Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Magical Toys

We are entering that period of the year when magic is in the air and there is hope in many little hearts for toys under the tree. We don't usually think about it in this way but this is the time when the imaginative juices are primed. There are unfamiliar and intriguing smells from the kitchen, sparkling and enchanting decorations about the house, lights of rarely encountered hues are to be seen around the neighborhood, songsheets of music new to young ears and for whom Joy to the World or Little Town of Bethlehem are still fresh and have no whiff of nostalgia. There is an unusual inward turning, the building up of time with family, a reknitting together of strands that might have become frayed through a busy year. Traditions and family rituals, unfamiliar or forgotten by young minds, are given new life.

Some of our most powerful children's stories bring together the elements of this season - hope, imagination, magic, and toys. It is worth recollecting these powerful stories because they also become part of our future lives and those treasures that we in turn hand to our children.

E.T.A. Hoffman, a German author (1776-1822), was born in that geographically quixotic city of Konigsberg, Prussia, now known as the exclave of Russia, Kaliningrad. He was a leading exemplar of German Romanticism and suffered from a surfeit of talent. He earned his living primarily as a lawyer/jurist but wrote music, plays and poetry as well as painted. The work for which he is best known today is his Nussknacker und Mausekonig; Nutcracker and Mouse King written in 1816. The Nutcracker received a new lease on life through the magic of Tchaikovsky who accepted a commission to translate Hoffman's work into a two act fantasy ballet which premiered December 1892 (seventy years after Hoffman's death).

Since the original work is long out of copyright, there are many, many different versions floating around. Indeed, the French author, Alexandre Dumas (of Three Musketeers fame) did an adaptation of the original in 1847 and it was in fact that version that served as the basis for Tchaikovsky's work. The best retellings, while simplifying the story line somewhat, capture the sense of magic and imagination in the original as well as the element of mystery, suspense and danger. There is a certain darkness in the tale which characterizes some of the other deep classics that appeal to young children generation after generation. Think of motherless Peter Pan and the Lost Boys; of the tragic fate of Andersen's Little Mermaid; of the immolation of the Steadfast Tin Soldier.

The story of the Nutcracker is that of Maria Stahlbaum, a young girl in Frankfurt, eagerly awaiting the Christmas Eve party to which family (including her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer) and friends are invited. She and her brother Fritz are given a beautiful nutcracker in the shape of a soldier by their godfather Drosselmeyer. That night, Christmas Eve night, the nutcracker appears to come to life to fight the evil mice, enchant Maria, whisk her to his far away kingdom (for after defeating the Mouse King he assumes his real form as a Prince upon whom a spell had been placed), and then, before dawn, resumes his shape as a nutcracker so that he might always be with her.

After all the phantasmagorical scenes and activities, the story ends (in Daniel Walden's retelling) with Maria's mother telling her:

"If Nutcracker came alive, it was because you like him so well. If you love something very much it is always alive . . . What a funny child you are today! Now get washed and dressed and have your breakfast. I'll light the fire."

Thus is achieved that close juxtaposition of magic and the quotidian which is inherent to every child discovering the world for the first time. And like all masterpieces of this nature, you are left wondering what really happened - what was real and what was imagined.

The Nutcracker is a wonderful tale but it is deep and it is dark and can be interpreted at many different levels. It is often better suited for slightly older children, perhaps six or eight years old. For young adults, it is actually a very interesting case study for trying to tie what was going on in the author's world (Napoleonic invasions of Prussia where Hoffman was living, Hoffman's personal careening between careers, etc.) to the text that he then created.

The final lines of Nutcracker are the central premise of Margery Williams Bianco's The Velveteen Rabbit, that love is not only a transformative experience but can actually transform things. A child receives a toy rabbit for Christmas but quickly sets him aside for other baubles. Later he takes up with the toy rabbit again and comes to love it deeply, so deeply that the rabbit is his critical companion as he suffers through a life threatening illness. He recovers but the toy rabbit is set aside to be burned as part of the general sanitization after the illness. It is then that the rabbit discovers that he has been so well loved that he becomes real. No simple summary of this tale can really capture, though, how much it touches the heart.

The transformative power of love is similarly central to the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier of which there are a number of excellent versions.

The Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy stories are simple masterpieces of delight for young boys and girls, relating the adventures of Ann and Andy who are stoical and immobile when people are about but play and have numerous adventures and misadventures with the other toys when left unwatched. Written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle and based on a real doll he had given his own daughter, the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories were written in the 1910's through the 1920's and there is a whiff of the era in the books but largely they exist in that timeless world of a child's imagination.

The Adventures of Pinnocchio is yet another in these tales where a toy comes to life but differs in that, for most of the book, Pinnocchio is not a real little boy but an animated marionette. The Adventures of Pinnocchio is recognizable to many because of the Walt Disney version, but as is often the case, the original is much deeper and with more dark elements than managed to make it into the cartoon. This is not a bad thing. The story has more substance and less froth than the cartoon and keeps a child gripped when hearing the tale and coming back to it again and again.

One of my personal favorites, partly for the story, but mostly for the pictures is the perennial childhood favorite, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, a house name for the original publisher, Platt & Munk. There have been subsequent releases illustrated by others but I think for sheer magical inspiration, none of them hold a candle to the original version illustrated by George and Doris Hauman.

Moving a little further afield from the magical toy theme you have others such as Winnie the Pooh and Polar the Titanic Bear in which there is no claim of magic per se. Instead you have a much loved toy that has a life of its own (Pooh) or some consciousness (Polar). Polar the Titanic Bear is based on a true story and is tremendously poignant, one of a good handful of discoveries I have made of newer books when reading to my children when they were young.

What I think is most wonderful about these type of stories is that, while often poignant and touching, they are also fun and affirming. Take a look at the list of books below and let us know which ones you enjoy or others you might recommend.

Picture Books

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and illustrated by George and Doris Hauman Highly Recommended

Raggedy Andy Stories written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle Highly Recommended

Raggedy Ann Stories written and illustrated by Johnny Gruelle Highly Recommended

The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Recommended

Corduroy written and illustrated by Don Freeman Recommended

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann and illustrated by Don Daily Recommended

Santa Calls written and illustrated by William Joyce Recommended

Polar the Titanic Bear by Daisy Corning Stone Spedden and illustrated by Laurie McGraw Recommended

Arthur's Honey Bear by Lillian Hoban Suggested

The Nutcracker by Stephanie Spinner and illustrated by Peter Malone Suggested

Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson and illustrated by Daniel Kirk Suggested

Independent Reader

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco and illustrated by William Nicholson Highly Recommended

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco and illustrated by Michael Hague Highly Recommended

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline Recommended

Hitty by Rachel Field Recommended

The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and illustrated by Roberto Innocenti Recommended

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Recommended

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence Suggested

The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and illustrated by Laura Godwin and Brian Selznick Suggested

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