Corduroy – Don Freeman, Viking Books for Young Readers, 2008 (40th anniversary edition)
A Pocket for Corduroy – Don Freeman, Viking, 1978
I recently learned that the Museum of the City of New York will unveil a retrospective exhibit on the work of author and illustrator Don Freeman (1908-1978) in the fall of this year. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Corduroy’s debut in his eponymous book, as well as the fortieth of his sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy. Freeman, a respected illustrator of New York City life, was well known for including working people and the world of Broadway theater (his son maintains an extensive website of his legacy). Yet he also wrote an illustrated children’s books and became most famous for his portrait of a bear who almost isn’t purchased from a toy store partly because he is missing a button.
Freeman was Jewish and white; the story’s human characters are African-American. As with Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, this choice is presented as unremarkable, although it was much remarked upon, since it was still unusual in 1968. Corduroy’s story is about an affectionate little girl, Lisa, with a responsible if busy mother, and Lisa’s conviction that she really does want a slightly imperfect toy bear who really needs a parent figure himself.
Corduroy lives on the shelf in a department store, randomly housed between an oversized bunny and a cute doll. In the next picture, the doll has disappeared. Apparently, someone has taken her home. When Lisa identifies the bear as “the very bear I’ve always wanted,” her tired mother replies, not unreasonably, that she has already spent too much on their shopping trip, and that the bear is damaged goods.
They leave, and Corduroy then does what children suspect their toys do when their owners aren’t around. He boards an escalator and winds up in the bedroom furnishings. As a child might do if he is bored being dragged around a store, Corduroy uses his imagination: “This must be a palace…I guess I’ve always wanted to live in a palace.” That “I guess” leaves room for the happy conclusion. Lisa finds some money in her piggy bank and she returns to the store to buy Corduroy. She does not bring him to a palace, but up four flights of stairs to her urban apartment, where she sews a button on his overalls. The important point about the button is that Corduroy doesn’t really need it: “I like you the way you are…but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened.”
Freeman’s pictures are understated, with Corduroy’s different positions in different situations showing movement naturally. His feet fly up in the air as he grasps a lamp to keep from falling; in the next page, his hands cover his ears as protection from the noise. In a really memorable image of vulnerability, only Corduroy’s ears stick out from the blanket as a night watchman shines a flashlight on him; the watchman then pulls back the linens to reveal the misplaced toy.
In A Pocket for Corduroy, the bear has another close call, also resolved by some good luck and by Lisa’s protective love for him. He winds up left in a sack at the local laundromat where, fortunately, a kindly bearded hipster (as we would call him today) rescues him until Lisa returns the next day. She brings him home once again and makes him an ID card and a pocket to put it in. If you have ever spent hours looking for a child’s beloved toy, you will feel immense relief and gratitude for the kindness of strangers.
There are so many positive and reassuring moments in both these books, all of them natural and understated. Children reading or listening to the book will identify both with Corduroy and with Lisa, and will feel drawn to a world where parents and other adults take care of children, and children learn to take care of other small and vulnerable beings. That’s why we still appreciate Corduroy and can look forward to the upcoming exhibit.