First published in 1929, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years won the Newbery Award in 1930. Narrated in the first person by Mehitabel, or Hitty, herself, she tells how she went from a sturdy piece of Mountain Ash Wood in Maine in the early 1800s to a carved doll and playmate to Phoebe Preble. Hitty's adventure begins when she and Phoebe join Captain Preble aboard his whaling ship. From there, she finds her way from a tropical island, to India, to Philadelphia then to New York. She travels with a snake charmer, attends the opera, meets Charles Dickens, has her daguerreotype taken, becomes a doll of fashion and sits as an artist's model. Sometimes she is a child's plaything. Sometimes she is loved, sometimes she is ignored and sometimes she is treated badly. And, for long periods of time, she is lost to the world whether it is underwater or in a hayloft. As children's book author and illustrator Rosemary Wells says of Hitty, a childhood favorite of hers, she loved Hitty's "indomitable spirit and the time carried her from owner to owner like a river. Hitty didn't mind being stuck in a hayloft for twenty years. Hitty also made American history come alive for me."
Hitty's perspective as a doll, the sweep of history that she travels through and the Newbery award have ensured that this book has stayed on the shelf for over eighty years. However, there is some dated language and attitudes that may rub parents the wrong way, although probably go right over most children's heads. Sadly, because children, girls especially, mature at such a young age these days, they are not interested in reading Hitty by the time they are able to read it. For this reason, I highly recommend it as a read out loud for younger children or as a great book for an advanced reader.
Hitty's first owner is Phoebe Preble, the daughter of a sea Captain living in Maine. In her first few months with Phoebe, Hitty is left behind at church, cold and alone except for some bats roosting under the pew. She is also bounced out of a berry picking basket and scooped up by a mother crow who tries to feed Hitty to her chicks. Unhappy with their meal, the chicks toss her out of the nest, which just happens to be in a pine tree in the Preble's yard. Hitty crashes through the pine needles but snags on a branch before hitting the ground. Hitty thinks of her predicament, "Suppose I have to hang here till my clothes fall into tatters. Suppose they never find me till Phoebe is grown up and too old for dolls." It is this stoic outlook that sees Hitty through many difficult times, including being left behind on Captain Preble's whaling ship as it is consumed by flames. Chapter V of the book is titled, "In Which I Join the Fishes and Rejoin the Prebles." Flipped over by a wave, Hitty recalls that it was, "rather less pleasant, but I was still in no mood to be critical when I remembered my narrow escape from the flames." Fortunately for everyone, Hitty finds herself washed up on the same island that the Prebles and crew take refuge on.
For girls who are interested in dolls, collecting, dressing and exhibiting Hitty dolls is quite the hobby for adults. The doll, a picture of the original is seen below, was purchased by Rachel Field in an antiques store in New York City in the winter of 1927 and inspired her to write her story.
There is also a Hitty paper doll and outfits can be printed out to dress her!
For those of you who like these kinds of connections, it is rumored that the nameless doll in the antique shop who befriends the wayward rabbit at the end of the book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, is actually Hitty herself.
In 1999, Rosemary Wells and Susan Jeffers published Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. As Rosemary Wells writes in her "Note to the Reader," both women loved the book as children and, when Jeffers decided to "illustrate it with bright, new, colorful pictures" she asked Wells if she could shorten the book for a new audience. Fully aware of the passionate following Hitty and her Newbery Award winning book had, Wells was unsure about this venture. But, as she spoke to booksellers and librarians about the proposed project she realized that, despite the vocal opposition, "no one I spoke to had actually read Hitty in at least thirty years, and that seemed a real shame." Wells "pruned and weeded" the book as well as encouraged "new live branches"to flower by taking an "almost happened" from the book and making it happen, sending Hitty to a little girl in the South who's doll had been lost in the war.
I love what Wells does with the story, and Jeffers' illustrations are magnificent. And, while I consider myself a purist when it comes to classic, award winning children's book, I really believe that Hitty poses a special case. Despite the popularity of American Girls Dolls and their related books, I believe that there are many distractions and influences in the world today that cause most girls to lose interest in dolls, if they ever had an interest in a doll that does not look like a full grown adult woman, in the first place, long before they have the skills to read Hitty., or even a magnificent newer book like The Doll People Series. For this very reason, I support and encourage Wells and Jeffers in their efforts to keep this exceptional book relevant in today's world. Sadly, their book has gone out of print but can be purchased used...