What a wonderful night this was! He was walking on his own. He had an elegant new suit. And now he had wings. He could fly anywhere, do anything. Why had he never realized it before? His heart soared inside of him. (p. 163)
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)
Suggested age range: 7 and up
(Candlewick Press, 224 pages)
A toy fantasy novel for children, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006) by Kate DiCamillo, features a spiritual landscape through which readers can navigate a rich and rewarding journey. The voyage of a selfish china rabbit, Edward, begins when he is separated from his owner, Abilene Tulane, and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Only after he is lost and alone does he learn what it means to love and to be loved and known by those to whom he is connected during his travels. As he bonds with one owner, is then separated, and forced to find another, he discovers how a heart can break and yet heal again. Edward nearly gives up hope that he will be discovered and loved again after he experiences loss three times. In the conclusion of the story, Edward waits in a toyshop for what seems to be many years, hoping for love and meaningful connection once again. In case you have not read the novel, I will refrain from telling all.
The dilemma that Edward faces is a universal one and readers of all ages would benefit from reading DiCamillo’s text in that the narrative highlights the necessity of maintaining hope and keeping one’s heart open to experiences—both good and bad. Though the story has its dark turns, the overall message is that one should never give up hope, and though we can be wounded in relationships, faith in future connections is vital. Readers may recognize the dilemma with which Edward is faced; it is painful to open one’s heart and then face loss, but if true connection is to be discovered, one must take the risk of vulnerability once again. As Hunt states in her discussion of spiritual stories, surely this is a theme to which readers would respond, “ ‘This is true.’ ‘This is real’” (1969, p. 51). Additionally, as Wangerin suggests, this is an “ultimate meaning” about life that readers can connect to, through their reading and discussing of DiCamillo’s text (qtd. In Ratcliff with May, 2004, p. 12).
I (Catherine) conducted a study for my dissertation in which I listened to ten and eleven year old children share their ideas about this story with me. Our discussion revealed that young readers talk about their spiritual experience of this novel. Several of the children tapped into the significance of Edward keeping his heart open to further relationships though he had been wounded and saddened by sudden separation. Though as adults we sometimes assume that children may not grasp deeper meanings or themes in texts, the children I spoke with revealed a very sophisticated and sensitive reading of the text’s spiritual landscape. For example, at one point in the story, near the end, Edward dreams (or has a near-death experience) with all the people he has met throughout the novel. He sees in the sky the “Sarah Ruth Constellation,” a swirl of stars he is told represents one girl who died that he loved, Sarah Ruth. Realizing he has wings attached to his back, Edward struggles to fly up to Sarah Ruth. However, those surrounding him pull him back and he wakes up. Though DiCamillo includes no interpretation of this dream in the book, one of my child participants, “Roland,” said this about the significance of the dream: “I think it means that he shouldn’t give up ever in trying to find—in finding people who love him. I think it means he should just keep going and they’re all trying to say that.” Roland continued to talk about the dream, and made comments reflecting an understanding of potential spiritual themes at work in the book.
DiCamillo’s text highlights the significance of relationships with others, one of the four major connections out of which spiritual awareness can flow. Edward’s dream of all those he has met during his journey highlights the power of relationships with other people. In this dream, Edward is able to walk and almost fly and this points to the transcendent dimension of deep connections with people. When he is sitting on the shelf in the toyshop, he articulates his indifference to anyone coming to buy him, due to the pain he has experienced through his separation from those he has loved. The doll next to him replies,
“But that’s dreadful,” said the old doll. “There’s no point in going on if you feel that way. No point at all. You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.” “I am done with being loved,” Edward told her. “I’m done with loving. It’s too painful.” “Pish,” said the old doll. “Where is your courage?” (p. 188-189)
The old doll’s words embody spiritual wisdom, as she recognizes it takes bravery to love again after enduring loss, but she is aware that life loses value without fulfilling and close relationships through which one’s heart can love and receive love. If spirituality is understood as an extending of the self, this is definitely a moment in which Edward’s spirituality can grow, as a future of loving connections hinges on his reaching his heart out yet again. As Hunt says, a book with spiritual value can represent “experiences that make us grow…” (1969, p. 51). This moment in the novel represents a potential area of discussion with young readers about Edward’s predicament and his emotional and spiritual state.
This novel of DiCamillo’s is perfect for both children and adults. It is perfect for adults to read and to talk about with others, or not. It is perfect for children to read and talk about with other children or with adults, or not. All around, this is an excellent read with the potential to engage and nurture the spirit of the reader who is so lucky to encounter it.
Hunt, G. (1969). Honey for a child’s heart: the imaginative use of books in family life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Ratcliff, D. & May, S. (2004). Identifying Children’s Spirituality, Walter Wangerin’s Perspectives, and an Overview of the Book. In D. Ratcliff (Ed.), Children’s Spirituality: Perspectives, Research, and Applications (pp. 7-21).