Hello, and thanks for joining us at Tundra Telegram, the column where we articulate the issues readers are dreaming about, and Mat-tell you about some books that we figure you’ll love.
Like most of social media, the gang at Tundra Books were buzzing with the release of the trailer to filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s seemingly bananas film, Barbie. The teaser got us thinking about the other doll-based movie of 2023 we’re champing at the bit to watch: M3GAN. (Team-up when?) We’ve got dolls on the brain. Besides, who doesn’t want to unwrap a new doll as a holiday gift?
As a holiday present to you readers in this final Tundra Telegram of 2022, we’ve collected the best books featuring dolls that we publish. (Batteries not included.) See you with new recommendations in 2023!
A little doll’s world is blown wide open in Gemma and the Giant Girl by Sara O’Leary and Marie Lafrance. Gemma lives in a forgotten dollhouse with her doll parents, never growing old and living a monotonous existence. But everything changes when a giant (!) opens the dollhouse and introduces her to the larger world, whether she likes it or not.
If you like stories about dolls, but wished they intersected more with modernist literature, Kafka and the Doll by Larissa Theule and Rebecca Green is the picture book for you! The author of some of the more surreal and absurd stories of the twentieth century was not inured to the charms of a doll. In 1923, when he encountered a girl distraught over the loss of her doll, the writer put his chops to the test by sending the girl letters in the hand of the doll, whom he suggested was traveling the world on grand adventures. (Now Franz Kafka’s Barbie is a movie I’d also like to see!)
It may lack a hot-pink palette and waterslide, but the dollhouse in Giselle Potter’s This Is My Dollhouse is a true testament to one girl’s creativity and imagination. A little girl proudly walks readers through her handmade dollhouse, pointing out the wallpaper she drew, the fancy clothes she made, and the little elevator she made out of a paper cup. But when she sees her friend Sophie’s “perfect” storebought house, her pride wavers. Soon, though, both girls realize how much more wonderful creative play can be.
We can’t pretend the holidays are barreling down upon us, and The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by the late, great Patricia C. McKissack and Jerry Pinkney, is the perfect holiday doll book. Set during the Great Depression, Santa Claus doesn’t deliver presents to Nella’s family every year. But Nella’s really hoping that this year she and her two sisters will each get a beautiful Baby Betty doll. When the doll is unwrapped, Nella takes the doll and refuses to share before realizing – even with a really cool doll – it’s no fun to play by yourself.
Of course, there is a cornucopia of official Barbie books from which to select. If we were to highlight one, it would be seasonal favorite, Barbie: The Nutcracker (A Little Golden Book). Barbie stars as Clara in this retelling of the classic ballet. Does Ken play the Nutcracker or the Mouse King? You’ll have to read to find out for yourself!
And you’ll have to wait until July for The Story of Barbie and the Woman Who Created Her by Cindy Eagan and Amy Bates, but this picture book biography of Ruth Handler is worth the wait. After noticing how her daughter preferred to play with “grown-up” paper dolls rather than baby dolls, Handler designed a doll that would inspire little girls to use their huge imaginations to picture their futures, and wound up creating the most famous doll ever. If you preorder now, it should arrive just in time for the feature film!
CHAPTER BOOKS & MIDDLE GRADE
Before there was Barbie, there was Miss Kanagawa. The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson is based on a real historical phenomenon: in the late 1920s, 58 friendship dolls were sent from Japan to America. This book follows the story of one such doll, Miss Kanagawa, and the stories of four American children who interact with her – from New York to Seattle, from the Great Depression to the modern day – like a handheld Forrest Gump.
Die-hard Barbie fans know it can be difficult to repair a plastic doll. But it wasn’t always this way. The Doll Shop Downstairs by Yona Zeldis McDonough and Heather Maione features Jewish sisters in New York City who play carefully with the dolls in their parents’ doll repair shop (!) until they’ve been fixed and need to be returned to their owners. When World War I breaks out, so does an embargo on German-made goods which threatens the shop, so it’s up to the sisters (naturally) to come up with a financial idea to save the family from poverty.
Of course, as readers get a bit older, the dolls get creepier. Case in point, the ultimate in creepy doll stories, The Dollhouse: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter. When Alice heads to a small town where her mom finds work as a live-in nurse to an elderly woman, she discovers a dollhouse in the attic that’s an exact replica of the woman’s house. Soon she wakes to find a girl asleep next to her in her bed – a girl who looks like one of the dolls in the house, and things just get eerier from there.
That may remind you of the godmother of creepy doll books, The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, which is nearly 40 years old! As in Charis Cotter’s book, protagonist Amy begins to believe the dolls and the dollhouse are moving by themselves. And, stranger still, they may be trying to tell her something about how her great-grandparents died. The 35th anniversary edition even has a foreword from scary doll aficionado, R. L. Stine!
YA tends to not feature as many actual dolls, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Raziel Reid’s over-the-top Barbie-themed satire Kens. At Willows High, a group of tyrannical, handsome gays – the Kens (not unlike their plastic namesakes) – rule over the student populace with Mean Girls-esque verve. Where can uncool queer Tommy Rawlins fit into this dangerous high school hierarchy? When he is given the chance to become the next Ken, should he take it? Is life in plastic really that fantastic?
Older readers often begin to get a taste for fashion design, and what better what to practice that than with Sewing Clothes for Barbie by Annabel Benilan? Readers can sew Barbie 24 stylish outfits, from aerobics outfits to ski wear – and even a mermaid costume (?). Without any knowledge of the behind-the-scenes process, I think it’s safe to say the Barbie film’s costume designer must have used this book as a principal reference.