Sunday, July 10, 2016

by Don Freeman

Recently, I was rummaging through the picture story books at my parents’ house, looking for nostalgic reads to share with Heidi. Some I was actively seeking: the Berenstain Bears, a few Shirley Hughes classics, some Little Golden Books. Some I had completely forgotten, books I hadn’t thought about in 30 years. One of those was Corduroy.

As soon as I saw the cover, it all came flooding back. The little teddy bear locked in a department store overnight, trying to pull his missing ‘button’ off a mattress. The security guard who finds him and takes him back down the escalator to the toy section. And the little girl who saves up money in her piggy bank to buy Corduroy the Bear.

But there was one thing that I didn’t remember, something I only noticed upon rereading the book for the first time in three decades: Lisa, the little girl who buys Corduroy the Bear, is black. And I realised that there was a very good reason I didn’t recall this: because I never noticed in the first place. When I was four, five, six years old, Lisa wasn’t a black kid. She was just a kid.

And it made me think about children and parenthood. When it comes to knowledge and values, babies are blank slates. Nobody is born with built-in notions of race or religion, of superiority or inferiority, of similarity or difference. Watch the way babies or toddlers interact. They don’t know if their little friend is a different race unless their parents tell them.

This is of course all very obvious, but given recent world events it is worth reflecting that everything we know and believe is learnt. We learn from our parents, from our friends, from the world around us, from TV, from books. Some picture books teach equality in a beautiful way – Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox was one such example we read recently.

Others, like Corduroy, do so more subtly. I’m not even sure if the author-illustrator Don Freeman, who was white, meant for his book to be anything other than an adorable story. But there are messages in its pages.

When Lisa first sees Corduroy in the store and looks into his bright eyes, she wants to buy him. Her mother is dismissive: “He doesn’t look new. He’s lost the button to one of his shoulder straps”. Note that it was only the adult in the situation who ascribed a negative connotation to his appearance. Poor, innocent Corduroy didn’t know he’d lost his button. Neither did Lisa.

It is worth noting that Corduroy was written in the USA in the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968), and that for young African-American readers it provided valuable positive reinforcement. Consider this excerpt from a Goodreads reader review:

It was the first book I ever read that had a lead character that looked like me. (And no, I don't mean the bear.) The little Black girl ... was well groomed and cared for, and SO nice. People out there who've always had characters in books and magazines who look like them won't 'get it'. The significance will be lost on them I fear. But it's instances like that that help establish a child's self-esteem and community worth.

None of this would mean much if Corduroy was a run-of-the-mill story, read once or twice and tossed aside. It is certainly not that. In our house it was well-loved and well-worn. Not just in our house. The New York Public Library, the National Education Association, the School Library Journal, they all have Corduroy in their respective lists of the top 100 children’s books of all time.

What is it about that little bear and his story that is so adorable? The green overalls, the expressive face, the innocence of the great big world around him – he’s just like a toddler. And the premise plays to a sense of child-like adventure. I know I wasn’t the only kid to dream of the freedom that would come with being in a big store overnight.

There are so many memorable pages imprinted on my mind: Corduroy stepping tentatively onto the escalator. Corduroy trying to pull a button off a mattress because he thought it belonged to his overalls. The nightwatchman searching with his flashlight. And my favourite: the white pillow and sheets with only Corduroy’s tiny, fuzzy ears sticking up to reveal his hiding place.

It is at turns charming, sad, sweet and tender. At its core is the notion of innocence. Corduroy thinks the escalator is a mountain, the furnishings department is a palace. He sees something small and round on a mattress and assumes it must be his missing button. When Lisa takes him home, there is a little Corduroy-sized bed next to her own, just waiting for him. “This must be a home,” he says. “I know I’ve always wanted a home”

Rereading it nearly 50 years after publication, Corduroy is also a window into an era. Just look at the styles seen in the department store: the saleslady’s beehive hairdo and cat’s eye glasses, the classy hat and coat combination worn by Lisa’s mother, the 1960s lamps in the bedding emporium. Some older books don’t stand the test of time, but Corduroy deserves to be a retro classic.

Part of that is due to the pictures, which are pieces of art that would not look out of place framed on a nursery wall. The use of bright colours for the busy department store during the day, the limited palette at night, the way every character’s eyes tell a story. Freeman was 60 when he produced Corduroy, and it was the result of a lifetime of observing the human character.

As a young man he made money playing trumpet in a dance band, working at nightclubs and weddings. He used to wander the streets of New York City with his sketch pads, recording the sights and characters of the city. One night he lost his trumpet on the subway, and decided to make a living from his artwork instead. Broadway and circus performers were frequent subjects.

He died in 1978, ten years after Corduroy was released. Freeman wrote and illustrated something like 20 children’s books, including a sequel called A Pocket for Corduroy. That title rings a bell; I think I must have read it as a kid as well. Perhaps I’ll stumble across it one day. For now, I’m so glad I rediscovered the original.

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