If you’re an educator or parent who makes a habit of reading aloud to young children and you have not read Emily Jenkins’ two volumes of stories about one girl’s bedroom toys, then run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore or library to find them.
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In Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, published by Schwartz & Wade in 2006, we first met Lumphy, a stuffed buffalo; Stingray, a plush blue stingray; and Plastic, who isn’t quite sure who or what she is but endeavors to find out. They are the beloved toys of the girl who “lives on a high bed with fluffy pillows.” This was followed in 2008 by Toy Dance Party: Being the Further Adventures of a Bossyboots Stingray, a Courageous Buffalo, and a Hopeful Round Someone Called Plastic.
In these skillfully crafted tales exist characters whose concerns effectively and entertainingly reflect those of a child audience—self-identity and insecurity, fear of the unknown, and love and friendship. The stories, illustrated with drama and detail by Paul O. Zelinsky, are also infused with a tone that is droll, without being insufferably whimsical about it.
It was with excitement that I greeted Jenkins’ third set of stories with these characters, Toys Come Home: Being the Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-New Someone Called Plastic, released by Schwartz & Wade just last week. In this volume of six stories, we find out how a much younger version of the girl ended up with the toys in the first place. We also meet Bobby Dot, a cantankerous stuffed walrus; find out why Sheep only has one ear; experience the trauma of a plush toy meeting its untimely demise; and learn why puking on one’s friends is actually a sign of deep affection.
The toys also ask some Big Questions: Are we robots? Will the scary towel gang hurt us? Why do people like gadgets? What is a croissant? Why is the sky blue and why is blue the best color? Will the small, furry, four-footed, pouncing creature the girl named Pumpkinfacehead hurt them? Why are more marbles in Hungry Hungry Hippos the best? And what exactly is bowling? “Bowling is when everybody drinks ginger ale from bowls instead of cups,” Stingray tells Lumphy. “And wears bowls their heads, kind of like hats, and has their hair cut in the shapes of the bowls!”
Stingray may not like to be caught off guard with a question for which she’s not prepared, but even she is stumped by Plastic’s question: Why are we here? And it’s Stingray’s epiphany over this question that closes the book with much tenderness and warmth.
My only confusion with this new set of stories was over my favorite character, Plastic. Previous volumes and its illustrations led me to believe she was a rather medium-sized plastic ball, the size of a beach ball. But in this one [spoiler alert!], we learn that she came to the girl in a goody bag from her own birthday party. This means she is surely one of those tiny bouncy balls. But then in the book’s final illustration, she is once again depicted next to Stingray and Lumphy as medium-sized. This disconnect momentarily distracted me and the children to whom I read the stories. Frrrrrr, Frrrrrr, as Plastic might say when he worries. Ah well. Perhaps Stingray and Lumphy are merely very tiny plush toys, and I didn’t know all along.
All in all, these stories are a welcome addition to what I consider the best talking-toy stories since Winnie-the-Pooh. I get the feeling this may be the last we hear from the trio, but at least we have this new set of refreshingly offbeat and unforgettable stories to enjoy and share.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.