the four main characters in the story lacks something they wish they had.  Thus, the scarecrow wanted to be smart, the tin man was missing a heart, the cowardly lion sought courage, and Dorothy wanted to get back to Kansas.  By reorienting each of the characters’ perception of themselves, the wizard brings to each of them that which they wished for.  Thus, the scarecrow was given a diploma and suddenly realized that he was intelligent.  The tin man was given a mechanical ticking heart, and he realized that he did indeed have that which we attribute to the heart.  After he is given the trappings of a king, the cowardly lion becomes brave.  And finally, Dorothy learns that she always had the ability to return to Kansas, and so she does.

The bottom line of this aspect of the story is that if you believe something is true, it becomes real.  An early version of the power of positive thinking perhaps?

[Stay tuned for future entries on the subject of reality and realness.]