In an oft-quoted passage from a classic children’s story, the old Skin Horse offers the Velveteen Rabbit a Christmas Eve lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not in its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used, how it is integrated into the child’s imaginative experience: “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real” (Bianco 1983, 4). The Rabbit is fearful of this process, recognizing that consumer goods do not become “real” without being actively reworked: “Does it hurt?…Does it happen all at once, like being wound up or bit by bit?” (Bianco, 1983, 4-5) Reassuring him, the Skin Horse emphasizes not the deterioration of the original but rather the new meanings that get attached to it and the relationship into which it is inserted:
It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. (Bianco 1983, 5-6)
The boy’s investment in the toy will give it a meaning that was unanticipated by the toymaker, a meaning that comes not from its intrinsic merits or economic value but rather from the significance the child bestows upon the commodity through its use. The boy in Margery Williams Bianco’s beloved story did not manufacture the Velveteen Rabbit nor did he choose it as a gift; yet, only the boy has the power to bring the toy to life and only the boy grieves its loss. Only the boy can make it “Real.” Bianco’s story predates Michel de Certeau, yet “The Velveteen Rabbit” seemingly reduces his complex formulations into a simple (if sentimental) fable about popular consumption.