Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Dolls and Children's Literature on December 7, 2013

  • by Miranda J. McDermott

    Special Days - Children's Day - Girls playing with dolls, Digital ID 1682217, New York Public LibraryWe were lucky to have authors Yona McDonough, Christy Ottaviano, Krystyna Poray Goddu, Laura Godwin and Ann Martin discuss how dolls have influenced children's literature at the Schwarzman Building on December 7, 2013. The Children's Literary Salons are organized and hosted by Elizabeth Bird, NYPL's Youth Materials Specialist. Thanks to Betsy and the authors for what turned out to be scintillating conversation and synergy on the stage of the South Court Auditorium.

    Bird asked what makes dolls a good subject matter for kids' books.

    Children's Emotions Manifest as Dolls

    McDonough said that dolls are like people; kids can project their thoughts and feelings onto toys. Dolls are human facsimiles. A lot of kids have a fantasy about dolls coming to life, and some fiction brings this dream to fruition.

    Bird mentioned that Pixar became a big thing due to Toy Story, which is essentially dolls coming to life.

    Toy Story also represented a significant leap forward in digital art, which also probably contributed to its success.

    Ottaviano said that dolls pretty much have on and off buttons, and they can become vivid and life-like with the imagination of a child.

    Krystyna stated that many realistic fiction books portray the bond between kids and dolls. Kids have a need to nurture and connect with their toys. Anything can become a plaything, even a stick, and toys do not need to be human.

    Bird mentioned that there is a picture book with a stone that is used as a doll called The Stone Doll of Sister Brute.

    Goddu said that some boys like dolls, as depicted in books such as William's Doll.

    Bird brought up Holly Black's book Doll Bones. She asked the panelists if there is a point in people's lives when they are too old to play with dolls. Some doll books show up on summer reading lists year after year.

    Godwin noted that authors make up rules for their characters, and if the writers do not follow them, it does not make for good fiction.

    Martin is writing a series called The Doll People with Godwin. Remaining within the parameters of the world that they created for the characters is one of the most challenging aspects of the work for them.

    According to Goddu, people have a tendency towards sentimentality and saccharine sweetness as far as dolls are concerned. It is easy to fall into that trap while writing doll books, but it does not make good books.

    McDonough recounted a scene in A Little Princess, in which a girl loves the doll her father gave her, but she is frustrated with its limitations. At one point in the story, she throws her doll across the room and says to her, "You're nothing but a doll." Later, she calms down and says that that is alright, and she accepts the nature of the doll. This causes us to reflect on the nature of human experience.

    Bird asked the panelists which books they read as a child and if they played with dolls.

    McDonough was a big doll person. There were never enough dolls for her, and she outgrew them when she was 14 or 15 years old. She obtained antique dolls, and she sold her dolls when her parents asked her to. She regretted doing so. She felt bad about wanting dolls as an adult, but her husband supported her in her quest to become a doll collector. McDonough was happy to resume obtaining dolls after a decade of living without them. It is a joy for her to write about dolls. Ottaviano also collects dolls.

    Ottaviano loved dolls as a child, including Barbies. She also loved doll books and she read nearly every doll book that was published by Scholastic in the 1970s. She always loved dolls and never outgrew them.

    Goddu liked dolls, and she loved paper dolls. Dolls are not just toys; there is an entire social history, including fashion history, that is intertwined with them. She was drawn more and more into the world of dolls. She was particularly obsessed with The Lonely Doll. Her next door neighbor owned a doll that she particularly liked, and her mother went to borrow the doll for her when she was sick. She also likes pictures of dolls.

    Bird said that The Lonely Doll has been commented upon at many recent Children's Literary Salons.

    Scary Doll Books

    McDonough stated that she was scared by The Lonely Doll when she was a girl.

    Godwin mentioned that dolls have a creepy element in some books. Some writers in England have an edginess to their books. She had some dolls while she was growing up. When she was four years old, she asked for a "Sandra doll". Her parents inquired as to what she meant, but she refused to discuss it with them because she believed that Santa would know what she meant. It turns out that the Sandra doll existed only in her mind, but she was lucky because she received a doll on Christmas day that was a Sandra doll to her. One of the doll books she read included a caveat that any doll could come to life if you believed hard enough. She thought that that was mean, and that is partially why the dolls in her and Martin's The Doll People series decide whether or not they want to come to life.

    Martin did not play with dolls much as a girl. However, she did have a Patty Play Pal, which was almost as tall as she was at the time. (Patty Play Pals can be around 3 feet tall.)

    Bird knows someone who will not read Pinocchio because it freaks her out. Some people like dolls or toys coming to life, and some do not, which makes for an interesting duality. She asked the panelists if kids like dolls nowadays as much as they used to.

    McDonough believes that kids definitely love dolls across time. One of her favorite books is The Best-Loved Doll. She read every doll book that came her way. The American Girl series has a set of dolls associated with it, and some of the books are excellent. They are almost like biographies of the dolls. They show how life connects with dolls. Some of the books are historical fiction, and they are sweet, wholesome tales.

    Ottaviano agrees that the American Girl experience is amazing. When visiting the American Girl Stores, people can witness kids falling in love with the dolls. As a child, she loved coming up with ideas, and making things from stuff that she found around the house.

    McDonough finds the creation of clothing for dolls interesting.

    Dolls and Fashion, Dolls and History

    Bird talked about many nonfiction books about dolls, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: a Doll's History and Her Impact on Us. She mentioned that there are rituals that most kids go through with the doll, such as torturing her. She asked the nonfiction authors who their audience is, and which kids love dolls beyond when most kids put them down.

    Goddu wrote about how doll makers found their craft in Dollmakers and Their Stories: Women Who Changed the World of Play. There was one doll maker she wrote about who refused to be interviewed for the book, which made the information about that particular person more sparse than she would have liked. She wrote the book to inspire young people (mostly girls) to turn their creative juices towards something that they would not ordinarily think of. They can make and design dolls. Goddu set out to describe the circumstances of the doll makers' childhoods and the challenges that they faced. She sold the books to adults who were not aware of these women's stories.

    Bird asked Godwin and Martin what the reader response to their The Doll People series has been like.

    Martin has gotten many letters from boys. Some of the girls say that they believe that the dolls are alive, but they are not very passionate about it.

    Godwin told us that kids retell the plots and characters to her and Martin in their letters. They also report what is going on in their families and how many dogs they have and what their names are. Kids often give Martin and Godwin messages to relay to the other author. Recently, they have seen an explosion in the number of letters that they receive from boys.

    Boys and Dolls

    Bird commented that many doll books star girls with their dolls, with the exception of a few, such as William's Doll. For boys' dolls and toys, many people think of G.I. Joe and action figures. She asked if the panelists could speak about doll books for boys.

    Goddu recounted a story in which a boy put a doll in his pocket because he was embarrassed to be seen with it; however, someone checked his pocket and found it. He protested that it was not a doll; it was his model. Then an entire group of boys commenced playing with the doll.

    Bird asked the authors to describe the manuscripts that they are currently working on.

    McDonough has a manuscript that features dolls and a doll museum; however, she has written herself into a corner on that one. She does not know where to go with it. The doll wants to save the museum, and she appreciates giving kids a sense of powerfulness and efficacy in her books, since they do not often have that in a world full of adults. She wants to relieve kids of feelings of powerlessness, if only for awhile. Maybe she will find a way to get the character out of the corner.

    Doll Making and Illustration

    Goddu viewed an exhibit of dolls that was created by doll artists. It inspired her to construct her own figures and figurines. The author is currently writing a story of boy and girl pair of twins who make dolls. The boy does not like the word doll. It is a hybrid of children's fiction and a step-by-step guide to doll making.

    Martin is working on a new The Doll People book with Godwin.

    Godwin spoke with Brian Selznick, who made dolls by baking them in an oven. He also made clothes for them, and posed them for some sketches for illustrations that he created forThe Doll People. Brian will not be illustrating their new book because he is busy with other things. They are working with Brett as an illustrator for their new book. Brett was one of Selznick's mentors, and Selznick is remaining on staff as a creative consultant in order to closely adhere to the look of the original artist. They want the kids to be able to enjoy similar art because they would notice large discrepancies.

    Bird said that Selznick set a precedent for turning over work to another artist. For another work, Selznick provided the cover art; then, another artist replaced him, and the transition was so seemless that readers could miss the fact that the art was done by two different people.

    Godwin stated that people will definitely be able to tell that Brett's art is all his own. Selznick is also a puppeteer.

    Dolls on Stage

    Bird asked the panelists to describe their dolls that were displayed on the South Court stage.

    Goddu brought The Little Prince, which was made out of felt by a company in Bennington.

    Ottaviano likes to collect dolls with plaster faces and cloth bodies, which she often finds at flea markets. Sometimes, she is able to fix them up with magic marker.

    [Girl With A Tennis Racket And Girls Holding A Doll, England, 1890s.], Digital ID 815873, New York Public LibraryMcDonough brought a small doll, which Trudie Strobel, a Holocaust survivor, made for her as a gift. Said Strobel, "My prize possession was a beautiful bisque doll, and I still remember the horror of it being torn away from me by a brutal Nazi guard on the transport to the camps." Later, her psychotherapist told her that she needed to recreate the doll back. She subsequently made many dolls which are featured at a Holocaust museum.

    While researching the restrictive clothing that Jews were made to wear for The Doll With the Yellow Star, the girl said to her doll, "You're my little Jewess, and you're lovely." The book did very well critically. In Poland in 1946, Jews were restricted in their dress, and they were forced to wear yellow, which is considered the color of humiliation for some reason. They had to wear unmatched shoes and clothing without pockets, which can be inconvenient. It was a despicable moment in history, yet fiction is a great redemption. You can give yourself everything you never had and always wanted. Stuffed animals are somewhat akin to dolls, and there are many stories about them, such as The Velveteen Rabbit. Perhaps teddy bears are more acceptable for boys to play with.

    Bird pointed out that the original Winnie-the-Pooh dolls are currently on display in The ABC of It: Why Children Matter exhibit in the Schwarzman Building. She mentioned a doll book that was banned for a line that said "he made love to her," which she interpreted as meaning simply that he said nice things to her.

    Godwin thinks that there should be a conscious effort to made dolls more acceptable for boys to play with; perhaps more explosions in doll books would appeal to males.

    An audience member read a paragraph from The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: the Search for Dare Wright.

    On the way home from the salon, I saw a girl in a stroller holding up a doll with a porcelain face looking straight ahead as though the girl were putting her on a pedestal or wanted her to gaze at the world in wonder as she did.

    I was never a doll-playing girl myself; I preferred playing with stuffed animals and My Little Ponies. Recently, on the Nightly Business Report of a public-access television station, I saw a segment on entrepreneur Debbie Sterling's creation, GoldieBlox: the Engineering Toy for Girls (link). I think it's great that someone is encouraging girls to enter male-dominated professions.

    Upcoming Children's Literary Salons

    Common Core and Other Delightful Happenstances
    Saturday, January 4 from 2 p.m. - 3 p.m.
    Rm. 227 in the Schwarzman Building, "the library with the lions"