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In the 100th year of 'The Velveteen Rabbit,' readers ask what it means to be real

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What does it mean to be real? That's the question at the heart of "The Velveteen Rabbit," which was published 100 years ago this month. The story by Margery Williams Bianco has inspired numerous book and screen adaptations and has never gone out of print. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports. The story endures because it speaks to both adults and children.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "The Velveteen Rabbit" is about a stuffed animal that doesn't feel loved by the other toys in the nursery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior and looked down upon everyone else. They were full of modern ideas and pretended they were real.

BLAIR: Only the old and wise Skin Horse is nice to the rabbit. The Rabbit asks him what is real.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) Real isn't how you are made, said the Skin Horse. 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. Does it hurt? asked the Rabbit. Sometimes, said the Skin Horse.

BLAIR: Eventually, the rabbit does become real because of the boy who plays with him and talks to him and sleeps with him every night. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) And he scarcely looked like a rabbit anymore except to the boy. To him, he was always beautiful, and that was all the little rabbit cared about. He didn't mind how he looked to other people.

BLAIR: Margery Williams Bianco was born in London in 1881. She was very close to her dad. He was a barrister and a classical scholar. She later wrote that he believed children should be taught to read early and then have no regular teaching until they were 10. Margery's favorite book was a natural history book she found in his library. She wrote that she knew every reptile, bird and beast long before she knew her multiplication table. When she was 7 years old, her dad died suddenly. Margery's grandson, Mike Bianco, says she was very much in touch with what is real.

MIKE BIANCO: She understood that all of these trappings of prestige and material possessions that we associate with being happy and will endear us to others really fall short because it's only when we allow ourselves to both give and receive unconditional love that we really become truly contented.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) And the little Rabbit was very happy, so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier.

ERIN STEAD: I think this story has lasted so long because it touches on a lot of feelings that you have as a kid and that you have as a parent or a grown-up.

BLAIR: Erin Stead is the illustrator of a 100th anniversary edition of "The Velveteen Rabbit."

STEAD: The part that we all remember about talking about what's real - that really carries with you for the rest of your life with all of the relationships you have, all the friendships that you'll make, and all the times that people aren't necessarily kind to you. There's a lot of insecurities. There's a lot of figuring out how you belong. It's hard to shake a story that's that honest.

KRISTY BARRETT: I've always felt a little bit like a human velveteen rabbit.

BLAIR: Kristy Barrett is 50 years old. "The Velveteen Rabbit" is her favorite book.

BARRETT: They told my mom when I was being born not to get attached because I wasn't going to live.

BLAIR: Barrett has cerebral palsy. She had rheumatic fever in her 20s and a host of other health issues. One of her favorite passages from the book is when the Skin Horse explains to the rabbit that becoming real takes a long time.

BARRETT: (Reading) By the time you're 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're real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.

BLAIR: Barrett says that grabbed her by the heart.

BARRETT: If you look at me, my body is very twisted, and so I kind of fit the your joints get loose and you become very shabby. But most of the people who know me and love me look at me and see the beauty, even though my body's always been twisted and different.

BLAIR: Margery Williams Bianco once wrote that some of the most beautiful stories ever written for children have been sad stories. But, she continued, it is the sadness which is inseparable from life, which has to do with growth and change and impermanence and with the very essence of beauty.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.