The Doll People by Ann M Martin & Laura Godwin, illustrated by Brain Selznick 288pp RL 4
When I started this book review blog in August of 2008 I was rushing to get as much content printed as possible and started with skimpy reviews of some of my favorties. Hitty: Her First Undred Years by Rachel Field and The Doll People by Ann M Martin and Laura Godwin were the first books I reviewed, however the content of these reviews did not reflect the excellence of the books. While The Doll People trilogy of books is hugely popular and surely does not need yet another person touting it, it remains one of my favorites and I would like to do it justice in a review, especially since I am featuring reviews of books about dolls all this week.
Of course, and for me especially, part of what make The Doll People Series such magical books are the amazing illustrations by Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of the innovative, Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Martin and Godwin are fabulous writers, but having Selznick along to bring the dolls to life makes all the difference. As with the front and back covers, the endpapers in the book are representative of the two dollhouses and families of dolls that inhabit them in this story. The front cover of the book shows the antique dollhouse and dolls that were shipped from England in 1898 to be the playthings of the newborn Gertrude Seaborn Cox ancestor of the current owner, Kate Palmer. A page from Wilson & Sons Catalogue No. 61, with a tear mysteriously deleting the image of the "Aunt Doll," introduces us to the characters living in the antique dollhouse. The last two pages of of the book appear to be the instruction paper for the assembling of the FUNCRAFT Dream House Model 110 - REAL PINK PLASTIC - Includes Free Cat! This house belongs to Nora, Kate's younger sister who is NOT ALLOWED to touch the antique dollhouse, although she does, which is always hilarious and harrowing at once.
As the prologue begins, "It had been forty-five years since Annabelle Doll had last seen Auntie Sarah." But, on this day, Annebelle found something that belonged to Aunt Sarah and, "no one knew she had found it. Not Kate Palmer. Not any of the Dolls. And keeping a secret in a house like Annabelle's was awfully hard. It might even be impossible, Annabelle thought, except for the fact that there was no one with whom Annabelle wanted to share a secret."
This secret and the clues it reveals about the disappearance of Aunt Sarah, as well as the friend that Annabelle Doll finds to share this secret with make up the rest of the story. Martin and Godwin create a complete world - both within the houses of the dolls and in the Palmer home as well. Grandma Katherine, Kate's namesake, lives with the Palmer family and has memories of Aunt Sarah Doll and is just as thrilled by her return as the rest of the dolls are. What drives the story, from start to finish, is Annabelle Doll's wish for a friend and her questioning, determined nature that keeps her searching for Aunt Sarah. It is this wish that ultimately brings together the Doll and Funcraft families, as well as sparring sisters Kate and Nora.
One of my favorite aspects of The Doll People is the creation of Doll State. If a human sees a doll moving, or thinks she sees a doll moving, the doll is sent into Doll State, which Annabelle has been in "several times, more often than anyone else in her family." In Doll State, a doll is "rendered an ordinary doll" who can't move for 24 hours. Worse than Doll State, though, is Permanent Doll State, where you become an ordinary doll forever. Annabelle is not even sure that Permanent Doll State exists, although she has been threatened with it many times by her cautious parents. Part of what keeps the Doll Family from searching for Aunt Sarah is the belief that, in her many exploits, she has been put into Permanent Doll State and that the same fate awaits them...
One interesting, if obvious, theme that I have noticed as I read and reread books about dolls for this week of reviews is the idea that dolls remain constant and unchanging while the world changes around them. A girl doll will always be a girl doll, she was never a baby and will never be a woman. This gives the dolls both a timeless perspective on the world (their world, anyway) and perhaps a stoic one. The little slights and injuries of everyday existence that plague us all are nothing to the dolls. At the same time, as Rumer Godden writes in her book published in 1948, The Doll's House, Tottie, the hundred year old doll, often says, "I wouldn't be a child for anything. . . First you have to be a baby, then a little child, then a bigger child, then a schoolboy or girl, then a big boy or girl, and then a grown up." However, Tottie also knows that, "there is no power of growing in dolls, and she knew that was why, for instance, any live little girl, however stupid, had power over her." We all know that playing with dolls is important for girls and boys, who play with "action figures" in ways that are not always necessarily violent but can reflect the concern and connectedness that we hope our daughters will learn when they play with their dolls. In fact, I heard my 5 year old utter this while playing with his Star Wars Lego mini-figures after their craft had crashed:
Mini-Fig 1: "Are you ok?"
Mini-Fig 2: "Yeah, I'm ok. Are you?"
Mini-Fig 3: "Yeah. Are you?"
I think that's a pretty good sign of concern and connectedness coming from a little boy...
I posit that, in addition to playing with dolls, reading stories about dolls is helpful in the development of essential emotional and intellectual components in children. Really, I suppose most books with meaningful content can fulfill this ideal, but somehow I think that books about dolls create these parallel worlds that allow children to understand childhood and their place in it as well as the idea that there is a world beyond them - for dolls, it is the world of the living and for children it is the world of adults. And, in a book with dolls as the characters, this world of adults is revealed in measured and careful dollops.
If your little girl isn't big on playing with dolls, read this out loud to her before she hits second grade. Otherwise, it is the perfect book for any girls reading at an advanced level. This book is part of a trilogy. Book two is The Meanest Doll in the World and book three is The Runaway Dolls, both of which are in paperback.
If your child likes this book (and dolls) suggest