Me and My Teddy Bear: A Guest Piece by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
Can you remember yours – that toy who was your very best pal when you were a toddler? I’m betting you can. Was it a teddy, a doll, or did you favour a blankie? Do you still have them?
I have crystal clear memories of sitting on the floor, in the dumps about something or other, clutching my favourite toy while furiously sucking my thumb. Equally clear are images of multiple toys lined up under the blankets at bedtime, of climbing in beside them and not having much space left for myself. During the night the second-tier toys would get kicked out, but there were two who slept held in my arms. These two were with me day in, night out, from babyhood to double digits.
My teddy bear was small and white, and his name was Little Ted. Little Ted was the sidekick; the boss toy – my Woody – was a rabbit. His name was Bunny. That’s bunny with a capital B, thank-you very much. Bunny was handknitted in pink and blue wool, lovingly created by my mother from a Woman’s Weekly pattern. He was my best friend, my confidant, my handkerchief. We were inseparable. He was so well-loved he occasionally needed to be darned, like the worn heels of a sock.
As children, we invest so much love in these special toys. They are with us through all our adventures, real and imaginary, they catch our tears, soothe us to sleep, they comfort our dreams. We try out emotions on them, play at being the grown-up, mimic our parents, tell off our ‘child’, boss them, punish them, comfort them, love them. They are as real to us – as alive and individual – as anyone around us. At four-years-old I was convinced that the song on the radio went, ‘My Bunny(sic) lies over the ocean, my Bunny lies over the sea, my Bunny lies over the ocean, oh, bring back my Bunny to me’. I would sing it with tears in my eyes and rising anxiety, because losing Bunny was the biggest fear that my toddler brain could conjure. When I came across the original pattern for Bunny in my mam’s knitting folder, I was amazed to see a black and white photo of Bunny in a magazine. Bunny was famous! My child’s mind couldn’t negotiate the idea that the bunny in the photograph was not my Bunny, much less that Bunny was, in fact, a copy of this bunny. There could only be one Bunny, and he belonged to me.
In my picture books I often draw child characters with their special toys dangling from their arms, in some books I give the toys starring roles. When I began working on DON’T!, my latest book, I decided my main character would need a tiny army of toys to help her through the upheaval caused by the arrival of a new baby. Geraldine has a snippy-snappy crocodile, a jumpy kangaroo and three squishy elephants.
At first Geraldine’s toys are completely on-side, helping her show Mum and Dad how well she can do the things the pesky new baby is being praised for, but when Geraldine is overwhelmed, she takes out her frustration on her pals and she makes her toys cry. That’s when the toys help Geraldine make a big connection in her imagination, one which she uses to navigate this big change in her world.
Imaginative play and the books we are read in early childhood are two huge learning tools, helping us figure out our relationships with other people and our place in the world. The toys and stories which are part of our earliest years hold a very special space in our memories because they are our first building blocks towards self-knowledge and empathy. So right now, I’m feeling a bit guilty. I packed Little Ted and Bunny away in a box a few years ago and stored them in my sister’s attic. What was I thinking of??? Time to fetch the stepladder and stage a rescue!
DON’T! by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, is published by Otter-Barry Books, August 4th 2022.