Precious few books stay in print more than a few years. To reach a century without ever going out of print is rare indeed. The beloved children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real reaches that milestone next April. Written by Margery Williams and first illustrated by William Nicholson, the tale of a toy rabbit worn down and made real by love has been translated into dozens of languages, interpreted in numerous print editions, made into a cartoon, live action shorts, feature films, an audiobook narrated by Meryl Streep, countless stage productions, and even a musical. Lines from the book are often used in wedding toasts and even sermons. In April 2022, Doubleday will release a centenary edition with the original text and new illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Erin Stead.
The Velveteen Rabbit was first published by George H. Doran, an imprint later acquired by Doubleday. It’s been in the company’s backlist ever since, says Frances Gilbert, editor-in-chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. Williams was born in London in 1881 and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1890s, later living at various times in England, France, Italy, and the U.S, after her marriage to Italian book dealer Francesco Bianco. She began publishing novels for adults when she was just 19, but The Velveteen Rabbit was her first book for children. “The Velveteen Rabbit became the beginning of all the stories I have written since,” she wrote in 1929. “By thinking about toys and remembering toys, they suddenly become very much alive. Toys I had loved as a little girl—my almost forgotten Tubby, who was the rabbit, and Old Dobbin, the Skin Horse, and the toys my children had loved.”
Although it’s now the only one of her books that’s widely read, during her lifetime her 1925 book Poor Cecco: The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World was considered superior. “Mrs. Bianco reminds the reader of Andersen,” wrote reviewer Marcia Dalphin in the New York Herald Tribune after Poor Cecco’s publication. “After all, Hans Christian Andersen remains the absolute master of the toy story, and it is the highest possible praise to say of anyone writing in that genre that she resembles him.”
The author was very deliberate in her approach to children’s stories. “Nothing is easier than to write a story for children,” she wrote in a 1925 essay. However, she explained, there are “few things harder, as any writer knows, than to achieve a story that children will really like.” She recognized that some fellow authors mistakenly believe “that the really successful children’s book is just a thing that happens.” On the contrary, she argued, children’s “almost diabolical clairvoyance and skepticism regarding the grown up’s intention” required an author to make a serious emotional investment. “The personal element counts above all else, and this is a thing that cannot be faked or simulated... I believe... that all the most successful children’s books, irrespective of subject, were actually written in this spirit of sincerity.” A century later, her observations still ring true.
When Gilbert arrived at Doubleday in 2012 one of her first projects was to create a clothbound gift edition of the book. Working with the Morgan Library, she had the original illustrations rescanned and color-corrected. But she knew she would revisit the book again: she wanted to create a centenary edition. “This book moves people,” she said.
Knowing the book’s 100th anniversary was approaching, Stead suggested to Gilbert that she illustrate the new edition. The idea was met with immediate enthusiasm by Gilbert, who had worked with the Steads on the bestselling The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, a previously unfinished Mark Twain story that Stead’s husband Philip completed writing and Erin illustrated in 2017. With no directives about the desired outcome for The Velveteen Rabbit project, Gilbert said she knew she could “sit back and let them do their thing. I left in in their hands.” (The couple shares a studio and Philip, also a book designer, took on an informal advisory role.)
For Stead, it wasn’t just another project. “I’ve had a lifelong relationship with this book,” she said. “There’s something about this story I always come back to.” She remembers the edition that she read as a child, and a high school AP art history teacher who included a question about the book on his exam.
The original edition was limited by the confines of the technology of its time period—a printing press fitted with lead type, leaving no flexibility as to how the text could be laid out on the page. With the centenary edition, “I was able to do things they wouldn’t have been able to do,” Stead said. That began with breaking up the text to reflect “the way the pages should be turned, where I wanted pauses,” all with the aim of presenting the story “in the way we actually read to kids.”
But reformatting was just the first step. In approaching the illustrations, she had big shoes to fill. Nicholson was knighted by the British Empire in 1936, primarily in recognition of his accomplishments as a painter of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, including one of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie (he had designed sets and costumes for the original stage production of the book). But he’s also credited with elevating children’s book illustration to a fine art.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself with every book,” Stead said. “You want to make the best art you can every time.” In the years since The Velveteen Rabbit debuted, well-known artists including Maurice Sendak and Michael Hague have illustrated subsequent editions. Stepping into such a long lineage of Velveteen Rabbit illustrators, Stead researched the previous work, but ultimately chose a striking new direction. “Because it has been re-illustrated so many times, I wanted to do something that felt a little new,” she said. “I wanted the illustrations to feel timeless but a little modern, maybe a little bit more grown up. The book isn’t just for children. It’s something a grown-up could give a grown-up.”
In the seven original lithographs, Nicholson tracks the rabbit’s emotional growth with the change of the seasons, from his introduction as a stuffed animal in a Christmas stocking to his transformation into a real bunny in the summer. Stead also worked with the seasonal structure in her illustrations (wood block with pencil on top) with each season represented through the color palette, yellow ochre as the constant and one other color as a variant in each season. Although it’s not her first time using wood block printing as the starting point of her illustrations, she said she drew directly onto the blocks more than usual for this book.
The resulting illustrations showcase Stead’s gift for animating the characters of the story. “She really makes a connection,” Gilbert said. “Her animals reach out and grab readers.” The rabbit’s cocked ear, the empathetic stance of the Skin Horse as he counsels the bunny offer a fresh and endearing vision of these iconic figures.
Asked what informs her approach, Stead said, “The best thing you can do is remember what things were like when you were small. I remember what it felt like, and if I can express that in a drawing, that’s what I try to do.”
The Velveteen Rabbit is especially poignant now in the time of a pandemic, Gilbert said. The rabbit is discarded and destined to be destroyed because of fears he might still carry the scarlet fever his boy had contracted. The infection was one of the leading causes of death for children prior to the development of penicillin in 1929. Williams would have just emerged from the troubled times of World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic not long before she wrote the book. The boy in the story recovers, which readers at the time would recognize as a hopeful outcome. Along with its message of the transformative power of love, it conveys the idea that people (and toys) can endure and come out stronger on the other side of a difficult time.
“If a manuscript lasts this long,” Stead said, “there’s got to be something about it that speaks to people.” In a world that’s become so digital in recent years, “the meaning of the story holds true now more than ever,” she added. “It brings you back to what’s really in front of you.”