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Living Toys

By Jerry Griswold

The very young child, psychologist Jean Piaget observed, does not distinguish between the animate and the inanimate: the youngster who bangs her knee on a table, for example, goes back and strikes the offending table. For the very young, the whole world is alive–from talking teddy bears to the North Wind.

It’s not surprising, then, that in children’s stories we sometimes encounter talking animals interacting with talking toys. The evil Mouse King exchanges challenges with a household object in E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker. The villain Manny Rat discusses the meaning of life with a tin toy in Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. And the wily Fox and Cat parlay with a puppet in Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.

This presence of sentience in insentient things is neatly presented in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. These two creatures have destroyed things left and right, and made a mess of the nursery. When the little girl in the story returns to that room, she carries her two dolls (Jane and Lucinda). Potter writes: “What a sight met the eyes of Jane and Lucinda! Lucinda sat upon the stove and stared, and Jane leaned against the kitchen dresser and smiled; but neither of them made a remark.”

The Tale of Two Bad MiceIn a stroke of genius that counterposes the sentient and the insentient, Potter pictures, on the opposite page, these dolls in dramatically rigid and stick-like postures. To say this differently, Potter’s picture shows the dolls as any adult might see them: as stick-like, unmoving, and non-living objects. But Potter’s words (where Lucinda “stares” and Jane “smiles” at the mischief the mice have caused) speak about the dolls as a child sees them: not as objects but as living creatures with emotions (since the dolls are either "stunned" or "amused" by the mice behavior); in short, these thinking and feeling toys are as alive as any human in the story.

Something similar occurs in “The Dumb Soldier,” a poem in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. In the spring after the lawn is mown, a boy finds a hole in the turf and hides his tin soldier there; then comes the autumn and another mowing, and the toy is recovered. As the boy observes, his tin grenadier has witnessed much during those months: seen the springing flowers and fairy things passing in the grass, heard the talking bee and ladybird, and more. But as the boy observes, the Dumb Soldier remains mute:

Not a word will he disclose,
Not a word of all he knows.
I must lay him on the shelf,
And make up the tale myself.

A too hasty understanding of the last line might suggest that, in “making up the tale,” the boy is engaged in wholesale invention; indeed, that would be the adult view of the situation. But the important point to grasp is that, from the boy’s point of view, the soldier would speak if he could--if he were not handicapped. The soldier may be dumb or speechless, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t alive. Rather than a ventriloquist, in relating all the toy has seen, the boy serves as interpreter or translator.

This aliveness of toys is important when the young play. Dolls have tea parties. Teddy bears talk. Stick horses gallop. From the point of view of children, living toys actively participate in their lives; and toys do so, as it were, from their side and at their own initiative. This is a way of thinking peculiar to childhood, but not an unfamiliar one. Raise the subject at a cocktail party and some adults can still recall how, when they were young, they would check in the morning to see whether their dolls had moved overnight.

* * * * *

Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By E.T.A. Hoffmann   Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Gramercy, $13.99 (Hardback)

The Mouse and His Child
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Russell Hoban   Illustrated by David Small
Arthur A. Levine, $16.95 (Hardback)

Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Carlo Collodi
Penguin, $10.00 (Paperback)

The Tale of Two Bad Mice
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Beatrix Potter
Warne, $6.99 (Hardback)

A Child’s Garden of Verses
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Dover, $1.50 (Paperback)


About the Author
Jerry Griswold is the Director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast" (Broadview Press).

The Tale of Two Bad Mice The Mouse and His Child Pinocchio Pinocchio The Mouse and His Child

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