Review of the Day: Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins
Toys Come Home: Being the Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-New Someone Called Plastic
By Emily Jenkins
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Schwartz & Wade
On shelves now
I’m feeling tetchy. Let’s set out some rules when it comes to prequels of children’s books then. Number One: You are allowed to write a prequel if you wrote the original book in the first place. Um . . . . okay, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. But it’s a good rule in general, don’t you think? Follow that rule and you won’t have to deal with seeing Anne before she came to Green Gables or speculate as to how Captain Hook got to be so mean. Not that every author should consider writing a prequel, mind. I’m sure Harry Potter fans would love to see what capers his parents got up to in school, but then we’d probably have to deal with a How Edward Cullen Became a Vampire novel, and that’s a road I’d rather not tread. All this is to say that if you have to write a prequel to a popular children’s book, it needs to make a certain amount of sense. Fortunately for all of us Toys Come Home makes oodles of caboodles of strudels of noodles of sense. Over the years children have asked Ms. Jenkins how Sheep lost her ear. Now that and a host of other questions (including some remarkably huge ones) are answered at long last.
How do special toys become beloved? Not in the ways you might imagine. StingRay, the stuffed sting ray, arrived too late to be a birthday present at The Girl’s party. Faced with not being The Girl’s favorite present she put up with the insufferable Bobby Dot (a walrus who wasn’t very nice) until after helping rescue the Sheep and facing her fear of towels, she managed to become worthy of snuggling and cuddling on the high bed. Lumphy, the toughy little buffalo, was plucked from a bin full of teddies, proving his valor soon thereafter with a particularly energetic kitten. And Plastic’s sheer energy and curiosity about the world leads the others to ask the ultimate question. Literally. In this way, we get to see how the characters of Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party came to be who they are.
I have never, in all my live long days, seen an author recall the trauma that comes when a child throws up on their favorite toy better than Ms. Jenkins. It’s sort of a two-part trauma. The first part is the sudden disgusting nature of your once beloved companion and the second is what happens when they go through the wash. Jenkins doesn’t dwell too heavily on the death of toys (just the nature of existence itself, but more on that later) but it’s there and it’s real. Toys get destroyed. That’s the long and short of it. It’s hard to feel too sad about it when you’ve just read an insufferably stuck up walrus saying, “Puke! Puke! I’m covered in puke!” because as lines go, that one’s hilarious. In the midst of all that, though, the book is clear that no one lasts forever and that feeling good about something going wrong can be a bad thing. Does that make the person feeling good bad, though? Big ideas for a little book.
I mean, really, what are we to think of an early chapter book, a book destined to be read to children at bedtime for decades (nay, centuries?) to come, that dwells on the nature of existence itself? Most grown-ups don’t expect much from their books for kids. Generally speaking if the book gets their kid to conk out before 8:30 it’s a winner. For them, the chapter called “The Arrival of Plastic and Also the Reason We Are Here” is going to be a bit of a surprise. We learn how The Girl got Plastic and then we watch as Plastic asks, matter-of-factly “… why are we here? . . . Why are we here in the Girl’s room? In this town, on this planet?” Well there’s a stumper. It’s not exactly asking “Is there a God?” but for an eight-year-old reader this question might be enough to rewire their circuitry a tad. Lumphy, for his part, sinks into a kind of existential dread brought on by the fact that StingRay can’t come up with any kind of an answer. “It is scary that StingRay doesn’t know, and scary that there might not be an answer at all.” He effectively becomes a kind of Eeyore, if Eeyore had enough wherewithal to question his place in the universe. From this pit of potential dank and gloom (one, I should note, that kids of this age are fairly impervious too but would find it funny to hear about) the solution to this problem, one that has plagued mankind for centuries, is answered in three pages. It also manages to create an ending so cozy that for all that I enjoyed this book I would be disappointed if there were another in the series. It’s just that perfect a capper.
Adding to all this are Paul O. Zelinsky’s illustrations. Mr. Zelinsky could well be called an artistic chameleon. One minute he conjures up painting worthy of the Pre-Raphaelites, the next he’s getting down and dirty with Jack Prelutsky’s poetry. In the Toys Go Out series, Mr. Zelinsky channels the spirit of Garth Williams and other great illustrators whose pens grace our classics. Thinking about it, in a way this book combines his various styles. When showing the sleeping face of the child I was reminded of his Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. When later I saw the stuffed walrus Bobby Dot covered in chunky, sticky, gooey vomit I thought of his work on Awful Ogre’s Awful Day. Thank goodness the man’s flexible, that’s all I can say.
When I was a kid the only books I could own that speculated over the inner lives of my toys were The Velveteen Rabbit, The Mouse and His Child, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, and others of that ilk. None of them really spoke to me. None of them conjured up the sheer comfort of an Emily Jenkins offering. It is rare that prequels exceed the books they are meant to simply introduce, but this is one of the few. Each story in this collection dares to talk about big ideas in little settings in a way that kids can understand. To accomplish this is a near impossible feat. I am awed. This is a book that dares to discuss the undiscussable so read this to the child with eyes so glazed by repeated viewing of the Toy Story movies that they can think of nothing else. Even they will be entranced. Quiet. Comfortable. A rarity.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed final copy from library for review.
- Read the opening here.
- See some original sketch ideas from Paul Zelinsky (as well as sketches of YA authors like John Green and Libba Bray) over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
Filed under: Best Books of 2011, Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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