When I was a kid my favorite thing about visiting my dad at work was his Pet Rock. It lived on his desk, a gag gift from a friend, in the original packaging: a box with holes in it, a bed of straw and the whole bit. I still can’t look at a photo of the font on that box and not be transported back to the late-1970’s for a poignant moment or two.
My dad’s enthusiasm for his office pet was all about the entrepreneurial chutzpah and marketing savvy of the fad, but mine was the pure buy-in of a child who believed in the secret lives of inanimate objects. My stuffed animals all had names and personalities, and every year at Christmas-time, high season for kids imagining objects coming to life, my sister and I played for hours with certain ornaments we believed to be sentient beings living in the boughs of our tree, who used lightbulbs for campfires (this was back in the day when Christmas tree lightbulbs got hot) on a quest to climb to the star on top. Toy Story was two decades in the future, but I was pretty sure everything I owned came to life in my room when I left or fell asleep.
I must not have been alone, since such stories are a staple of children’s literature. A child's love giving life to a favorite toy is an especially powerful trope, with Italian author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, first published in 1883 and popularized in the U.S. with Disney’s 1940 animated feature (and again this year with Guillermo Del Toro's darker take) being perhaps the best-known example, along with The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams (1922).
In recent years picture book authors and illustrators have conjured the magic to be found in tales of kids whose attachment to objects transcends the rational. Here are some of my favorites:
The title says it all in this modern-day classic, just your everyday tale of a girl and her pet squash. To be sure, Sophie’s squash is no Lassie. It wouldn’t be able to alert people if Sophie fell in a well, but she doesn’t care. In fact, she doesn’t care about any of the other things it can’t do, because she loves it for what it is. Parents find the adventures of Sophie and her squash as amusing as kids, since few books capture the goofy enthusiasms of young kids as well as these.
The Pet Potato, by Josh Lacey, illustrated by Momoko Abe
Another in the budding vegetables-as-pets genre (pun intended), this story features a protagonist who makes the best of a weird situation, when his dad gives him a potato instead of the dog or cat he has been asking for. He leans into the idea, only to find his pet potato confiscated by his mom, who tells him it has become so gross “I don’t want that thing in my house.” No parenting awards given here, but (spoiler alert) vegetable pets, like this potato and Sophie’s squash, have hidden talents, top among them being their ability to replace themselves after they are dead and buried, when their children sprout up next spring.
Cecil the Pet Glacier, by Matthea Harvey, illustrated by Giselle Potter
Somehow this story about a girl and her pet glacier will melt your heart (oops, I did it again). Another tale in which parents make the odd choice of pet, this one features a recently calved glacier named Cecil who follows around a girl on a family trip to Norway. She wants nothing less than to take it home, but her parents insist, and only after Cecil shows the unconditional love one never expects from a large chunk of frozen water does his new owner come around.
Rick the Rock of Room 214, by Julie Falatko, illustrated by Ruth Chen
All these years after my dad’s Pet Rock, someone has finally written a story from the rock’s point of view. Rick lives on the "nature finds" shelf of a raucous grade school classroom, but yearns for the excitement of rocky adventures like being blasted out of a volcano or falling from a craggy peak. When he gets a chance he hitches a ride outside in a student’s backpack, only to find the wild rocks he meets are unfriendly and quite boring. After a lonely night in a rainstorm he is happy to be reunited with his friends back in the classroom. Turns out maybe dad's Pet Rock loved us as much as we loved it.
Owen, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes
Kevin Henkes received a Caldecott Honor for this story of Owen the mouse and his favorite blanket, Fuzzy, who he “loves with all his heart.” When his parents and a nosy neighbor try to separate him from Fuzzy, Owen won’t budge, until his first day of school approaches, and Owen’s mom dreams up the solution of transforming Fuzzy into numerous handkerchiefs Owen can take with him anywhere he goes. A classic tale of growth, compromise, and hankies.
-Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.
Photo credit: Public domain postcard image of "The Old Man in the Mountains," Franconia Notch, White Mountains, New Hampshire, from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers Collection.