The timing was just right: with a few weeks left until Christmas, while many children across the country were perhaps anticipating finding a long-desired doll waiting for them underneath the tree, children’s book authors and doll aficionados gathered for a warm and introspective panel discussion called Inseparable Companions: Dolls and Their Influence in Children’s Literature. The event, part of the NYPL’s Children’s Literary Salon series, took place on December 7 at the wreathed and ornamented main branch of the New York Public Library. The speakers were: Krystyna Poray Goddu, an author, doll expert, and PW reviewer, whose books include Dollmakers and Their Stories: Women Who Changed the World of Play; Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns 40, The Doll With the Yellow Star, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root, and others; The Doll People series and co-authors Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, who is also v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers; and Christy Ottaviano, who heads the Christy Ottaviano imprint at Henry Holt, and doll enthusiast. Elizabeth Bird, youth materials collections specialist at the New York Public Library, moderated the event.

The speakers brought to the topic intellectual insights as well as personal reflections on growing up with and collecting dolls, several of which the authors displayed on stage. Many of the dolls that the authors knew as children have continued to have a presence in their lives and in their books. McDonough shared that, when she was a child, “there were never enough dolls for me.” She also reflected on the melancholy experience of giving up dolls before one is truly ready: when McDonough was a teenager, she urged her mother to sell two of her antique dolls, believing that she would never miss them. Years later, when McDonough was an adult, she came across similar dolls and felt a pang of intense longing: “I wanted them back, and I was embarrassed,” she said. Happily, McDonough got over her self-consciousness about being an adult with dolls – with a little help from some friends. In fact, she and Ottaviano, who has edited several of McDonough’s books, buy each other dolls every year.

Goddu, who remembered especially loving paper dolls when she was a child, later developed a fascination with the greater “social, domestic history” of all dolls. For Godwin, one doll was particularly memorable. She insisted to her parents that she wanted a “Sandra Doll,” but couldn’t point to any catalogue pictures or dolls in a toyshop window – in fact, Sandra existed purely in her imagination. Nevertheless, she knew that Santa would know who Sandra was, so she didn’t feel it was necessary to elaborate on the details with her parents. Sure enough, on Christmas morning, “there was Sandra,” just as she had envisioned her. Sandra makes a few cameos in the Doll People series, along with several of Godwin’s other dolls: she lent them to series illustrator Brian Selznick to use as models.

The panelists also discussed books from their childhoods in which dolls featured prominently. McDonough said she was strongly influenced by Francis Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 A Little Princess. She recalled a poignant moment from the book, in which Sara knocks Emily, the doll she adores, onto the floor in frustration: “You are nothing but a doll,’ she cried. ‘Nothing but a doll – doll – doll! You care for nothing. You are stuffed with sawdust. You never had a heart. Nothing could ever make you feel. You are a doll!” However, once the moment passes, Sara retrieves Emily, assuring her of her love and acceptance for what she is.

Other favorites for the group included sensitive stories about the bond formed between a child and a doll like The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Adrienne Adams (1958), and The Best Loved Doll by Rebecca Caudill, illustrated by Elliott Gilbert (1962). More recently, as the panelists discussed, doll stories have taken a scary turn, as in Holly Black and Eliza Wheeler’s Doll Bones.

The authors agreed that no discussion about doll books would be complete without mention of Dare Wright’s haunting 1957 picture book The Lonely Doll, about a doll named Edith seeking companionship. The book features photographs of a doll from Wright’s childhood. Goddu recalled being captivated by the book’s photographs, which, she said, offered the story a quality that was both “real and surreal,” and Godwin commented on the “spectrum of semi-creepiness” that many doll stories fall into. Perhaps it’s a question of perspective. While some children would embrace the prospect of their doll coming alive, Bird said, “for others, it’s unearthly and they don’t care for it much.”

Godwin expressed discomfort with the conceit that “any of your dolls could come to life if you believe hard enough. That’s a heavy thing to put on a child,” she said. In the Doll People series, she added, the dolls have their own volition apart from the desires of their human owners: the dolls decide whether to become sentient.

Low-Tech, High Interest

In an age when children can make picture book characters come alive on screen with the swoosh of a finger, Bird asked, do dolls have the same appeal today as they once did? Ottaviano noted the titanic influence of the American Girl franchise, and the significant experience for those girls who are able to visit the American Girl store and pick out a doll. Yet she also wondered whether the biographical chapter books and myriad accessories accompanying each doll might lessen the gratification that comes from improvisational play. When she was a child, she enjoyed finding unexpected objects around the house to incorporate into her dolls’ worlds. In fact, she recalled, “the setup was more fun than the play.”

Moving on from American Girl, Bird asked the panelists to reflect on how boys fit into the doll equation. Could they think of any “boy-centric books” about dolls? Martin and Godwin noted that they actually receive a surprising number of letters from boys about the Doll People. While the letters are not always exactly on topic –sometimes straying to the topic of “blowing things up,” Godwin noted they indicate that the adventure-filled stories have broad appeal. The authors agreed that gender stereotypes tend to designate action figures for boys and dolls for girls. Not surprisingly, “boy-centric” doll books are few and far between, with teddy bears like Winnie-the-Pooh being more likely subjects of “boy books.” Goddu pointed out that the man credited with inventing the teddy bear, Richard Steiff, wanted to make a “cuddly toy for boys” that would hold similar appeal as dolls. Goddu did note a rare exception – a 1954 book called Impunity Jane (Viking) by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Adrienne Adams. In that book, a boy encounters a doll that he senses is longing for adventure, so he liberates her from her female owners and carries her around in his pocket. Trouble arises when the boy is caught with the doll by a group of his male peers.

The panelists concluded by discussing their current projects and reflecting on what they feel makes a successful “doll book.” McDonough, who is at work on a mystery involving a doll museum, believes that a good doll story shares the same qualities as other children’s fiction and requires “getting the adults off-stage. The condition of childhood is powerlessness. The best children’s books allow kids to enact the fantasy of powerfulness.” Goddu is working on a book about a boy and girl who make dolls; it includes doll-making directions for readers. She noted that good doll books avoid slipping into overly sentimental territory: “they can so easily become saccharine and sweet,” she said. Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, she added, is an example of book that does not always present an idealized relationship between a child and a doll. Martin and Godwin are finishing up the fourth book in their series, The Doll People Set Sail, due out in fall 2014. Though Brian Selznick remains a creative consultant for the series, Brett Helquist will now be doing the illustrations. Martin also commented on the qualities of a successful doll book, saying that, like any fantasy story, a good doll book must “stay within the parameters” of the world it has created.

McDonough then shared a story about the doll she’d brought with her to the panel (other dolls on stage included the Little Prince, belonging to Goddu, and an antique doll from the 1930’s or 1940’s, belonging to Ottaviano). McDonough’s doll was given to her by Trudie Strobel, a childhood survivor of the Holocaust whose story inspired McDonough to write The Doll with the Yellow Star. Decades after Strobel was forced to hand over her cherished German Bisque doll to a Nazi guard, a therapist urged her to somehow recover that doll as a way to help her heal. Of course, there was no way to find the lost doll from so long ago, so Strobel recreated her. She continued to make dolls, dressing them in the very same restrictive clothing forced upon Jews by various regimes over the years. Many of the dolls wear yellow, “the color of humiliation,” and some have clothes with no pockets or wear two different shoes.

Several of Strobel’s dolls also now reside at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. As McDonough explains in her author’s note for The Doll with the Yellow Star, “Trudie Strobel’s story stayed with me for years. I remained captivated by the idea of a little girl losing a doll – the symbol of childhood innocence – and by having that doll in some way restored.”