Written by Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrated by William Pène du Bois
Full disclosure: I receive American Girl catalogs in the mail. They seem to come every six weeks. I can flip through the pages and dream of owning a football-sized doll. I can get Addy, “a courageous girl from the Civil War era” or a Bitty Baby in various skin, hair and eye colors. So many choices; it’s overwhelming.
I am not ashamed of my American Girl catalog; instead, I am amused. A few years ago, I went online and ordered one to help with a sitcom spec script. Unfortunately, the employed writers on “Modern Family” had a similar idea and ran with it. I proved I had a good sense of the show, but killed my spec. It seems nothing can kill my catalog “subscription.” At least I recycle responsibly.
To be honest, I’m uncomfortable with how much marketing goes into girls playing with dolls, even politically correct historical dolls. I’m sure they’re okay as part of a well-balanced toy chest. Barbie could even be there along with rubber snakes and a retro Etch A Sketch. Call me horribly biased, but I’d much rather see boys playing with dolls. And that’s why I’m blogging about William’s Doll.
This is a remarkable picture book, particularly considering it was published forty-two years ago by a major American publisher. As one can surmise from the title, William is a young boy who wants a doll. More than anything.
He wanted to hug it
and cradle it in his arms
and give it a bottle
and take it to the park
and push it in the swing
and bring it back home
Yes, all normal things one does with a doll. Normal things for a girl.
No doll for William. His brother dismisses the idea. “Don’t be a creep!” (Mild words. It’s a picture book, remember.)
The kid next door is more direct. “Sissy, sissy, sissy!”
William’s father takes corrective action. He teaches William basketball. William excels.
But William still wants a doll.
This leads to another intervention from his father.
William finally gets a doll. His grandmother proves to be the enlightened one.
I would have remembered this book had a teacher or librarian shared it with my class. Maybe I would have wanted a doll, too. (I played with animal figurines instead. It may have been odd but it wasn’t as flagrant a gender-role violation.) I only discovered this book as it was mentioned as a passing citation in a recent New York Times Book Review. I hope others noticed, too. And I am encouraged that I found the book on the shelf at the closest Los Angeles library branch. A few of the pages even show signs of use.
There are things I can pick apart about this book. I wish the doll hadn’t been blond-haired and blue-eyed. I don’t think the author needed to go out of her way to explain that William excelled at basketball. And the grandmother’s defense of the doll when talking to the father closes some doors that should have remained open. (“He needs it,” she said, “to hug and to cradle and to take to the park so that when he’s a father like you, he’ll know how to take care of his baby…”) Still, William’s Doll would have been ground-breaking in its time. Even now, it provides a wonderful springboard for discussion.
I may recycle catalogs, but I am going to track down a copy of William’s Doll. There’s a spot for it on one of the many shelves in my (principal’s) office. Right beside the Barrel of Monkeys.