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‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ at 100: The story behind the classic Christmas tale

The author’s daughter, Pamela Bianco, a famous child artist, was a vital part of the book’s creation. What happened afterward is almost as bittersweet as the book itself.

William Nicholson's drawing of the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse, from the 100th anniversary edition of the book. (Blue Sparrow Books)

This year marks the centenary of The Velveteen Rabbit,” one of those distinctive works for children, like “The Little Prince” and “Eloise,” that appeal to all ages. Just before the book’s publication, Anne Carroll Moore, then the most powerful children’s librarian in America, declared “The Velveteen Rabbit” the best Christmas story in years and predicted that it was “destined to live in the remembrance of every child and grown-up.” She was right.

Margery Williams’s book, about a stuffed animal who yearns to be real, is as simple and straightforward as a traditional fairy tale. Nothing in it is too specific. Does it take place in London or Paris or Turin or New York? Yes, all of them — and none of them. It could be anywhere.

The child is never named: He is just “the Boy.”

The toy’s magic tear, which summons the Fairy and the kiss from her that turns him into a Real Rabbit, come from the vast well of fairy lore. Like L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz,” Margery believed in logical fantasy. As a great admirer of Hans Christian Andersen, she is particularly fine at capturing a small child’s affectionate but still rough treatment of his favorite toy; and the wit displayed in the conversation between the Velveteen Rabbit and the wild rabbits is priceless.

The book’s message is as relevant as ever. “What is REAL?” the Rabbit asks the Skin Horse. And he sagely replies, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”

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The story behind the story of “The Velveteen Rabbit” is itself a kind of fairy tale. Much of it was revealed to me during an interview I did with Margery’s daughter, Pamela Bianco, in 1979.

Pamela, born in London in 1906, was an art prodigy, and by the tender age of 12, was one of the most famous children in the world. She was 62 when I met her and working in relative obscurity, as she had done for much of her adult life. During our lengthy conversation, she described the evolution of “The Velveteen Rabbit” and her crucial part in its inception. Pamela was the most childlike person I have ever met. That may well be because her childhood was taken from her. I have never quite forgotten her.

Pamela began drawing at about age 4 — not the usual formless doodles of little kids but remarkably sophisticated faces and figures. She sketched rabbits and guinea pigs and fairies and angels and little girls. She told me she was never interested in depicting grown-ups or boys. The only boy she knew growing up was her brother, Cecco.

Her father, Francesco, did not allow her to alter a sketch, and she never used an eraser. If a drawing disappointed her, Pamela just threw it away. Francesco, a dashing young Italian bibliophile, knew Pablo Picasso and showed the painter Pamela’s pictures at dinner one night at the Bianco apartment.

Pamela told me she was an unusually timid child. “I was very frightened and shy and terrified of the school,” she said. She so hated it that her mother took her out one day and never sent her back. From then on, Pamela was home-schooled so she could devote all of her time to drawing and painting.

In 1911, Francesco was offered a job with an Italian film company, so the family moved from London to Turin. When World War I broke out, he served in the Italian army as a captain. His wife had to help support the family by teaching English and working in the linen room of the British Military Hospital.

Pamela said she wrote and drew all day long during the war. She never cared much for dolls but deeply loved her stuffed rabbit (inherited from her mother) and the other animals she called “The Tubbies.” She particularly enjoyed sewing clothes for them. “My mother always treated our toys as though they were just as real to her as to us,” she told me.

She recounted that one day, when she was about 10, her father packed up the toys and declared that Pamela was now an artist. Her childhood was officially over. The toys were conveniently left behind in Italy when the family returned to London after the war. I could see tears welling in this woman’s eyes when she recalled this. As the old Victor Herbert song warned about Toyland: “Once you pass its borders, you may ne’er return again.”

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Pamela’s artwork was so unusual for one so young that when the Italian sculptor Leonardo Bistolfi was putting together an exhibit of children’s art in Turin in 1918, he asked her parents to submit several of her recent pictures. Their precision and authority of line as well as their originality of subject stood above the rest. They did not look like children’s drawings. Critics compared Pamela’s work to that of Botticelli, Blake and Beardsley. When word of Bistolfi’s show reached London, the Leicester Galleries contacted Francesco to offer his daughter a solo show.

The show was a hit. The Tate Gallery, the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the National Gallery of Ireland all competed for Pamela’s drawings. Only three of the 79 went unsold.

Walter de la Mare was so charmed by the exhibit that he wrote verses inspired by the drawings for an oversize picture book that the Leicester Galleries arranged with William Heinemann Ltd. of London to publish in 1919. Yet reporters said this wunderkind was just a normal tomboy with a no-nonsense approach to life and none of the peculiarities of child geniuses.

In 1921, Pamela’s father brought her and her collection of “Babes and Fairies” to the Anderson Gallery in New York, and the family settled in Greenwich Village.

The exhibit of 157 drawings was a huge success. Poets Robert Graves, Marianne Moore and Louis Untermeyer admired the work. Photographer Cecil Beaton and socialites Helen Clay Frick, Gertrude Payne Whitney and Anne Harriman Vanderbilt bought drawings. But Pamela did not let all the attention go to her head. “How foolish they all are over my work,” she was quoted as saying at the time.

With Pamela an established artist on both sides of the Atlantic, Francesco decided to come up with a project for both mother and daughter. Margery had written three novels before marrying, but they did not sell well and she had abandoned her literary career to raise her two children. “Father suggested she write something for me to illustrate,” Pamela told me. “I wanted to write again,” Margery once recalled, “but I disliked everything I had written before. I wanted to do something different, but did not know what it should be.”

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Nevertheless, she immediately got to work and sold several fairy tales to Harper’s Bazaar. The women’s fashion magazine announced a “fairy story for grown-ups” by “Pamela Bianco’s mother” in the June 1921 issue.

Margery looked to her childhood for inspiration. “I am very fond of animals,” she told an interviewer in 1927. “I was very fond of my own toys. I have a feeling for children’s toys, old ones, not new. They become part of family life and have a personality like people.” Because her daughter was so skilled at drawing bunnies, the first of these tales was “The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real,” which the magazine published with Pamela’s exquisite drawings. “She left the drawings up to me,” Pamela told me. “No rules. I wanted to draw and make it the very way I wanted it.”

Sydney Pawling of William Heinemann adored the story, calling it “a classic for children,” and agreed to issue “The Velveteen Rabbit” as a full-color storybook in 1922.

George H. Doran of New York published it simultaneously in America. But instead of using Pamela’s pictures, Pawling turned to the distinguished painter and poster artist William Nicholson for the color lithographs. While everyone thought Pamela’s drawings in the magazine were charming, no one thought she was yet capable of illustrating a book. Nicholson drew the exquisite calligraphic endpapers of hundreds of tiny rabbits in one swoop without lifting pen from paper. Although she wrote the story for Pamela, Margery dedicated the book to her husband.

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At age 41, Margery became famous. She went on to write 20 more books for young readers or young adults, but none of her other children’s books matched the enormous popularity of the first. She never wrote another novel for adults. She died after a brief illness in New York on Sept. 4, 1944, and was swiftly forgotten for everything but “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

Pamela’s art branched out into many directions as her tastes changed. Having been isolated much of her young life, she was extraordinarily vulnerable. She suffered a nervous breakdown at 18. I knew nothing about this troubled time in her life when I met her, and she seemed a quiet, delicate soul.

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She finally returned to Italy in 1930 on a Guggenheim Fellowship. She married twice and had one son. She continued to paint when she came back to New York. That was all she knew how to do. She suffered another breakdown and died in an institution in 1994. An illuminating retrospective of her work opened at England and Co. in London in November 2004.

Although her pictures for “The Velveteen Rabbit” have never been reprinted since 1922, numerous newly illustrated editions have appeared since the 1970s, when it was discovered that the book’s copyright had never been properly registered in this country.

Even a young Maurice Sendak took a crack at the famous story when Doubleday included it in an anthology in 1960. Meryl Streep recorded an audiobook of the story in the ’80s and received a Grammy nomination.

Why has “The Velveteen Rabbit” survived a century while so many other children’s books of that period landed in the dustbin of history? “The one essential thing the writer must have,” Margery explained, “is a real and genuine conviction about his subject. … It has got to be real to him. He must believe in it himself, or no one else will. He has got to write it out of sheer enjoyment or not at all.”

Yes, the story is sentimental and the language is at times difficult for young readers. Yet it possesses a power unlike the run-of-the-mill children’s book of today and its own day.

“Like so many of the classics of children’s literature, ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ takes up all the great existential mysteries in the safe space of ‘once upon a time,’” explains Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor specializing in fairy tales. “Love and loss, abandonment and suffering, and, yes, even death and resurrection are folded into this compact narrative that shows us how love can conquer darkness and animate us when we feel lost and vulnerable.”

But what of the threat, near the end of the book, to burn the beloved Velveteen Rabbit? Was it going to be for the Boy’s own good, just as Pamela’s beloved “Tubbies” were put away for her own good?

In the end, could the rabbit be seen as a metaphor for Pamela Bianco herself? This remarkably talented child was no more than a curiosity, an intellectual plaything for art critics, dealers, journalists and parents, until she became a “real artist.” Pamela eventually went off on her own, while Margery remained mired in the world of children. Therein may lie the true transforming and sometimes cruel power of love.

Michael Patrick Hearn is a literary scholar who specializes in children’s literature and its illustration. His works include “The Annotated Wizard of Oz,” “The Annotated Christmas Carol” and “The Annotated Huckleberry Finn.”

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