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This Time, A Grown-Up’s Love Made the Velveteen Rabbit Real Again

PML 143487 Summer Days,  facing page 9, left side, under glass  Bianco, Margery Williams, 1880-1944.   The velveteen rabbit, or, How toys become real /  London : Heinemann, 1922.What is the difference between real and pretend?

This one question is perhaps the basis for more children’s stories than any other. It’s also the question that separates a child’s view of the world from a grown-up’s, and is a good measure of one’s ability to experience magic.

As any 5-year-old could easily tell you, the answer to the question is: Loving and believing in something makes it real. If you don’t want to believe a 5-year-old, then you can consult countless authoritative references like Toy Story, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Polar Express, The Wizard of Oz, or Mary Poppins, and no doubt hundreds of others.

The most magical thing about reading or experiencing these stories with our children is that for a fraction of a moment — perhaps a little longer — we are forced to remember these childhood truths. We can see into our child’s heart and mind, reconnect with what ours were once capable of, and rekindle magic in our own lives. Those clever storytellers — Barrie, Travers, and the rest — might just have been writing for the parents, not the children. Shh!

The Velveteen Rabbit is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this kind of storytelling. The book is now available in a gorgeous gift edition, thanks to an interest — then a compulsion — and ultimately an obsession on the part of Frances Gilbert, an associate publisher for Doubleday Books.

PML 143487 Anxious times, facing page 12, under glass  Bianco, Margery Williams, 1880-1944.   The velveteen rabbit, or, How toys become real /  London : Heinemann, 1922.Frances, like so many of us, knew the book from childhood and revered it in a particular way.  One might even say she loved it so much as a child that she simply had to will the “real” version back into existence. She started doing research.

“I went to the New York Public Library,” says Frances, “and was allowed to view their first edition. I realized immediately that the colors in our active version of the book were very different. Over the course of many printings, the colors had gotten a little degraded, and I became obsessed with the idea of rolling back time, and creating a gift edition that would capture that original artwork.”

Her next steps, as she describes, was to reach out to private collectors nationwide and ask if she could have permission to scan the pictures from their first editions.

“The response, from those that even wrote back, was basically ‘Not on your life.’ A first edition of this book is worth around $15,000.00. Even when I told them I’d write a check for that amount as a guarantee of the safety of the book, the answer was no.

“Then out of the blue, I got a call from John Bidwell, the print curator of the Morgan Library in New York City. He was calling to tell me what an exciting project he thought it was — very much in line with the mission of the Morgan, to keep old books alive and accessible.”

PML 143487 The Skin Horse tells his story, facing page 3, right side under glass  Bianco, Margery Williams, 1880-1944.   The velveteen rabbit, or, How toys become real /  London : Heinemann, 1922.Says Bidwell, “[Frances] brought to the Morgan one of the recent reprints and we compared it to the first edition. The colors were way off, so far from the mark that it looked like someone had done some well meaning but ultimately deleterious photo retouching along the way. I urged Frances to start again with new [high resolution digital] photography if only to do justice to the artwork of William Nicholson. To my mind that is one of the functions of a rare book library: it preserves early books in good condition so that they can serve as the copy of record, as a benchmark for judging the form and content of later editions or versions.”

“I was so excited to partner with the Morgan on this,” says Frances.

The new book is beautifully crafted, with a cloth cover and a gold embossed title. Frances adds that it’s a longer read, and includes some very sad and poignant moments, so it’s the perfect book for a parent to spend a considerable amount of time with a child.

Reading the book to your child might just remind you what’s real about love and magic.

The latest gift edition of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams; illustrated by William Nicholson, is available now from Doubleday Books for Young Readers. Recommended for ages 3-7.

Images accompanying this piece by William Nicholson, courtesy Doubleday.

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