Tuesday, July 29, 2014


A Picture Book

Written by Charlotte Zolotow

Illustrated by William Pène du Bois

(HarperCollins, 1972)

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.


Rick Modien said...

Bravo, RG, for writing about this.

Here's a paragraph from a post I wrote on my blog back in January 2013: "My maternal grandmother bought me a Ken doll, Barbie's handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend, after I literally made a scene in Kresge's. I was proud of Ken–so proud I took him for walks so the other neighborhood children would see him. Believe me, no other little boy paraded his dolls outside. To this day, I can't believe my father didn't grab that doll and beat me with it. It probably took everything he had to stop himself."

In another post, I remember writing that, when the neighbor children saw me, that was the beginning of the end for me. Life became, and remained, a living hell.

I hope there are many Williams out there, getting the dolls of their choice. And not having to pay the consequences.

Rural Gay said...

Your dad does deserve credit for allowing you to be yourself. He may have done so begrudgingly but he still resisted even having Ken mysteriously become lost.

The gender role expectations remain. It is amazing how kindergarten girls question why I'm wearing purple shoes or a pink shirt. All of this starts even before the school years, but I love the opportunity to talk about it. Last year, the girls grew to love when I would join in the doll play at recess and center time, just as the boys loved when I would play with the blocks and cars. Still, I don't see many of them breaking gender role norms.

More to do, more to do...