Tuesday, January 31, 2012

William's Doll

About William's Doll
"William wanted a doll.
He wanted to hug it
and cradle it in his arms..."
So begins Charlotte's quietly revolutionary book --- still selling briskly four decades after its publication in 1972. What's so special about a boy who wanted a doll ? Well, then, as now, a boy's wish for what's too often seen as a girl's toy makes many people uneasy. (Left, the cover of William's Doll, gently illustrated by William Pene du Bois.) But though the topic was, and remains, controversial, Charlotte's approach was not. She tells the story softly, in an almost old-fashioned manner, and the satisfying circular structure of the narrative is timeless and deeply pleasing to children. As Zena Sutherland remarked in the Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books, the book is "as endearing for its tenderness as for the message it portrays."
What makes the book as timeless and endearing as it is? Just ask Kimberlee Ent, the 43-year old elementary school librarian at Hampden Elementary, in Mechanicsburg, PA. After Kimberlee visited this site, she noted, "I love to share Charlotte's books with all my students. The older I get.... the more her books mean to me." But William's Doll, is, she says, her favorite. It embodies one of her core beliefs, which are shared by so many of us who write for, teach, parent or otherwise spend time with the young "As I work with so many different children and realize all their unique gifts, abilities, and needs, I hope for someone to be in each of their lives who celebrates them as an individual. We all need someone to support us and love us, unconditionally." In the case of William's Doll, that 'someone' turns out to be William's grandmother.
What happens when a boy wants a doll?
William's brother and friends and the boy next door call him a creep and a sissy. His father gets him a basketball ("He practiced a lot / and got good at it / but it had nothing to do / with the doll. / William still wanted one, and electric train set ("The tiny train/ threaded around and around the tracks/ with a clacking sound./ William made cardboard stations / and tunnels/ and bridges / and played with the train/ a lot. But he didn't stop wanting / a doll..." ). Below, William plays with his trains.
Finally, his grandmother comes to visit --- and at last William is understood. She gets William the doll (he "loved it right away"). And she explains to William's father (who "was upset. 'He's a boy!' he said / 'Why does he need a doll?'") why William needs it:
"so that
when he's a father
like you,
he'll know how to
take care of his baby
and feed him
and love him
and bring him
the things he wants,
like a doll
so that he can
practice being
a father. "
How Charlotte came to write William's Doll
"I remember lots of little pieces that went into it, and into my thinking.
"The first was this. My husband, Maurice, desperately wanted children, which was unusual in the crowd we moved in then. But even so, he had a hard time with the physical side of it. For instance, he never changed a diaper, and would leave the room when the baby was being changed. This is not a put-down of him: it was the custom of the time, fathers just didn't have much to do with their children, especially infants, in that way back then. But I used to think that both he and the baby were missing something because something else always happened. For example, one day when I was changing my first child, Stephen, he smiled --- his first smile. I remember feeling sad that Maurice missed that.
"The second was this. A few months before my daughter, Ellen, was born, my son Stephen fell in love with a large stuffed animal, a lion, which he saw in one of the store windows on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. He went crazy over it. The lion was very expensive, and Maurice didn't approve of giving boys stuffed animals, so we didn't buy it. Stephen cried and cried and cried. A few weeks before I went to the hospital to have Ellen, I started to get worried about leaving Steve. It would be the first time I wasn't at home, and all the routines he was familiar with would be broken. I remembered the lion and I thought that might comfort him. So I bought it and gave it to Steven beforehand and he did love it. He named it Leo, and kept it for years." (Stephen, at about the age where he fell in love with Leo the lion, is pictured above.)
"A third episode, the one that drove me towards the book most clearly, happened in Washington Square Park, where I used to take Stephen to play when we lived in the Village. I don't remember the particulars, but there was a little boy there who wanted a rag-doll. I overheard the father say, oh get him a gun instead . It did make me mad. It all came together: how men missed out on the pleasure of being with very young children, and how, because they missed it and because they had never had it with their fathers, they had no concept that war and harshness and so much unpleasantness came out of playing with guns as children, and growing up thinking it was unmanly to play with a doll or stuffed toy bear or lion. (Photo, above, shows Washington Square Park in the springtime, and appears courtesy of Readio.com.)
"I did not write the book to be feminist ideology, although I am a feminist, and though I am very glad feminists have found a message in it. But I wrote it out of a direct emotional sorrow."
The dedication: William's Doll is dedicated "To Billy and Nancy." Who are they? Surprise --- Charlotte doesn't know!
Today, there are often two sets of dedications on children's books, one from the illustrator and one from the writer. But in 1972, the accepted practice was that only the writer issued a dedication. William Pene du Bois, who illustrated several of Charlotte's books, including It's not Fair and My Grandson Lew, asked her if this dedication could be used, she agreed.
Adaptations & awards
William's Doll was adapted for film/video in 1981 by Phoenix Films, produced and directed by Robert Carlo Chiesa. A version of the book was also made into a song, and is included on the best-selling recording Free to Be You and Me. (Below, William's grandmother saves the day by picking out a doll for William.)

E-mail charlottesdaughter@charlottezolotow.com
© Dragon, Pen & Inc, 2001-2007

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