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An illustration of a girl holding a doll by Kate Greenaway
Kate Greenaway
from The Queen of the Pirate Isle (1885)

The Toy Genre

“Toy book” versus “toy genre”

  • The toy genre should be distinguished from “toy books.”
  • The term “toy book” is used in two senses:
    • Modern toy books have toy-like features (such as moving parts, pop-ups, flaps, and levers) that encourage young children to play with books.
    • Historians also the term to identify slender but large (9 by 11 inches) and colourful picturebooks produced in the latter 19th century, books made possible by advances in printing techniques. 
  • The genre of toy books, however, is not concerned with the book’s physical appearance, but rather its subject matter.

Features of the toy genre

  • Toys or dolls are central to the story. The toys can be protagonists or belong to the protagonist.
  • Excluded from this genre are books in which toys are not central to the story (for example Laura’s rag doll Charlotte in Little House in the Big Woods or Sara’s doll Emily in A Little Princess).
  • Toys either function as live beings, transform to human, or are thought of as real by the children who own them.
  • Stories in which toys becomes real are variations on the Greek myth of Pygmalion (in which Aphrodite answers a sculptor’s prayers to make his statue real).
  • The most famous children’s stories about toys becoming real are Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, and The Magic City.
  • In some toy stories, no humans are present at all.
  • Sometimes toys come alive at night when no one sees them.

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Why is the toy genre popular with children?

  • Toys are important to children because they provide a creative outlet for their anxieties and wishes.
  • Subconscious, unverbalized feelings may bewilder children. Playing with toys can be therapeutic. As Bruno Bettleheim has pointed out,

In normal play, objects such as dolls and toy animals are used to embody various aspects of the child’s personality which are too complex, unacceptable, and contradictory for him to handle.1

  • Sometimes toys represent the powerless situation of children. Like toys who are controlled by their owners, children are at the mercy of adults who mange and direct their lives.


1. Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 55.


Resources on toy stories

Gonzoles, Eugenia. “‘I Sometimes Think She Is a Spy on All My Actions’: Dolls, Girls, and Disciplinary Surveillance in the Nineteenth-Century Doll Tale.” Children’s Literature 39 (2011): 33-57.


Higonnet, Margaret R. “War Toys: Breaking and Remaking in Great War Narratives.” The Lion and the Unicorn 31, no. 2 (2007): 116-31.


Honeyman, Susan. “Manufactured Agency and the Playthings Who Dream It for Us.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 31, no. 2 (2006): 109-31.


Kuznets, Lois R. “Taking Over the Doll House: Domestic Desire and Nostalgia in Toy Narratives.” In Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture, edited by Beverly Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet, 142-53. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.


———. When Toys Come Alive: Narratives of Animation, Metamorphosis and Development. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.


Mazzoni, Cristina. “Treasure to Trash, Trash to Treasure: Dolls and Waste in Italian Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37, no. 3 (2012): 250-65.

Norton, Donna E. and Saundra E. Norton. “Toys.” In Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2011, 280-81.


Russell, David. “Talking Animal (and Toy Fantasy).” In Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. Boston: Pearson, 2012, 207-208.