Freeman wants readers to root for his furry hero, so he starts tugging on readers' heartstrings right off the bat:
Day after day, he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home. The store was always filled with shoppers buying all sorts of things, but no one ever seemed to want a small bear in green overalls.
Cue the Sarah McLachlan music because, with two simple sentences, Freeman sets the tone for the entire story. Corduroy's hijinks in searching for his missing button may make up more of the plot, but his goal is clear: all he wants is a home, and readers are there to cheer him on along the way.
The term children's literature casts a wide net, encompassing everything from, say, The Boxcar Children to alphabet board books, a.k.a. infant teething toys. Corduroy helps bridge that gap.
The simple story and straightforward illustrations introduce young minds to the ideas of sequence and plot. Words like escalator and department store make it a little too advanced for beginning readers, but it's perfect for grownups to read aloud at story time.
The protagonist of Corduroy is a teddy bear named...Corduroy. We're not sure how much thought went into choosing this title.
In all seriousness, "Corduroy"was Freeman's nickname for his son, Roy, who loved wearing corduroy overalls—no word on whether those overalls were missing a button.
Freeman had also previously written a short story called Corduroy, the Inferior Decorator, starring a boy who wanted to paint the walls of his house. Sadly, HGTV and Pinterest weren't around back then for publishers to appreciate this character's DIY drive, and the story never made it to print, but Freeman recycled the name for his most famous character. (Source)
Just when it seems like Corduroy's department store adventure has failed, Lisa arrives the next morning to take him home. She stitches a button on his overalls, not because she thinks he's incomplete without it, just because she wants him to be comfortable.
Corduroy tells Lisa he's always wanted a friend, and not-so-coincidentally, so has she. Big hugs all around as the credits roll.
It's a classic "and they lived happily ever after" moment, but there's a little more to it than that. Corduroy spends almost the entire book wanting to be loved, thinking that if he could only find that missing button, he would be worthy of the home he longs for.
Then Lisa shows up and loves him just the way he is, showing that 1) sometimes it's okay when our first plans don't work out and 2) you don't need to change yourself to be loved. Pretty deep for a children's book—those are good reminders whether you're four or ninety-four.
Most of the action takes place in a big department store, and we must admit we're a little jealous of Corduroy's home. We've often daydreamed of camping out in a department store—its various departments have virtually everything one could possibly need for an amazing sleepover, from clothes and beds to cooking utensils and even food courts.
(We're not the only ones to come up with this idea either. In 2016, IKEA issued a statement asking people to stop holding "non-issued sleepovers" in their stores.)
Of course, when the doors actually lock and it's just you and the weird buzzing of the cooled-down fluorescent lights, the novelty of the idea probably wears off. The department store in Corduroy is no different: big, luxurious, and lonely.
Even when the store is full of shoppers, Corduroy feels invisible because nobody notices him. The department store provides a sharp contrast to the warm and cozy feel of Lisa's apartment. Speaking of which...
Lisa's apartment only makes an appearance in the book's final pages, but it's still important because it acts as a direct foil to the corporate department store. Freeman clues readers in to this contrast with all the subtlety appropriate for a children's book—which is to say, not much:
The room was small, nothing like that enormous palace in the department store.
Lisa's apartment is different from the department store in every way. The department store is big; her room is small. The department store is stocked with every item money could buy; Lisa's room has a few pieces of furniture. Shoppers take luxurious rides on the store escalator; Lisa runs up four flights of stairs to get back to her apartment.
Freeman only spends a few pages inviting readers into Lisa's world, but he contrasts the two settings effectively enough that even the youngest readers can tell the difference. Corduroy himself instantly recognizes Lisa's apartment as home, the place he's always dreamed of finding.
Freeman—or whoever is reading the story—plays the role of the innocent observer, casually narrating the plot.
Late that evening, when all the shoppers had gone and the doors were shut and locked, Corduroy climbed carefully down from his shelf and began searching everywhere on the floor for his lost button. Suddenly he felt the floor moving under him! Quite by accident he had stepped onto an escalator—and up he went! (8-9)
You can almost hear the change in the storyteller's voice when Freeman arrives at the word suddenly, and that's intentional. As we've mentioned, Corduroy is a read-aloud book, and the dashes and exclamation points throughout the story act as visual cues for a vocal change.
There are no Proustian turns of phrase or Dickensian descriptions of the idyllic setting here, but Freeman doesn't need them. Combined with the illustrations, the text gives readers exactly enough information to follow along with the story without overwhelming them.
Since Freeman himself noted that "Corduroy's world is a plotless world," we don't want to read too much into this simple book. You won't find a five-page breakdown analyzing why Freeman chose a creepy clown and a soulless bunny as Corduroy's shelfmates, but we do see some symbolism in Corduroy's quest for his missing button.
The journey begins after Lisa's mother comments that Corduroy doesn't look new because he's missing a button on his overalls. Rather than blasting some T-Swift and shaking off the haters, Corduroy immediately starts planning a search-and-rescue. Even adults can relate to his determination to fix a perceived flaw, whether they bounce between diet plans or spend way too long choosing a Snapchat filter that hides their least favorite facial feature.
Of course, in the end Lisa accepts Corduroy exactly as he is.
On a deeper level, Corduroy's missing button symbolizes self-acceptance and shows young readers that you don't need to be perfect to be loved.
To remain consistent with the story's simplicity, Freeman keeps the illustrations extremely literal. If the page says, "Corduroy watched them sadly as they walked away," we see Corduroy sadly watching Lisa and her mom walk away. If the page says the night watchman "came dashing down the escalator," we see him doing just that.
The pictures show readers exactly what's happening at that moment in the story—nothing more, nothing less. The lack of surprise "Easter egg" elements might make Corduroy less visually interesting for the adult readers, but it's perfect for directing the focus of young listeners who are still learning what a story is in the first place.
While many children's books feature almost cartoonish pictures, Freeman and his editor, Annie Duff, made a deliberate choice to keep Corduroy's illustrations realistic. Knowing that Black characters were still rare in children's books, Duff encouraged Freeman to model Lisa after an actual child "to avoid the slightest suggestion of caricature." (Source)
(Psst: check out our Best of the Web section for more info on the real grownup Lisa, who's every bit as awesome as the character.)
Of course, social commentary aside, this is still a children's book, so Freeman uses a wide palette of bright, vibrant colors to tell the story. Cheerful hues of pink and yellow dominate the pages when the department store is open during the day, while cooler shades of blue and black settle over the store at night.
Realistic doesn't mean boring in a world where teddy bears come to life.
We've been having fun with some high-minded literary analysis, but remember that Corduroy is written for very young children. They can understand and follow along with a story, but in their minds, whoever is reading the story is the one who's telling it. The concept of perspective is still a few years beyond their grasp, so the omniscient third person narrator works well for this book.
For the most part, the narrator follows Corduroy around, describing his actions to the reader. However, there are a few instances where the narrator knows something Corduroy doesn't, like the fact that his mountain is actually an escalator or that the night watchman is making rounds in the store.
In our experience, these moments are always a big hit with toddlers, who love being "in on the secret" so much they might even forget it's almost time for B-E-D.