Saturday, August 14, 2010

In the Dollhouse: Doll Books Old and New

When you think of doll books, you probably think of Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin's The Doll People and sequels. Or perhaps you go back in time to the 1930 Newbery medalist, Rachel Field's classic Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. Or to the 1947 winner, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's Miss Hickory. Then there's a famous picture book, William's Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by William Pene Du Bois.

But before we talk about a couple of recent doll books, I really think we should consider the grandmaster (high maven?) of doll books, and that would be Rumer Godden. (Yes, Demi Moore named a daughter after her.)

To some, Rumer Godden is best known as the author of Black Narcissus, a novel that became a 1947 film starring Deborah Kerr. But to those of us in the world of children's literature, British writer Godden is famous for her doll stories.

In Godden's novel-length book, The Doll's House, Martin and Godwin's "Meanest Doll in the World" gets some serious competition from an arrogant doll named Marchpane, who disrupts life in a cheery little doll family. As some Amazon reviewers have pointed out rather uneasily, there's a doll death in the book as a result of Marchpane's machinations. There's sacrifice, too, along with heroism and a nice little plot twist involving the queen of England's taste in dolls. The book is well written, but has enough malice and tragedy in it that it might trouble the very youngest doll fanciers.

My favorite doll titles from Godden are Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and a nice collection of four of her shorter doll stories called Four Dolls. Ms. Godden was raised on a tea plantation in India as the child of a British colonialist, but she makes a real effort to introduce young readers to other cultures respectfully. For the most part, her story about two Japanese dolls sent to a little girl missing her previous home in India hits the mark even in 2010.

Main character Nona may remind you briefly of Mary Lennox from A Secret Garden, but Nona is more weepy and shy where Mary had an inner tough streak. (Here the tough streak comes in the form of Belinda, the youngest of Nona's three cousins.) Nona desperately misses India; she is also afraid to try anything new. When the cousins' great-aunt sends the girls a pair of Japanese dolls, however, Nona begins to come out of her shell, eliciting the help of a bookshop owner and her woodworking older cousin, Tom, to build a replica of a traditional Japanese home for the two dolls. Meanwhile Belinda, who is uninterested in the dolls, sulks, jealous of the attention Nona and her project are getting. After a selfish act on Belinda's part (skillfully and drolly described by Godden), things eventually sort themselves out. You'll find that the author provides information about Japanese festivals and customs in a note at the end of the book. She even includes detailed directions for the complex project of building your own Japanese dollhouse.

As in other doll stories by Godden, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower gives us a lonely child comforted by her interaction with dolls, and the dolls themselves have thoughts and opinions, accessible to the reader rather than the young doll owner. But the point of intersection between child and doll is wishes, which is a very nice conceit, to say the least.

"The Story of Holly and Ivy" is one of my favorite Christmas stories of all time, markedly old-fashioned and sentimental, yet saved from bathos by Godden's matter-of-fact style and her understanding of how kids talk and think. The story is available in picture book form, as well, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, and here is my review in a post titled "Christmas Books Old and New" from November 2009.

"The Fairy Doll" tells about an awkward little girl badly in need of a fairy godmother. As the youngest child, Elizabeth is considered inept by her older siblings—she breaks things, forgets ordinary tasks like brushing her teeth, and can't learn to ride her new bike. Then Great-Grandmother comes to visit at Christmastime, and when Fairy Doll falls (flies) down from the top of the Christmas tree, Great-Grandmother appoints clumsy Elizabeth as the doll's new guardian. Elizabeth discovers that she is an expert on what fairy dolls need: she builds the doll a beautiful little home in a shoebox and takes her everywhere she goes. With the help of a bell-like Ting that seems to come from Fairy Doll, Elizabeth begins to find confidence and lose her awkwardness, which readers will suspect was largely a result of living down to people's expectations and feeling flustered all the time. (One thing Godden really gets right here is just how hard older siblings can be on a younger child!)

In the story of "Candy Floss," a little doll is part of an odd family consisting of a young man named Jack who works a coconut shy at carnivals and fairs, a dog named Cocoa, and a toy horse named Nuts. Candy Floss is Jack's luck, sitting on the horse atop a sort of music box and turning to the sound of the song it plays. And Jack treats Candy Floss like part of the family: "Sometimes they ate hot dogs from the hot-dog stall; Cocoa had one to herself but Candy Floss had the tip end of Jack's." Though it may seem odd to grown-up readers that Jack plays make-believe with Nuts and Candy Floss, young readers probably won't notice. What they will notice is young Clementina Davenport, a Veruca Salt type who shows up at the fair with her father. When Candy Floss catches Clementina's eye and Jack won't sell the doll, the girl steals her. But Candy Floss isn't happy and manages to let Clementina know in her doll-like way. Between the doll's hints and the child's conscience, Candy Floss is eventually reunited with her carnival family. This story has a rather typical message about stealing, but Godden pulls it off. The details of Candy Floss's unusual life and how much she likes it are especially appealing.

Godden is something of a feminist, perhaps surprising in someone born in 1907. Her stories may seem sweet, but there's a realistic note of stubbornness and individuality in both her child and her doll characters. "Impunity Jane" is also about a child who steals a doll, but it has a different outcome. We first meet the little doll named Jane when she is bought by an old woman for her granddaughter back in the days of gas lamps and carriages. The story begins: "Once there was a little doll who belonged in a pocket. That was what she thought. Everyone else thought she belonged in a dolls' house. They put her in one but, as you will see, she ended up in a pocket." The grandmother tells her granddaughter that Jane is a tough little thing, having "impunity." The doll decides that this will be her name: "'Imp-imp-impunity,' she sang."

On the way home from the shop, Jane sees horses: "'Oh, I wish I were a little horse!' cried Impunity Jane." Then she hears bells and wants to be a bell, sees a shuttlecock flying up and wants to be one of those, too. "In the barracks a soldier was blowing a bugle; it sounded so brave and exciting that it seemed to ring right through her. 'A bugle, a horse, a bell, a shuttlecock—oh, I want to be everything!' cried Impunity Jane."

Imagine Jane's disappointment when she is stuck into a dollhouse instead and passes fifty years being played with every so often by a series of prim little girls. Then Ellen's cousin Gideon comes to tea, and Impunity Jane wishes herself into being stolen from the dollhouse. She has a series of exhilarating adventures with Gideon and later his friends, graduating from doll to "model" (read: action figure) when the boys tease Gideon about her. Then Impunity Jane and Gideon have a crisis of conscience, only Gideon is ultimately able to keep the little doll. Aside from the rather dated references to the behavior of the boys (including, sad to say, their aversion to telling lies), this story about a tomboy doll is just wonderful.

As I hope you can tell by a few of the details and excerpts I've shared, Godden has a keen eye for depicting very real children and child substitutes in the form of dolls. She might also teach your child what TV these days mostly does not—that things found in the garden or made from household items can make for more creative play than store bought everything.

Which brings us to today's dollhouse stories. (The most famous of these are actually the Toy Story movies, which, like Godden's work, remind us that creative play is still the best kind.)

In a picture book by British folk artist Jane Ray called The Dollhouse Fairy, a real fairy comes to live in a little girl's dollhouse for a while because she has torn her wing and needs to convalesce. The dollhouse was built by Rosy's dad, who helps her make furniture for the dollhouse very Saturday morning—or he used to. Now he's in the hospital, and Rosy is really worried about him. She is happy to be able to focus on taking care of Thistle while he's gone.

Thistle isn't as sweet as you might imagine:

Rosy ran outside and picked raspberries and rose petals and all sorts of things to make a perfect fairy breakfast. She also filled a dollhouse cup with rainwater and took everything back to Thistle. But it wasn't Thistle's idea of a perfect breakfast.
"Have you got any potato chips?" she asked.
Thistle ends up being messy, too. She basically trashes the dollhouse. But Rosy doesn't care. I especially like the spread that shows Rosy jumping on the bed while Thistle zooms around the room: Rosy is "[helping] her practice flying again."

When Rosy's dad returns from the hospital, she wants him to meet Thistle, but the fairy is gone. His gentle response, along with other bits in the text, might make readers wonder whether the whole thing was a game of make-believe Rosy came up with to comfort herself, up to and including the parallel between a convalescing father and convalescing Thistle. But the illustrations say otherwise, and I, for one, am sticking with the illustrations! They're really the best part of the book, anyway. (Though I do like the idea that a dad would have such a strong relationship with his daughter. Despite the changes in our society, you don't always see that depicted this specifically in a picture book.)

Our last book comes from the rather surprising team of author Francesca Lia Block and illustrator Barbara McClintock. Block is best known for her Young Adult books, which are edgy and surreal, stylized to the point of romanticism. McClintock is known for her intricate, old-fashioned line art in picture books such as her own Adele and Simon. Here Block writes a dollhouse story for middle grades, with artwork by McClintock.

First of all, let's just acknowledge what a pretty book this is. House of Dolls has an unusually small trim size, 5-1/2 by 7 inches, obviously meant to imply the miniature scale of dolls and their houses. Luxurious line art winds through the books in spots and as full-page spreads, sometimes wrapping around the text. The decorative arts feel to McClintock's illustrative voice turns out to be perfectly suited to a book about dolls.

Block's story is a bit less successful, though it has its moments. After we meet three dolls—Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene—we meet their owner:

The house belonged to Madison Blackberry, a tall-for-her-age, sour-faced girl who secretly wished, more than anything, that she could live in the dollhouse with the dolls. They seemed so warm and cozy, and they nestled so closely together among the black-and-rose needlepoint pillows on the green velvet chaise lounge in the parlor, as if they never wished to be apart.
This was very different from life in the cool, all-white-and-gray penthouse apartment where Madison Blackberry lived with her mother, father, and little brother, Dallas George.
At first Madison just ignores the dolls, and they don't mind a bit. For one thing, Wildflower has a boyfriend named Guy, an African-American GI Joe type. And Rockstar has a gentleman friend, too, a "devastatingly handsome stuffed bear" named B. Friend. Selene is gracious, but has a secret sorrow, an empty cradle.

Madison's anger, jealousy, and boredom grow, and she begins to take her frustrations out on her dolls. She sends first Guy and then B. Friend off to war, even giving the latter injuries. Upset that her grandmother has made beautiful clothes for the dolls but not for her, she next takes away all of her dolls' clothes. The dolls wander their dollhouse, naked and heartbroken. Finally they appeal for help by leaving a tiny note for the grandmother when she comes to visit: Dress. Grandmother leaves some more paper out, and the dolls leave her miniscule sketches of clothes in turn.

Grandmother, who used to play with Wildflower as a child, is imaginative, but she's falling short when it comes to seeing how unhappy her granddaughter is. Wildflower turns out to be wiser than her former owner. She wishes and wishes, not for a direct end to her own troubles, but that Grandmother will reach out to angry Madison. Fortunately, Grandmother responds. As the book ends, Guy and B. Friend come home. Selene's secret sorrow is ended in joy, as is Madison's. "The war," we are told, "is over."

Writing this, I'm not sure why House of Dolls doesn't work better. It certainly has a unique premise, a child being jealous of her own dolls. I suppose the book's message-y nature overcomes the storytelling in spots. Francesca Lia Block is working in a short form here. She creates some amazing characters, but doesn't get the time to develop them, so has to inform her readers about the heartaches and themes rather a lot (see excerpt above for an example). A nice story, but not a riveting one.

I think you'll find that both Jane Ray and Francesca Lia Block were influenced by Rumer Godden's work. Do I know this for sure? Nope. But there are touches in both books that I suspect are homages to Godden. For example, the things Rosy does to make a comfortable home for Thistle remind me of what Elizabeth does for Fairy Doll, and Madison Blackberry could easily be a Clementina Davenport or Nona's jealous cousin Belinda. Then there's the fact that Madison's dolls use wishes to make things right—very Godden.

Take a look at Ray's and Block's books if you like, but if you haven't read Godden's doll stories, you've been missing out. Her legacy continues even in a day when kids don't always play with dolls (and action figures) the way they used to. Godden uses her doll tales to capture the worries and longings—and joys—of childhood with humor and exactness. Like other classics, her stories might just stay in your mind and your heart forever. Kind of the way you still remember (and maybe even keep) a beloved doll from when you were little. I remember mine: her name was Cherry because my mom had sewed her a dress made of white fabric with cherries on it.

See also a review of House of Dolls at Charlotte's Library.

Additional Suggestions from the Comments:
--The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Wren Wright (B.C)
--The Dollhouse Caper by Jean S. O'Connell (Brimful Curiosities)
--Midnight in the Dollhouse by Marjorie Stover (Madeleine)


Anonymous said...

I didn't know Rumer Willis was called after Rumer Godden! That makes me happy. :) I read all these doll books when I was a kid--at Christmas when I was small, we used to set a fire in the fireplace, and we would all sit around while Daddy read us "The Story of Holly and Ivy." The Doll's House is probably my favorite though; I didn't play much with dolls but I would have if I'd had a dollhouse like that one! (Or Nona's.)

Madigan Mirza said...

What a thorough look at doll books. I'm so impressed!

Kate Coombs said...

Jenny--My mom used to read us "The Story of Holly and Ivy" every Christmas when I was a kid! I was so thrilled when I found the picture book years later. And yes, those dollhouses are marvelous. Being a fantasy fan, I would love to come up with a kind of wizardy dollhouse at this point.

Madigan--Thank you!

cherylc said...

I loved The Dolls' House as a kid, and I still have it. It was sad, but as I got older I thought it was written like that maybe to comfort children who had lost loved ones in the war. It was written fairly soon after the war, wasn't it? It talks about how you can be happy without someone, and she would want it. I might have to read it again...

Ben Curran said...

I am sure boys aren't supposed to admit to reading doll books, but I'm going to do just that...I remember reading and thoroughly enjoying The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Wren Wright as a fifth grader. I hope boys and girls alike are still enjoying this gripping mystery!

Kate Coombs said...

Cheryl--Interesting point about The Dolls' House and the war. Thanks for bringing that up.

B.C.--Oh, good one! I know I read The Dollhouse Murders many years ago; I'll have to look for it again. Boys, girls, who doesn't love a good mystery?

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that Rumer Godden wrote about dolls! In fact, I just Googled her and found out through Wikipedia that she wrote lots of novels. The only two I have read are This House of Brede, about nuns, and An Episode of Sparrows, which is a wonderful story about a child and the older woman who takes an interest in her--children, I fear, would find it rather slow going, but I have read it several times and love it.

Kate Coombs said...

Willow--Oh yes, I've read An Episode of Sparrows! It's such a tender story. Thanks for mentioning it.

Brimful Curiosities said...

I read The Dollhouse Caper by Jean S. O'Connell to my kids last month. An unusual book in that the owners of the dollhouse are all boys and one of them enjoys putting the dollhouse dad head first in the toilet.

Kate Coombs said...

Brimful C--Good one! Especially the bit about the toilet. I'll have to add these suggestions to the post!

Unknown said...

I have been searching for many years a book I read when I was in primary school...
I always thought it was called 'The Doll's House', but perhaps not.

I remember that it was about a little girl who fell out of a tree and broke her back. She was bed ridden for a long time and ended up having different length legs. She was given a dolls house, with lovely dolls to play with to keep her company while she was in bed...

I was just wondering if you may know what book this may be???

Any help would be wonderful :)

Even email me at

Thank you. Madeleine.

Kate Coombs said...

Madeleine--I'm guessing it's Midnight in the Dollhouse by Marjorie Stover. Amazon has some inexpensive used copies for sale.

Oh, I'll e-mail you this info, as well!

Anonymous said...

Hi I am looking for an older book..believe it to be Susan's Doll House...I remeber reading this in the 1960's....Email at Thanks