A china rabbit grows a real heart

Edward Tulane was the handsomest toy ever seen. But learning to love didn't come easily to him.

True confessions. On a forlorn little shelf in a dark closet, deep in the recesses of my parents' basement, sits a family of dolls. My dolls. Because, well, even these many years later, I can't quite bear to give them up.

Unlike the character at the center of Kate DiCamillo's newest offering – The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane – my beloveds aren't handcrafted or made of china or in possession of an extraordinary wardrobe. But just like Edward (who happens to be a rabbit, not a doll) they were, for years, the center of my universe. Magical. Loyal. And infinitely lovable.

The Edward we meet first, however, isn't exactly the kind of toy readers can imagine loving. "In all," writes DiCamillo, "Edward Tulane felt himself to be an exceptional specimen."

It's this droll narrator's voice that delineates – in great detail – the shortcomings of Edward's character. He's vain. Self-centered. And despite the devotion of his mistress, Abilene, he's never given much thought to returning her affections.

But this isn't a story about a girl who loved a china rabbit. It's a story about a china rabbit who learned to love a little girl – and not just a little girl, but a sailor and his wife, a hobo and his dog, a sickly child, a homeless boy. Royalty and riff-raff alike – but especially the riff-raff.

There's much about the story DiCamillo has chosen to write that could border on the saccharin. Loss and longing are two prominent themes, as is love itself, which Edward comes to appreciate, even feel, as his travels introduce him to a cast of lovely characters.

But DiCamillo keeps a tight hand on the reins: The focus stays on Edward's gradual awakening, which is not only adroitly rendered, but palatably sweet.

At first, Edward selfishly resists his transformation, but as his world opens up, his heart inevitably does, too. Later, he resists loving for different reasons: It's too painful. He's lost too much. But DiCamillo comes to the rescue with wise words from a fellow lost-toy soul – and a somewhat anticipated, but still perfect, happy ending.

Everything about this book is beautiful: text, art, and the melding of text and art. Bagram Ibatoulline's sepia-toned drawings and full-color plates lend extra poignancy.

These illustrations, in fact, are a story within a story: the Edward of Ibatoulline's hand is utterly alive, and there's a nuance to his expressions that conveys what he's feeling throughout his journey.

As I read "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," I couldn't help but think this was a kind of "Velveteen Rabbit" meets "The Odyssey," full of affection, transformation, and inexorable movement toward homecoming.

And though readers may never experience the kind of radical change of character that Edward does, there's still something at the heart of his journey to which everyone can relate. It is this: that really loving feels like coming home.

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