by Amy Lee
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The real Christopher Robin's toys
Not every child has a stuffed animal for a friend. But for those who have one, or many, furry companions to play pretend with, these eventually-tattered, well-loved toys can be more than just fabric and stuffing. 

Children's book authors have always known this to be true. A.A. Milne, author of the 'Winnie the Pooh' series, based his stories around his own son, Christopher Robin. Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore and others have their origin as the inanimate creatures you see above. 
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Patrick (who is himself, a teddy bear) plays with a tiny stuffed human at bedtime
In many stories concerning the lives of stuffed animals and their human owners, toys must be alone with their playmate in order to come alive. In other cases, the toys can only come to life when no human is present (as in Toy Story or The Velveteen Rabbit). 
There is, for example, Sara Crewe's first doll, Emily from A Little Princess:
   "Oh, papa!" she cried. "There is Emily!"

   A flush had risen to her face and there was an expression in her green-gray eyes as if she had just recognized someone she was intimate with and fond of.

   "She is actually waiting there for us!" she said. "Let us go in to her."

   "Dear me," said Captain Crewe, "I feel as if we ought to have someone to introduce us."

   "You must introduce me and I will introduce you," said Sara. "But I knew her the minute I saw her -- so perhaps she knew me, too."

Later, after Sara's father is ruined, she must work as a scullery maid, always hungry and tired. She turns to Emily again, but is less satisfied with her response. 
   She looked at the staring glass eyes and complacent face, and suddenly a sort of heartbroken rage seized her. She lifted her little savage hand and knocked Emily off the chair, bursting into a passion of sobbing -- Sara who never cried.

   "You are nothing but a doll!" she cried. "Nothing but a doll -- doll -- doll! You care for nothing. You are stuffed with sawdust. You never had a heart. Nothing could ever make you feel. You are a doll!"

   Emily lay on the floor, with her legs ignominiously doubled up over her head, and a new flat place on the end of her nose; but she was calm, even dignified. Sara hid her face in her arms. The rats in the wall began to fight and bite each other and squeak and scramble. Melchisedec was chastising some of his family.

...

   "You can't help being a doll," she said with a resigned sigh, "any more than Lavinia and Jessie can help not having any sense. We are not all made alike. Perhaps you do your sawdust best." And she kissed her and shook her clothes straight, and put her back upon her chair.

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The Velveteen Rabbit
She regains her composure, but at a price. We experience the same pain of new maturity in the classic story, A Velveteen Rabbit, about a precious toy that becomes, over time, less precious to his owner. But, as those who've read the tale know, to have been loved so much lends the toy its own immortality. 
On a final note, we couldn't end this post without a little tribute to Calvin and Hobbes, the long-running comic strip about a boy and his tiger. No human was a better friend (or worse Calvinball opponent).


 
 

We know, we know, winter doesn’t actually start until the 21st. But New York, at least, the streets have already seen several inches of snow and even if it’s not official, the beginning of December certainly feels like a new season.

It’s no surprise that kids love snow: It’s a sparkling white Play-Doh that makes it possible to sled down hills, build forts, get into pitched battles with friends and create snowmen to guard the lawns. When you get older, snow becomes less enchanting — It’s hard to remember the wonder you felt the first few times you woke to see it out the window when you’re trudging through piles of dirty gray slush.

In that spirit, we’ve compiled some of our favorite scenes from picture books and comics:

The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg

polar express chris van allsburg

Skip the movie — van Allsburg’s beloved book contains his gorgeous illustrations for this holiday tale. The Polar Express captures the hazy, muted beauty of the snow, and the light, once the nights get longer and snow drifts soften the edges of the buildings.

Brave Irene by William Steig

brave irene william steigWilliam Steig’s heros and heroines are more often than not plucky, determined individuals. Irene, of the title, is no exception. Caught in a storm while delivering a dress her mother made for the duchess, Irene must battle the storm, and the evil wind itself, to accomplish her quest.

The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats

the snowy day jack ezra keats

A young boy makes his way through the city in this stark but lovely tale that will be familiar to any city children who’ve ventured out on a white morning. Keats’ book is a Caldecott Award winner from 1962, with images that have remained wonderfully relatable.

From Little Nemo by Winsor McKay

little nemo winsor mckay

A very snowy Slumberland for a very confused Little Nemo.

From “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson

calvin and hobbes snowmen

One of dozens of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips depicting Calvin’s all-too-creative use of snow to torment and befuddle his parents and foes.

And, some of our favorite images from TOON’s books:

Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons by Agnes Rosenstiehl

silly lilly and the four seasons agnes rosenstiehl

Lilly has fun in every season, including Spring, Summer and Fall, but Winter is the only season she gets to play in the snow. Rosenstiehl’s book is great for introducing kids to the differences between the four seasons and letting them know that there’s fun to be had in every one.

Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking by Phillipe Coudray

benjamin bear fuzzy thinking phillippe coudray

While some bears hibernate in the winter, Benjamin Bear spends plenty of time frolicking in the snow with his friends. Whether he’s accidentally helping them build a snowman, racing them on skis, or providing an unlikely shelter, Coudray’s hilarious pictures make you want to run to the nearest snowy hill.

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse by Frank Viva

frank viva a trip to the bottom of the world

It’s not the North Pole (where Santa and the polar bears live), but the South Pole is another place where it’s always winter. Mouse has to put on his gloves and hat and scarf to brave the cold, but it’s worth it!

 
 

In two weeks, Peter Jackson will release his highly anticipated prequel to his “The Lord of the Rings” series with his live-action re-telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy tale, The Hobbit. The Hobbit was first published in 1937, as a children’s story. One ten-year-old (the targeted age for the novel) reviewed it favorably, writing “the book…does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between 5 and 9″:

the hobbit letter

Even before it was published, in 1936, Tolkien completed one of his first illustrations for the book, a lovingly detailed dustjacket that would, ultimately, stay unused due to its over-abundance of colors.

Although a publishing contract was executed in 1936, there was still considerable work done on the book before it was finally published. In particular, Tolkien tried his hand at illiustrations and designed a marvellous dustjacket. Unfortunately, his first design had too many colors and was revised.


An unsuccessful design by Foyles booksellers, eventually discontinued
adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’
never-used illustrations for ‘The Hobbit’

Eventually, when Tolkien began discussions for the publication of the first American edition of his work, Houghton-Mifflin suggested that the book include color illustrations. While they wanted a professional, others suggested that Tolkien himself take on the task. Though he was skeptical of his skill, he eventually painted pictures of Bilbo, Rivendell, Hobbiton, Smaug the Dragon, and other settings and characters. Many of these drawings, both used and unused, are collected in The Art of the Hobbit.

An unused illustration done by Tolkien of The Lonely Mountain

But Tolkien’s classic has been drawn or re-imagined many, many times since its publication. In 1966, a 12-minute film composed of comic stills would be the first adaptation. Eleven years later, in 1977, another animated adaptation, this time with music, would debut on US television.

Bilbo, in the 1977 adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’

Even more surprising than the idea that a Hobbit musical exists, is the revelation that Maurice Sendak was originally commissioned to produce illustrations for a never-completed 30th anniversary edition of the book. But when the publisher mislabeled Sendak’s pictures of wood-elves as Hobbits, Tolkien took offense at what he perceived as Sendak’s lack of research into his story and rejected the pictures. The two were scheduled to meet and discuss the project, but shortly before, Sendak suffered a major heart attack and the deal fell through.

One of Maurice Sendak’s never-used illustrations for ‘The Hobbit’

Another artist better known for her own work, Tove Jansson of the Moomin series, actually did complete a series of illustrations for The Hobbit’s release in her native Sweden. Just as Sendak’s pictures give us a glimpse of Tolkien’s world through another artists eyes, so too do Jansson’s drawings which mix equal parts adorable and eerie to show us the world of the novel.

hobbit move december 14 peter jackson release date

A Tove Jansson drawing for ‘The Hobbit’

Soon, of course, we’ll have Peter Jackson’s take on the story — likely a high-thrills 3D romp complete with terrifying dragons, wise elves, and of course, hobbits.

A still from Jackson's upcoming movie


 
 
Houdini toon books

I am sitting in my favorite box

Meow meow meow. Or in Human, “Hello TOON friends! This is office manager and ruler of the known universe Houdini.”

While my human minions are at work in the TOON office, I take care of the real work: getting my belly scratched, shedding hair onto couches and pants, and finding the warmest place in the room to sit on top of. I’m also great with catching imaginary mice and hopping onto tables.

Since I can only speak in Cat, I’ve decided to commandeer the office computer to write a blog about the most important things in life — cats. More specifically, I will give you a list of my favorite cats from children’s books. While none of them are as glorious or as powerful as I, they are nevertheless, my family.

The Cat in the Hat (from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss): I met the Cat in the Hat once. His rhyming drove me crazy and he was a total nuisance. In other words: a real cat.

Aslan (from the Narnia books by CS Lewis): Aslan is a lion, which some people don’t think are cats, but we know better. The King of Beasts, the guardian of Narnia, and a Lion, not a lion, Aslan’s supreme rule proves that you should listen to what your cats have to say. Or else.

Crookshanks (from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling): We’ve heard that Crookshanks is also “not a cat,” but like a cat, he’s loyal to his mistress Hermione, suspicious of rats, and quick with his claws. And I admire his fluffy coat.

The Cheshire Cat (from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll): When he leaves, he leaves behind his smile, which is, I think, another word for “mounds and mounds of cat hair.”

Hobbes (from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson): Silly adults only see a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes. But to Calvin, Hobbes is the perfect friend and partner in crime. But like any sneaky cat, Hobbes manages to lay all the blame for his shenanigans on Calvin.

Puss in Boots: Puss is a legend of the feline world, though some say he never existed at all. I do find it hard to believe that any cat would need a sword to fight his enemies, but we’ll let that pass.

A sidenote: Benny and Penny are my two favorite mice. I would never eat them. Not even if I was hungry.

 
 

“Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”
― M.F.K. Fisher

Maya Makes a Mess

Maya, making a mess


Everybody likes to eat. Children are no exception. But kids have a special relationship to food that adults seem to lose. Some are picky eaters, others sugar fiends. Some will make scrumptious pies from mud and flowers, others will pour invisible tea to eat with their invisible pastries. Some, like TOON’s own Maya of Maya Makes a Mess, like to eat spaghetti with ketchup, using their hands, mouths and appetite to guide the way.

Children’s books do not ignore these facts. Many favorites, both classic and modern, revolve around food — there’s Alice in her Wonderland, illustrated classics like Stone Soup and Strega Nonna, and many more.

Sometimes, food paves the road to disaster. Children who eat too much or who are overly tempted by the prospect of food (as in Hansel and Gretel) usually end up in a bad place.

The perils of gluttony are perhaps best described in Shel Silverstein’s poem “Hungry Mungry,” the cautionary tale of a boy who just can’t stop eating. After finishing with food, he eats the table, his parents, cities and countries, when he gets to the universe:

He started with the moon and stars and soon as he was done
He gulped the clouds, he sipped the wind and gobbled up the sun.
Then sitting there in the cold dark air,
He started to nibble his feet,
Then his legs, then his hips
Then his neck, then his lips
Till he sat there just gnashin’ his teeth
‘Cause nothin’ was nothin’ was
Nothin’ was nothin’ was
Nothin’ was left to eat.

The Twits eat like twits

An eternally empty stomach isn’t the only problem that comes of greed. Let’s turn to Roald Dahl, whose books are populated not only by unlikely heroes, but by wicked, nasty children who just want to get their way. All of Dahl’s books are crammed full of food, from the delicious overgrown fruit of James and the Giant Peach, to the monstrous chocolate cake in Matilda that Bruce Bogtrotter is famously made to consume, but it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that puts food, hunger and appetite at the center of its story. But of course, even in Willy Wonka’s magical factory, tasty-seeming treats can be more deadly than delicious. Remember Violet Beauregard?

Not everyone is lucky enough to have pots and pots of honey at hand. In some children’s books, food is an unimagined luxury, the stuff of dreams. In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, plucky heroine Sara Crewe, after her slide from student to scullery maid, is often hungry. One day, when mistaken for a beggar, she takes the coin and buys six buns. But upon seeing a girl hungrier even than she, she gives away five of them to her. She tries to make the final bun last:

Sara found some comfort in her remaining bun. At all events, it was very hot, and it was better than nothing. As she walked along she broke off small pieces and ate them slowly to make them last longer.

“Suppose it was a magic bun,” she said, “and a bite was as much as a whole dinner. I should be overeating myself if I went on like this.”

Later, her friend Ermengarde brings her a box full of cake and meat pies and other food items. The two girls, plus Becky, another maid, set out the food, using scraps from their attic to set the table, and imagining a feast far grander than their own:

So Sara told her, and because her Magic helped her she made her ALMOST see it all: the golden platters–the vaulted spaces– the blazing logs–the twinkling waxen tapers. As the things were taken out of the hamper–the frosted cakes–the fruits– the bonbons and the wine–the feast became a splendid thing.

But, the evil headmistress Miss Minchin breaks the party up before they even get a chance to eat. What Miss Minchin doesn’t anticipate is a different kind of magic, when her neighbor breaks into the attic and fills it with furnishings:

Imagine, if you can, what the rest of the evening was like. How they crouched by the fire which blazed and leaped and made so much of itself in the little grate. How they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot, savory soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them. The mug from the washstand was used as Becky’s tea cup, and the tea was so delicious that it was not necessary to pretend that it was anything but tea. They were warm and full-fed and happy, and it was just like Sara that, having found her strange good fortune real, she should give herself up to the enjoyment of it to the utmost. She had lived such a life of imaginings that she was quite equal to accepting any wonderful thing that happened, and almost to cease, in a short time, to find it bewildering.

We should not forget that food is also fun. Here, we’ll turn to Maya again, whose panache at the dinner table wins over the queen herself.

Maya Makes a Mess

Maya at dinner

TOON’s looking forward to Thanksgiving.

 
 

William Steig was born 105 years ago today on November 14th, 1907. Though he’s best known as the author of beloved children’s books including Abel’s Island, Dr. De Soto, Shrek, and many more, William Steig didn’t begin writing books for kids until he was 61. This is not to say that he started drawing at that age — Steig produced over 2,600 drawings and 117 covers for The New Yorker after beginning work there in 1930.

His drawings for adults display Steig’s sharp, even twisted humor, sparing no one. Marriage, depression, greed, self-infatuation, and a whole host of other human faults are unerringly skewered by Steig’s pen. Using stark, simple pictures, he illustrates unfortunate human conditions, often with no more than a single image and a pithy caption.


This is not the Steig we know from his work for children. His picture books, like Spinky Sulks, or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, bring us child heroes who are sometimes petulant and strong-minded, along with portraits of the parents who care for them deeply. His loose, colorful drawings convey the emotions of a fantastical circus as well as they do the wrenching loneliness of a winter night.

His original Shrek is a far cry from Disney’s version — in Steig’s book we meet a warty green monster who delights in scaring and disgusting others, is terrified by the idea of children and cute animals, and whose princess, when he meets her, is already a horrifying ogre. This is a story less interested in drawing a loveable, if hideous, hero, and more interested in making it clear that everybody, no matter their appearance or disposition, can find their perfect match.


But any discussion of Steig’s work would be incomplete without calling attention to his prose in addition to his illustration. Consider the Newbery Honor winning Abel’s Island (a personal favorite), Steig’s tale of a mouse marooned on an island, far from home and from his wife Amanda, forced to survive in the wild. Here’s one excerpt, from a moment in winter when Abel begins to lose hope:

He became somnolent in his cold cocoon. In his moments of dim-eyed wakefulness he had no idea how much time had passed since he was last awake — whether an hour, a day or a week. He was cold, but he knew he was as warm as he could get. The water in his clay pot was frozen solid. His mind was frozen. It began to see it had always been winter and that there was nothing else, just a vague awareness to make note of the fact. The universe was a dreary place, asleep, cold all the way to infinity, and the wind was a separate thing, not part of the winter, but a lost, unloved soul, screaming and moaning and rushing about looking for a place to rest and reckon up its woes.

Steig’s respect for children is evident in his willingness to portray Abel in the depths of existential misery. And his ability to make such feeling so clear is proof of his talent.

Abel does, in the end, make it home. Steig didn’t underestimate the power of a happy ending.

 
 


Children’s literature is full of scamps and rascals, loveable troublemakers whose disregard of the rules endears them to us and shows us what adventure there is to be had in misbehaving. Max would never have made his way to the world of the wild things if he hadn’t first been sent to bed without dinner. There’d be little joy in watching Eloise sit obediently in her hotel room. Bravery blooms when characters choose to bypass what’s expected of them in order to do what they want to do.

Yet parents around the world sometimes find issue with these portrayals of rambunctious kids making trouble. What kind of lesson, they ask, does a child reading such books learn? Are we encouraging the youth of America to rise up, neglect their chores, ditch school and become underaged outlaws?

There’s no clear answer to the ethical dilemma such books may pose. Just take Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, a perfectly friendly tale of a bear searching for his lost hat. The bear goes through the forest, politely asking a variety of forest creatures if they’ve seen the missing object, until he meets the rabbit who has, in fact, taken the hat. The bear eats the rabbit, which is not such an unusual end, if you consider the laws of nature.

But some parents found the conclusory killing to be more violent than natural. As one Amazon commenter wrote:

“This is a story about a bear that kills a rabbit out of revenge, not because he’s a hungry predator. And it’s a hilarious ending because that’s the last thing you would expect in a book for children. Because that’s the last thing that belongs in a book for children. The message here is, “Don’t touch my stuff or I’ll kill you.” Pretty much the opposite of what you spend endless hours trying to teach little kids, if you want them to get along with any other kids.”

The New York Times, reviewing Klassen’s follow-up, This is Not My Hat (this time a small fish steals a big fish’s hat), points out that the small fish is entirely upfront about his crime, more concerned with pulling off his caper than with right or wrong. They concluded that the message might be either “a cautionary tale of either righteous class struggle or uppity proletarians,” depending on how you look at it. This is, probably, a more complicated moral lesson than might be expected from literature for the kindergarten crowd.

But children’s books shouldn’t be made to avoid complication in favor of clear-cut moral education. The best children’s literature often straddles a difficult line, not only morally, but emotionally, and psychologically. If you consider The Velveteen Rabbit appropriate reading for a child, you’re not only signing off on the notion that kids outgrow their stuffed animals, but on a whole panoply of hard-to-parse ideas about personal fulfillment, the value of hard work, and mortality. Just because young children may not have the words to break down a story into such lessons doesn’t mean they don’t, on some fundamental level, understand them.

TOON’s own Maya Makes a Mess, raised controversy on a gentler scale than murder. Instead, we found that some readers took issue with Maya’s unruly eating habits. Though the age of etiquette likely passed over 100 years ago, some societal guidelines remain. A young girl who likes to eat her pasta so that it gets all over the table, herself, and those around her, does not set the Emily Post standard for dining. But learning how to eat isn’t the only narrative the book presents — by bursting into a fancy dinner with her unique style of consumption, Maya manages to remind some fancy folk (including the Queen herself) that the point of food, and perhaps life, is taking pleasure in the everyday.

Children’s literature, at its best, doesn’t just tell children how they should be. It celebrates children as they are — messy, wild, unformed, insightful, instinctive, joyous and free. If these stories lead to more kids refusing to eat their peas, perhaps they also lead to more kids feeling empowered to be who they want to be. It’s hard to find fault with that.

 
 

Although Finnish author Tove Jansson is best known for her Moomin stories — children’s tales about the ghostly hippo-like trolls pictured above — she eventually gave up on her wide-eyed little creatures in order to focus on writing adult novels. But her stories for grown-ups are just as charming and clear-eyed as are her stories for children.

Here’s an excerpt from The Summer Book , a gentle tale about a grandmother and her granddaughter:

In the beginning, the family tried to make the magic forest more terrible than it was. They collected stumps and dry juniper bushes from neighboring islands and rowed them back to the forest. Huge specimens of weathered, whitened beauty were dragged across the island. They splintered and cracked and made broad, empty paths to the places where they were to stand. Grandmother could see that it wasn’t turning out but she said nothing. Afterward, she cleaned the boat and waited until the rest of the family tired of the magic forest. Then she went in by herself. She crawled slowly past the marsh and the ferns and when she got tired she lay down on the ground and looked up through the network of gray lichens and branches. Later, the others asked her where she had been, and she replied that maybe she had slept a little while.

And the picture that accompanies the text:

But of course, it’s not only Jansson’s stories for adults that demonstrate her ability to simply relate deeper psychological truths. The Moomin stories — her comic strips for children may have started off as more traditional adventure stories, but they evolved gradually into deceptively complex narratives that feature parodies of literary form, allusions to nuclear policy, and the difficulties of loneliness and grief.

All this is just to say: Whether books are labeled for children, or for adults, it should not be surprising that both categories offer great pleasure for anyone who can appreciate a good story.

 
 

In a commentary titled “Betty and Veronica: The Cultural Politics of Hair Colour,” Jeet Heer links to a 1961 “Little Archie” story by Bob Bolling titled “The Long Walk.”


 
 

The Cartoon Snap website reprints in full a five-page Milt Gross “Count Screwloose” story, originally published in a 1948 issue of The Killroys.