"Becoming real": 8 books about beloved childhood toys

Published on: 01 December 2020 Author: Ross Montgomery

Almost all children have a toy that is precious to them - whether it's a worn-out teddy bear, a doll, or even a tin car or a plane, these are the precious objects that bring us comfort and joy when we're young. The Midnight Guardians author Ross Montgomery shares 8 brilliant books about the magic of childhood toys...

Author Ross Montgomery and The Midnight GuardiansAuthor Ross Montgomery and The Midnight Guardians

From playing with toys to writing stories

I used to spend hours playing with toys in my bedroom when I was a child. I had recurring characters featuring time and again in grand space epics that lasted for weeks. They were really my first attempts at creating stories – I wasn’t putting pen to paper, but I was understanding how stories worked, and doing it with characters I knew back to front and trusted. I really, really loved those characters. 

Then one day, right in the middle of playing with them, I just stopped and thought, “I can’t do this anymore”. I went downstairs, told my mum that I was too old for toys now, and we bagged them up and sent them to a charity shop. When I wrote The Midnight Guardians, I guess I thought: what if those imaginary characters had never forgotten me, even if I had decided to forget them? What if your beloved childhood imaginary friends came to life and returned to help you, when you needed them more than ever?

Stories about toys coming to life are always about more than a simple fantasy. Children don’t think of play as something frivolous: for them, it’s about finding a voice, understanding the world around you, processing emotion, placing experiences in the hands of fictional characters to better comprehend them. These are always stories about saying goodbye, and learning how to grow up. Here are eight that are guaranteed to make your eyes water and your heart swell.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

This classic story about a much-loved toy rabbit is now – wait for it – almost a hundred years old. The writing, much like the Velveteen Rabbit itself, is now a bit dusty and moth-eared and worse for wear – I get the impression the only people who buy it now are eager grandparents. But just as you’re wondering why people still go on and on about it, that crucial paragraph appears – “once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand” – and you might as well be chopping onions.

Read our review of The Velveteen Rabbit

Illustration from Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice SendakIllustration from Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

My favourite part of reading with children is when they notice seeds being planted early on in the story. Sendak is great at this: children will notice Max’s toys and drawings of wild things at the beginning, or perhaps even Mickey’s toy plane in In The Night Kitchen, and realise that their appearance in those magical adventures always have roots that are closer to home.

Read our review of Where the Wild Things Are

Gorilla by Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne is another great example – the appearance of gorillas throughout the story, popping up in newspapers and on cereal boxes, creates a sense that something more than meets the eye is going on. Hannah’s sadness at being given a gorilla toy instead of fatherly love she craves becomes a magic, surreal night-time journey to the zoo and the cinema, complete with and a moonlit dance on the lawn under the watchful eye of topiary chimps.

Read our review of Gorilla

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

Wed Wabbit is one of those rare books that lives up to how fantastic its outline is: 11 year old Fidge gets magically sucked into a world made up of her younger siblings' toys, which has become a dystopian Night Garden dictatorship ruled by the eponymous Wed Wabbit. I mean, the title alone is worth the Costa Award. Come for Dr Carrot, stay for the Wimbly-Woos.

Read our review of Wed Wabbit

 Illustration from Gorilla by Anthony BrowneIllustration from Gorilla by Anthony Browne

One Christmas Wish by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Katherine Rundell is the Heston Blumenthal of kid’s books: taking familiar classics that you know and love, shooting them through with a thousand volts, and serving them up in such a way that you feel like you’re reading them anew while remembering why you loved them in the first place. This short story about a boy whose festive decorations come to life one lonely Christmas Eve is a perfect example

Read our review of One Christmas Wish

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

This story of a vain and cold-hearted china rabbit surviving decades of loss and learning to love in the process is one of those books that people on my Twitter feed talk about with hushed, reverent voices: a children’s book so rich with pathos and nostalgia, so filled with the strangeness of the passage of time, that it reminds you what adults that “don’t read kid’s books” are missing.

Read our review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Illustration from Wed Wabbit by Lissa EvansIllustration from Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

Clown by Quentin Blake

I’m always amazed that Quentin Blake’s solo picture books aren’t more well-known, given what a force he is in the world of kid’s books. Zagazoo is my go-to baby shower present for new parents: this wordless story, about a discarded toy who searches for a new home in a world of busy parents and clown-chucking yobs, is full of pathos and has the perfect ending.

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Maybe I shouldn’t include this one – after all, Jackie the Backie and Jo with a Bow never really come to life, do they? Because that’s not really the point of this story, or any of the stories I’ve mentioned here. The point is beloved toys matter to a child as much as any real person: these are stories about what it means to accept that one day, all the things you love must go, no matter how much you love them. And as any grandparent who has cried over the Velveteen Rabbit will know, love makes you real.

Read our review of The Paper Dolls

The Midnight Guardians is reviewed here. Follow Ross Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.