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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Steele Agosta

Oh! The Doll Books!

I loved playing with dolls when I was little. I was always dragging around some poor battered baby doll which had been loved into submission, like the Velveteen Rabbit. I remember once, when I was pushing a much beloved ragdoll down the street in my doll carriage, one of the neighborhood Mommies asked me if I had a ‘pretty dolly’ in there. I said, No, and she laughed. But I only meant that although my doll wasn’t pretty anymore, I still loved her and took her for walks.

(Older sister Lori and me, with the doll carriage.)

Later, I grew to love dollhouses. I had two, both of them the printed metal type with plastic furniture. My favorite thing to play was ‘moving in’. Having had that experience myself, I loved to re-enact it, with a shoebox for the moving van. Everything carefully packed inside, and then moved into the place one piece at a time. (I even commandeered my brother’s tin Alamo fort to use as their summer cottage. He was not amused.)

So, of course, when it came to books, I was entranced by stories about dolls, especially if they had great illustrations. The book, Big Susan written and illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones, remains a standout. The story itself is charming – the dolls in the dollhouse come awake at night when Big Susan is sleeping, and they find themselves in whatever positions they’ve been left in when she finished playing with them. One day, Susan does not reappear. She’s missing for days and days, and the dolls have to fend for themselves. Their personalities are just adorable, and of course, all ends well.

The illustrations are magnificent! I’ve read that they are based on Ms. Jones’ own childhood dollhouse, which was over seven and a half feet long. The living room furniture and rug were handmade by her grandmother. In later years, the dollhouse was given away, but apparently a replica was made by someone working from the details in the illustrations, and put on display in the Highland Park (Illinois) Historical Museum – but I couldn’t find any photos of it. Phooey.

Ms Jones also wrote and illustrated the book Twig and illustrated many other children’s books including Rachel Field’s Prayer for a Child, which won the Caldecott Medal for illustration.

I have to thank my sister Jacki for my copy of Big Susan. It had been out of print for a long time, and Jacki bought me a copy of the 50th anniversary reprint. Jacki shares my affinity for doll books.

Other doll books I loved include Impunity Jane by Rumer Godden about a little pocket-sized doll who goes on all sorts of adventures with her owner, a seven-year-old boy. Rumer Godden wrote several doll stories, including The Doll’s House, The Fairy Doll, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Candy Floss, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum, and Mouse House and The Mousewife (Not, strictly speaking, about dolls, but definitely about things in miniature.)

Rachel Field wrote Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, which won the Newbery Award for children’s literature.

Tasha Tudor wrote and illustrated The Doll’s Christmas and A is for Annabelle, an alphabet book where each letter illustrates some belonging of the doll’s. Again, my sister Jacki and I enjoyed this book, but I think Jacki basically lived and breathed it – she pored over those illustrations and I know perfectly well she was playing with every item in her head.

Another book we both loved was The Lonely Doll, by Dare Wright. Instead of illustrations, the book is filled with the author’s photographs. Neither of us knew until we were adults that there are ten books in The Lonely Doll series. Dare Wright also wrote two other doll books – Lona, A Fairy Tale – in which the author herself appears, and the three-book Persis series. I’ve not seen any of these subsequent books in ‘real life’, only through Amazon and Dare Wright’s website, but they look fascinating.

Colleen Moore, a movie star in the 1920’s, created a fairytale dollhouse, and it was beautifully photographed in the book Colleen Moore’s Dollhouse. It’s not easy to find a copy of it these days, but the amount of imagination and detail that went into the house makes it well worthwhile to track down a used version.

There are many, many more children’s books with dolls or dollhouses as the subject – too many to go into here, and I mostly wanted to comment about the books I had actually read as a child. There is also a series of books about dolls written for the 8-12 age range, called The Mennyms, which are pretty fascinating for adults to read, too. Written by Sylvia Waugh, there are five books in the series about a family of human-size rag dolls who live quietly together in an old home, but their forty-year-long secret is threatened when a distant relative of their landlord visits from Australia. These are adult ragdolls, so their problems are of a different magnitude than child dolls. Again, sister Jacki introduced me to these books, and I found them mesmerizing. I love that the writer’s imagination took her here.

I have a little grand-daughter now, Evie, and I look forward to introducing her to many of these books as she gets older. Is this a sexist idea? I doubt it. She’s already getting a great introduction to all kinds of toys and appears to be quite fearless, so I have no worries. Besides, her mother, my daughter-in-law Brittany, likes to read, too. Yayy!

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