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. The two mice 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.”
In a stroke of genius that counterposes the sentient and the insentient, Potter pictures, on the opposite page, these stunned and bemused dolls, these thinking and emoting creatures, in dramatically rigid and stick-like postures that contrast with their otherwise conscious natures. Potter’s picture presents a vision of inanimate toys that any adult might see, but her words signal that something different which is in the child’s eyes: how the dolls are not only alive but offended by the mayhem the mice have caused.
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.
Nutcracker. Ages: 9-12. By: E.T.A. Hoffmann; illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Gramercy: $13.99 (Hardcover)
The Mouse and His Child. Ages: 9-12. By: Russell Hoban; illustrated by David Small. Arthur A. Levine: $16.95 (Hardcover)
Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet. Ages: 9-12. By: Carlo Collodi. Penguin: $10.00 (Paperback)
The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Ages: 4-8. By: Beatrix Potter. Warne: $6.99 (Hardcover)
A Child’s Garden of Verses. Ages: 9-12. By: Robert Louis Stevenson. Dover: $1.50 (Paperback)
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (November 2005). A chapter in my book “Feeling Like a Kid” is devoted to the subject of “Aliveness.” The theme of the 2016 Children’s Literature Association is “Animation.” And I discuss Maurice Sendak’s “Nutcracker” here.