Today we are celebrating a double birthday here at alphabet soup!
You may already know that Corduroy, the bear in search of a button and a friend, is 40 years old this year. But did you know that Corduroy’s creator, Don Freeman, was born exactly one hundred years ago today? That’s right: August 11, 1908.
Corduroy is certainly one of the most beloved bears in children’s literature, along with Paddington and Pooh. Even though there are only two picture books about him, he has managed to stand out among the plethora of other bear books published through the years.
His enduring charm for young readers exemplifies what Don Freeman defined as the essence of a good children’s story: simplicity without simple mindedness. This is a story about belonging, being loved for who you are, and friendship. What could be more important than that? And it’s told without a hint of didacticism, condescension, or sentimentality.
“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.”
This past spring, Viking released a special 40th Anniversary Edition of this classic with extra-large trim size, embossed cover, and 8 pages of never-before-seen bonus material. It’s a beauty of a book, and a must-have for any diehard Corduroy fan.
Since Corduroywas first published when I was in high school (1968), I didn’t meet him until I began writing children’s stories and collecting bears in the 80’s. And I didn’t know much about Don Freeman until this year. What a fascinating life!
Originally from San Diego, Freeman moved to NYC in 1928 to study art at the Students Art League with John Sloan. He was fascinated by the theatre, and filled many sketchbooks with what he observed backstage on Broadway and all over the city. He supported himself by playing cornet in jazz and dance bands.
One night, while riding on the subway, he became so preoccupied with his sketching that he forgot his cornet on the train. After that, he decided to focus solely on his art. He was supposedly a gregarious sort, with lots of friends, including Louis Armstrong and William Saroyan.
He came to children’s books quite casually, co-authoring stories with his wife, Lydia. One of these early books was called Corduroy the Inferior Decorator (as yet, still unpublished), featuring a boy who drove his parents crazy by painting on the walls of their apartment. The name, “Corduroy,” was Don’s pet name for his son, Roy, who always wore corduroy overalls.
Years after Corduroy was published, Don wrote Linda Zuckerman, his editor when the book was released, explaining how he got the idea:
Of course I can’t remember exactly how it started, but I do recall wanting to do a story about a department store in which a character wanders around at night after the doors close. Then I also wanted to show the vast difference between the luxury of a department store and the simple life most people live. The idea of simple basic values was another theme that was running around in the back of my head . . .
Viking first rejected Corduroy, so Freeman submitted it to other publishers. They rejected it as well, but he believed in the story so strongly that he decided to resubmit it to Viking, who finally decided to take a chance on it.
The 40th Anniversary Edition contains correspondence between Freeman and his acquiring editor, Annis Duff, an early draft of the manuscript with Duff’s editorial notes, newspaper clippings on Freeman’s death, and several sketches alongside final illos. Great stuff for those who love process, history, and anecdotes.
I could not find any evidence of whether Freeman modeled Corduroy after a real teddy bear. But I do know that Freeman’s rendering manages to touch that hopeful, accepting, innocent child’s heart in all of us. Such a small bear in a huge department store! Nobody wanted him because he wasn’t perfect. How good we feel when Lisa finally takes him home.
Sadly, Freeman died of a heart attack just before the sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy, was published in 1978. I wonder if he had any idea how many millions of children would continue to take his loveable bear home after that.
“You must be a friend,” said Corduroy. “I’ve always wanted a friend.”
“Me too!” said Lisa, and gave him a big hug.”
Happy Birthday, Don and Corduroy!!
Don Freeman’s Official Website is here.
For a reading of the story, click here.
**All interior spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2008, The Viking Press, All rights reserved.
Photo of Don Freeman used in accordance with Creative Commons 3.0 Unported License.