Toy stories

Toys make natural heroes for children in literature as well as in life. In her first monthly book column, Polly Shulman looks at the little heroes of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Nutcracker" and "The Pasteboard Bandit," a rediscovered book by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes


Polly Shulman
December 12, 1997 6:56PM (UTC)

In the world of grown-up literature, heroes don't just sit there,
they do things. That's the point of being a hero. If you don't prove your
stuff, whether by stopping the tanker before it spills oil all over the
penguins or just by shooting tigers, you're probably not a hero at all --
merely a protagonist. But safe, well-cared-for children don't have those
kinds of adventures. Even more than adults, who could perfectly well become
skydiving instructors, battlefield physicians or preschool teachers if they
really crave action, children have few real world outlets for their questing
impulses.

That's why, in children's literature, the Nancy Drews and Jim Hawkinses are
joined by an oddly passive breed of heroes: the toys. Like children, toys
rely on people much larger than themselves to meet their basic needs, to
understand them and to pay them the attention that brings them to life.
Like children, they're allowed a limited scope of action in the world: When
someone decides it's bedtime, off to bed they go. And like children,
they're vulnerable to being ignored or roughly treated; there's not much
they can do to protect themselves from abuse or neglect.

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These similarities in their situations make toys easy for children to
identify with. But since every kid is a grown-up to her teddy bear, stories
about toys can also allow children to identify with adults, giving them a
chance to check out what it feels like to belong to the larger world. And
toys make natural imaginary heroes, because that's their job in children's
actual lives.

In some toy stories, such as Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin
Soldier," the heroes stay in role as inanimates, unable to move or speak on
their own. Their inability to make themselves recognized often frustrates
them. Though Andersen's eponymous soldier goes on a long, dangerous
journey, for example, not a step of it is due to his agency. He gets
knocked from a window, swept into a gutter, swallowed by a fish, hauled
from the water, miraculously restored to his original family by the cook
and ends his life when a little boy -- his rightful protector -- throws him
in the fire for "no reason at all."

By nature unswerving and steadfast (the Danish word has the postural
connotations of our word "upright"), the tin soldier takes pride in his
refusal to complain or fight against his fate. After he tumbles from the
window, Andersen tells us, "the maid and the small boy went down at once to
look for him, but although they came very near to treading on him, they
still couldn't see him. If the tin soldier had shouted, 'Here I am!' they
would have found him right enough, but he considered it wasn't done to cry
out when he was in uniform." The idea that the soldier could choose to
shout, of course, is a heart-wrenching piece of Andersen's signature irony.
The only course of action really open to the tin soldier is to feel
passionately, while making a virtue of passivity. Children are likely to
recognize his strategy of acting brave because he has no other choice.

In other stories (certain chapters in the Mary Poppins books, for example),
toys get to speak and move, though usually with some proviso: only at
night, only in the toy chest, only when the grown-ups aren't around. E.T.A.
Hoffmann's "Nutcracker" is one of these. Forget about sugarplum fairies --
this dream is half nightmare. Roberto Innocenti's illustrations for a
recent edition of the tale properly evoke its menace. Nutcracker is
strangely helpless for a fairy-tale prince. Wounded by a thoughtless boy
(they're everywhere, aren't they?), the hideous enchanted prince loses a
battle to his mortal enemies, the mice. To survive, he needs help from the
heroine, a girl named Marie.

In Innocenti's version, the villain -- a seven-headed, red-eyed Mouse King
drawn in sinister pastel tones -- couldn't be further from cute. As Marie
shrinks from page to page, the scenes take on the desperate chaos of a
battleground -- or a child's messy bedroom. Has Marie dreamed the whole
thing? Following the conventions of such stories, the only people who
believe her are her brother, Fritz, himself a child, and Godfather
Drosselmeier, Nutcracker's weird creator/uncle. Adults who can follow
children into the toy world are scary, suspicious figures. Nutcracker blurs
the boundaries between people land and toyland. Not only can creepy
Godfather Drosselmeier move between worlds, but Marie herself goes off to
live in Nutcracker's Marzipan Castle at the end. This confusion is part of
what makes the story so frightening, and it's unusual in toy tales.

More typical is "The Pasteboard Bandit," a rediscovered children's book by
Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. Written in
1935 but published this year for the first time, with lovely Mexican-style
illustrations by Peggy Turley, the book is a typical paralyzed-toy story.
It describes the somewhat passive adventures of Tito, a
papier-mbchi figure who belongs to a Mexican boy named Juanito
and his American friend, Kenny. All three heroes are descended from
artists. Juanito's father paints clay pots, Kenny's mother and father are
Greenwich Village artists who have come to Mexico to paint and Tito's
progenitors could be called sculptors, if you consider toys art. Bontemps
and Hughes clearly do. Their simple, straightforward story seems designed
to break down distinctions like art and craft, rich and poor or North and
South by treating Juanito's and Kenny's experiences with equal weight
through Tito's eyes.

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Tito serves as an ambassador between the two boys -- another natural role
for a plaything. He understands English and Spanish, though of course he
can't speak either. And at the book's end he travels home to New York with
Kenny, a gift from Juanito and Mexico. Tito's big moment comes (in a
chapter tellingly titled "Tito Becomes a Hero") when he rescues the boys
from an abandoned mine. He does this in typical toy fashion, by simply
standing there. Kenny's parents, searching for the boys, notice him at the
mouth of the tunnel where Kenny and Juanito left him as a lookout. To
reward Tito for pointing the way to their sons, both sets of parents paint
him: Juanito's father refreshes his clothes, which ran when he got wet, and
Kenny's mother paints a huge portrait of him. Tito is proud to find himself
the size of a real man.

For all their helplessness, Tito, Nutcracker and the tin soldier aspire to
masculine roles. It's no accident that they're a pair of soldiers and a
bandit. They may be the littlest or even the timidest of men, but they
still care about being manly: Tito, like any boy, would hate to have anyone
confuse him with a doll. (Another mini-genre, the doll books, similarly
opens a window on the littlest women.) Does a child's -- or a toy's --
passiveness make him feminine? If toy stories explore the child's role in
an adult world, these three do a fascinating job of separating the boys
from the men.


Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman



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