by James Somers, July 18, 2011

Adults seem to have this idea that kids rifle through toys because of some problem that kids have, like short attention spans, when really it’s a problem that toys have. Not that they’re poorly made—some of these things are remarkably durable. It’s that a toy never quite measures up to what it was promised to be. It’s never quite as capable as it was in the commercials, never as sparkling or vibrant as its counterpart in the Original Motion Picture.

You have to keep in mind that kids are raised on cartoons. I certainly was. For several hours each day I did nothing except sit still and focus my full awareness on bright, lively characters, few of them human, as they wandered around imaginationscapes doing things that could never happen in the real world. My favorite was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” a show about reptiles who stumble into a pool of radioactive ooze in the sewers of New York, develop humanoid bodies and brains, and save the world time and again from a talking brain who lives in the stomach of a stupid robot in a massive metallic weaponized sphere that was built in a place called Dimension X.

I suspended disbelief. In fact I always did—suspending disbelief was what I was best at then. For me, like for most kids, there was no sense in letting truth get in the way of a good time: I just wanted to hear about, or read about, or see or imagine worlds where interesting stuff happened, and whatever rules were conjured up to drive the action I’d happily swallow whole. Wishful thinking was my default mode. The bulk of my mental life was fantasy.

One example actually sticks out kind of vividly. I was six. I was hiding in the bow of a ship made out of tires—it was the centerpiece of our school’s new playground, the first sight of which was quite possibly the most ecstatic moment of my life. Anyway, I was hiding there and I suddenly got the idea, quite out of nowhere, that I was wearing these unusual boots, boots that not only made me faster but somehow more powerful, too. I thought to myself—and I really remember thinking this—that with these boots I would conquer the world. I felt the way Simba must have felt when his father told him that he would someday rule over “everything the light touches.”

When I rounded up my friends to show them the way to glory, naturally they played along. Not for a minute did they question my boots—instead, they riffed on the idea. The narrative snowballed.  Soon enough we had new characters, new equipment and abilities, territories, a rapidly evolving status ladder, and all sorts of layered missions. It was all felt to be of the highest importance—we were playing, maybe, but we were very much in it, we had very much forgotten that we were all tiny and powerless and just starting grade school and that it was recess on a cold day and our fortress was made out of discarded rubber.

That was a constant theme: that underneath the apparatus of everyday life was some secret power; that the schoolyard and our parents and day camps and all the little business of little-kid life was a front to a more magical world, a world on the cusp of destruction or in need of a hero or otherwise burdened with something dramatically important; and that we would be the center of it all.

It’s hard to say where that kind of thinking comes from. Is it natural? Are the authors and screenwriters who produce so many variations on that theme just tapping into inborn archetypes? Or does the causal arrow run the other way: do kids weave these stories because of what’s “in the air”?

Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that we were absolutely immersed in the stuff. I for one grew up believing deeply in magic; magic was everywhere around me. It showed up in ghost stories and in fairy tales, at church and in the classroom. It showed up every time an adult tried to explain some phenomenon—what makes trees grow? what makes sloths slow?—but ended up explaining it away.

Santa Claus was a big one: I was made to believe, and I enjoyed believing, that my father was good friends with a man who lived at the North Pole and oversaw an impossible factory and knew whether I was swearing too much or “instigating” my brother. Every Christmas morning I marveled that he took a few bites out of the cookies we left the night before.

The list goes on: Dr. Seuss and Disney movies, science fiction, Pixar, Easter, Looney Tunes, Power Rangers, Harry Potter. Just about every piece of myth or media an American child consumes is shot through with magic in one form or another.

The trouble is, a ten-year old doesn’t just get swept away to these imagined worlds and then saunter back into his regular life. He can’t just cleanly bracket the fantasy. A ten year-old who reads about Hogwarts wants to go there, badly, and believes somewhere in the happy shadows of his mind that he one day will. That wonderful prospect might brew in his unconscious for years.

This is where toys come in. Toys promise to reify that fiction. They promise a tangible version of what you saw in your mind’s eye. To touch and even taste the “real” Harry Potter universe, you’re told, all it takes is a trip to Toys ‘R Us or for some officially licensed merchandise.

Imagine what a letdown it is to find that a $15 snitch can’t fly wildly of its own accord, that store-bought “sorting hats” can’t tell you who you truly are, that no combination of light and sound effects can make magic of a plastic wand. It’s like a pinch from a pleasant dream. You’re made to feel the distinctly childish sadness that comes from wishing what isn’t is, and being told it might be, and finding out that it wasn’t, can’t, and won’t.

It’s a disillusionment articulated especially well in Bill Watterson’s beloved comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. The strip centers on the relationship between Calvin, a six year-old boy, and Hobbes, his supposed pet tiger. The two make a wonderful duo: Calvin is capricious, bold, creative, mischievous; Hobbes is witty, playful, sharp. Together they set out on extravagant adventures. But all of that fades when Calvin’s parents are in the frame. The spell is lifted; Hobbes transforms. He goes from being what Calvin needs him to be—something fantastical, a sassy wise rambunctious friend—into what he must be, what he actually is, which is just a goddamn stuffed animal.

That’s roughly what I have in mind when I say that toys are the emblem, the engine, of a special kind of disappointment, one that operates most keenly in the American childhood but lingers well longer—and manages still to sting.