Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 45 seconds

Reading the Real and Virtual in Children’s Books

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 45 seconds

Two close friends each recently gifted my daughter with beautiful books. She’s almost 5 so I read them to her among our bedtime books. But I also ponder all kinds of non-child-related ideas when I read them.

So here are some thoughts. Sean Michael Morris got us a beautifully illustrated version of E. E. Cummings’ “i carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)”. You can read the full poem here. I remember when I got it before even opening I told him “that’s so you, Sean”. And if you don’t know Sean, this piece here and this here might explain why the book’s title felt to me like it was Sean speaking directly to me.

So apart from the full poem, I felt that the concept of carrying someone’s heart with us resonated with virtual friendships like mine with so many people. Sure i don’t see them or touch them in a physical sense, but when we are deep into each other’s minds and hearts, we carry them with us not only on our smartphones (haha) but also in our hearts. I have said before that there are many people who see me daily or weekly who don’t know my mind or my heart in the way some of my virtual friends do. Partly because our relationships aren’t distracted by logistics and details of a physical existence and responsibilities. It’s like when we meet we leave those behind (not really, everyone has seen my child on a hangout by now).

The concept of carrying someone’s heart in our heart also seems to me to apply to loss of loved ones. In a private convo I was recently retelling the story of a novel called Goodbye For Now. The idea of the novel (sci fi but not in the way you expect) is that people would lose someone they love, and yet this computer program would allow them to fake-converse w them via email and Skypes based on data collected from past convos they had had digitally. I remember reading this book and thinking of my late father (and also one late friend, Leslie) and how I didn’t really need that software. I pretty much knew what they would say if i needed advice. I could talk to them heart to heart because i carried them in my heart. You lose someone and you tend to remember, somehow more clearly, things they had said to you. In my final stretch towards finishing my PhD, I remembered how my dad used to remind me that doing a PhD was never easy. I carry him with me. My daughter pats me on the back in the exact same way my dad used to Pat my back. Seriously. Both of them knowing times when I need that touch without my ever saying it.
As I raise my child I remember all kinds of random parenting advice my friend Leslie used to give me. I was more open to it because she rarely gave me tips on things i was currently doing “wrong”. She just told me stories and random things that to this day I conjure up in times of need. I carry her with me.

Onto the next book – The Velveteen Rabbit (which you can read here) from my good friend Autumm (also a v good friend of my child who wants to go to America to see Autumm now that she suddenly realized she hasn’t met her in person!). The book has the most beautiful pictures of a young boy cuddling with his rabbit.

Autumm had blogged about the parts in the book that distinguish between being real or not real – in the book, the rabbit becomes real as the boy loves him and takes him everywhere. Realness comes with pain (you know how ragged fave stuffed toys become) but in the book this pain is welcomed because becoming real is being loved and stuff. And so far, I was totally getting that. Until the ending. Because the ending of the book sees some sort of fairy saving the rabbit from being burned away (the kid has some kind of illness) and instead converts him into a “real” rabbit with legs to jump and stuff (beforehand “real” rabbits made fun of his lack of legs and inability to jump). So ummm and then he is gonna live forever as real.

No.

Real things DON’T live forever. I am pretty sure the (average) lifespan of a toy rabbit is longer than that of a real rabbit. Am I right? I checked. 8-12 years so they might actually be even 😉 but in Egypt ppl eat rabbits so i bet their lifespan is different.

Anyway.

What bothered me about the story is that it privileges realness in this way that… I don’t know… Annoyed me? It privileges it and makes realness into this utopia that makes it like a goal worth losing everything for. That it is ok to lose parts of urself and for your body to be damaged for you to become real (that’s actually called aging, but let’s not get into that). What bothered me is the ending where the rabbit becomes another level of real and in doing so, doesn’t really need the love of the boy anymore. Why? It’s nice that the boy sees him later and he reminds him of his Velveteen Rabbit…so it’s not a total disconnect. But still…

It made me think of how our virtual relationships are held in contrast to our “real” ones in ways that privilege real beyond what it deserves sometimes. When Autumm feels pain, I feel it right with her. When I go through problems, she’s right here with me. And the virtual and real are equally painful. It’s not that the virtual can’t hurt – though I get how it has limits in how it could hurt. I have been hurt by virtual peers but they can’t fire me, or kidnap my child (i hope!). There is also a question I had of how meeting someone in person might shift our online relationship. For ppl i already knew well it actually hasn’t changed anything much (e.g. Rebecca, Jesse, Bonnie). For some ppl whom I knew less well, it did strengthen our relationship – but strengthened it in ways that can only be sustained virtually.

Today was an alumni reunion for my alma mater AUC. I don’t miss it too much coz i work there (albeit in a new suburban gated campus) and many of the people who went to the reunion are actually people I see regularly at work…but the way this reunion came about and became so strong was because of a Facebook group they started leading up to it. It seems to havw been wildly successful because the group was going nuts with posts before we even realized it was related to an event, and ppl not in Cairo ended up making their own events. It’s an instance of how the virtual supports the f2f and sustains it.

I know the velveteen rabbit wasn’t talking virtual vs real. You can blame Autumm’s earlier blogpost which i had actually forgotten but apparently internalized (to the point where i thought my idea was new, really). But my other problem with realness is that real live things die. Much more frequently and quickly than inanimate things. Statues and pyramids and buildings and streets and bridges outlive us all. They have no heart but they live. My child never met either of her grandfathers..but the toys and books they got her parents live on for her to play with today. So if I were a stuffed rabbit, I would have a much better chance of being loved again if I stayed stuffed than if I became “real”. Because the “real” that matters is the realness that comes with love, not the realness that comes with physical attributes.

Note: this post probably isn’t logical and won’t make sense to anyone. But i had to get it out of my system. Thanks for bearing with me.

One thought on “Reading the Real and Virtual in Children’s Books

  1. teresamac says:

    Makes sense to me! Thanks Maha 🙂

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