Over the years, many people have asked me this question, I wish I knew the answer! My father came up with the idea of Corduroy the bear after I had already left home. He had earlier worked on a book about a boy named Corduroy who painted on the walls of his apartment, subtitled "The Inferior Decorator" that I am still hoping to publish one day!
What I do know was that in February 1967, Don was in New York, working on illustrations and several children's books, typically everything at the same time: "Something in the Wind," "The Most Wonderful Windows," and a story about a bear in a department store at night. The first two were never published, the third became Corduroy.
In a letter from March 1967 Don (in New York) wrote to my mother, Lydia, (in California) that he was working on a children’s book idea, "... I think you'll also love it. Frankly, I think it has more depth and feeling and simplicity than anything I've yet done. It takes place in a department store and also in the home of a little Afro-American girl. I thought of calling it 'A Button for Corduroy,' still haven’t decided. I’ll finish the book here.”
Many years later, when he was working on the sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy, he wrote to Linda Zukerman, his editor at that time, "Just possibly you would like to hear something of the background to Corduroy as I first came upon it. Of course I can't remember exactly how it started happening, 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 the story to show the vast difference between the luxury of a department store as against the simple quality of life as lived by so many. The idea of simple basic values was another theme that was rumbling around in the back of my head. I then wondered who the logical protagonist could be. I won't bore you with all the characters I thought of using. I don't remember how or when a toy bear lit on me, or came into my life, but he must have come from way out of my past, you know, I could just see a bear wearing green corduroy overalls with one button missing. ... The minute I settled on Corduroy and Lisa, everything came together." (Letter from Don to Linda Zukerman, dated April 25, 1977.)
I suspect deeper, personal, reasons why Don wrote Corduroy – but I can only surmise about this. I think all creative people in one way or other write about themselves – parts of themselves – and when it is genuine and authentic, this writing is a self-healing process. My father was practically orphaned out to a strict guardian as a child and never understood really why. (I later learned that his mother was terminally ill but no one in his family told him this, and his father had to work to support paying for the guardian.) Don might have wondered why did his parents send him to a strict guardian, what had he done wrong to deserve this? (My father never spoke to me about his youth. In his last years of his life, he was working on an autobiographical novel of a summer when he was living with his guardian in Chula Vista/San Diego. This work, "Jigsaw Summer", is now being prepared for publication.) The previous lines are gleaned from what Don wrote in the several distinctly different versions of Jigsaw Summer – he was certainly grappling with these themes.
Maybe as a child he had asked himself if he had done something bad or was he missing something... like Corduroy and his missing button? He was certainly, like all of us, looking for real friendship. Corduroy found this with Lisa who accepted him, imperfections and all, just as he was. To me, the lesson here is: if you can accept yourself, that opens the door to accepting a real friendship with someone else. But that first step is not always so easy.
These are my thoughts, perhaps more about me than my father. Maybe you can find your own answer reading Corduroy and thinking about it yourself!
I hope that helps the curious to find ways to an answer!
Roy (Lucerne, Switzerland, March 2019)