Though the books might be about dolls, the creation of the Doll People series has been anything but child’s play. The Runaway Dolls is the third book in Ann M. Martin, Laura Godwin and Brian Selznick’s well-received series that began with The Doll People in 2000. The story of the meeting—and resulting adventures—of a Victorian dollhouse family and a contemporary plastic doll family, the first book was followed in 2003 by The Meanest Doll in the World.
It all began, as many books do, with a casual remark that resonated with a writer—in this case, two writers. “Twelve or thirteen years ago, Laura and I were talking with our mutual friend Lisa Holton, who was then at Hyperion, and she expressed interest in a picture book about dolls and dollhouses,” Martin recalls.
“We talked about how it would be fun if Ann and I did something together,” Godwin adds. “That was the spark. We never would have thought about writing a novel, but the story got more and more carried away and soon we had more than we could ever fit into a picture book.” While Martin was not passionate about dolls as a child, Godwin says she spent many hours playing dolls with her friends. “We were always involved in an elaborate plot, simultaneously creating, ad-libbing—always starting with an agreed-upon premise.” The Doll People developed in a similar fashion: the two brainstormed about what would happen if the staid world of an old-fashioned porcelain doll family were to be invaded by a modern plastic doll family.
“At the beginning, we tried sitting down and writing together,” Martin says. “But it was slow and painstaking; we were editing a word at a time and one sentence could take an hour.” Godwin adds, “We argued over literally every word, and after a few weeks, we could see this didn’t work. So we agreed that because I was enthusiastic about making up crazy plots, as I had done in my childhood play, I would come up with the plots and characters—with Ann’s input, of course—and her job would be to write from my outline and character sketches.” The authors would then take turns editing each others’ writing. “There was a lot of back and forth,” Godwin says, “but we found this method worked for us.”
The authors agree that neither of them would have written the books alone, and that the series is a result of their complementary talents and skills. “I had never written fantasy,” says Martin, “and Laura had never written for this age group. Laura is wonderful about creating kooky characters and I love giving voice to them.”
For her part, Godwin called Martin “masterful” at getting inside a child’s head. “This allowed me to run amok with my imagination in coming up with the plot, because she always brought it back to be emotionally realistic for the intended age group.” So whose voice is the book? “It’s neither of our individual voices—it’s our voice,” Godwin says.
Brian Selznick, whose extensive black-and-white illustrations play an integral role, was brought into the project soon after the first draft had been handed in to Hyperion, at the suggestion of the authors. “He and I were good friends,” explains Martin. “I’d been a big fan of his since The Houdini Box was published [in 1991] and thought he’d be just the right artist for the quirky doll characters.”
When Hyperion called, Selznick recalls, “I loved the idea and starting sketching right away. Ann and Laura saw the sketches and really liked what I was drawing. They started inserting some of the elements from the drawings into the text—sometimes going back and changing text to reflect what I was drawing.
“I had illustrated novels before,” Selznick continues, “with one drawing per chapter. But I felt that one drawing per chapter was too constrained for this kind of story—it needed to be more freewheeling. So I began thinking of books like Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland, and the way spot illustrations run throughout those books.” The result—in all three books—is a continuous visual interplay with the text.
Before illustrating in earnest, Selznick became a dollhouse builder and a doll maker. “I physically built the dollhouses the families live in,” he explains. “They are miniature—about eight or nine inches high—but the dolls are actual size. I created each character with a wire armature, padded it with paper towels, then covered it with liquid rubber. I modeled the heads and limbs from Sculpey.” He researched both dolls and dollhouses in books and at the Museum of the City of New York, known for its extensive dollhouse collection, and was especially inspired by a giant dollhouse built by an acquaintance in Washington, D.C., upon which he based many of the furnishings in the antique dolls’ home.
When it came to The Meanest Doll in the World, Selznick, inspired by the early pages of Gone with the Wind, decided to create an opening sequence of illustrations that lead the reader into the book. His work on that book proved to be a key step in the development of his Caldecott-winning illustrated novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. “Doing these sequences was an inspiration for Hugo, and then after Hugo, it was fun to think about how to bring illustrated sequences into The Runaway Dolls.”
The word “fun” comes up over and over again as the three describe their collaborative process. But freewheeling as the books may be, a large part of their appeal results from their firm foundation in the very solid doll culture that the authors established from the start: a world with explicit rules. “When you’re writing fantasy, there is a plausible way for things to happen, and a cheating way,” Godwin says. “And we wanted to always do it the plausible way.”
Martin adds that in their books, everything should make sense in the human world as well as in the doll world. “In general, in all three books we are exploring issues of old-fashioned families and modern families—how they get along when they have different values. The interplay between the characters is always based on human interactions.”
The authors never planned to write more than one book, but each book, after it was finished, seemed to “organically generate” an idea for the next one, Martin says. “We thought we were done after the second book,” Godwin says, “and then the idea for the third one popped into my head, and we began again. I wasn’t interested in doing sequels that went over the same ground.”
The Runaway Dolls is billed as the final book of the trilogy, but the authors won’t confirm that the dolls’ adventures are finished forever. While Martin notes that “for the moment, we’re considering it a trilogy and done,” she then adds, “but maybe there will be more.” As Godwin puts it, “They’re done for the moment. They’re not dead; they’re just resting.”
The Runaway Dolls . Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, illus. by Brian Selznick. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-7868-5584-1