Yes, yes, I know the real phrase. However, I mean to say that this post is all about dolls and toys with lives of their own! One of my best-loved books as an elementary reader was When the Dolls Woke. It was a little scary, but not Wait Till Helen Comes scary, so that was good for me. These books aren’t like that–well, these books aren’t all like that! Some are silly or sweet, some are thought-provoking, and some are a little bit creepy. Or a lot creepy. Take your pick!
[Dolls and Toyland book list (alphabetical order by author, suggested interest levels included)]
Corduroy, by Don Freeman (1968, preschool to early elementary): Corduroy is a toy on the shelf in a big department store, and he has been overlooked for a long time. When a little girl asks to get him and her mother says no because he’s missing a button, Corduroy decides to go in search of his missing button after the store closes for the night. He makes discoveries along the way (“Could this be a mountain?” [on the escalator] “I think I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain!”), but when he pulls a button off a mattress, he knocks over a lamp and gets the attention of the night guard who brings him back downstairs to the toy shop (not realizing Corduroy is the one who made the noise). The next morning, the little girl, Lisa, returns and buys Corduroy with her own money, and she brings him home to her bedroom. When she sews on a new button because she thinks he’ll be more comfortable that way, Corduroy says that he has always wanted a friend, and Lisa responds as though she has heard him speak aloud and gives him a hug.
The Lonely Doll, story and photographs by Dare Wright (1957, preschool to early elementary): This is not the earliest example of a living doll story I found, but it is unique in that it is a picture book illustrated with photographs of posed toys and with no toy owners a part of the story at all. (They are half-implied in that the doll tries on adult-sized high heels and puts on lipstick she finds, but the doll is lonely and has no one to play with until Mr. Bear and Little Bear show up at her door one day, so it seems as though there is no child at least–and no worries about being caught by any human.) Some of the contents haven’t aged particularly well, but it is the kind of story a modern child could use as a mentor text to create his or her own photograph-illustrated story about what toys do when they’re alone.
Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator!, words and pictures by Mo Willems (2011, preschool to early elementary): Amanda’s alligator doesn’t like waiting for Amanda to get home when she leaves him. He frets and fusses and hopes she’ll bring him a surprise. Like most Mo Willems books, this one has a lot of silliness and a bit of the unexpected. The alligator seems to be fully living, and the stuffed panda at the end is as well (although she doesn’t look like it when she first arrives). The alligator is kind of suspicious of the panda at first, jealous of her newness and not-sale-bin qualities (the alligator was on clearance), but when they are both left behind, the panda reveals she is not good at waiting either, and they enjoy each other’s company doing all the silly things the alligator is always waiting and wanting to do with Amanda but doesn’t always get the chance.
Babushka’s Doll, by Patricia Polacco (1990, early elementary): Natasha isn’t a naughty little girl, exactly, but she is rather pushy and demanding. If she wants something from her grandmother, she wants it now, and she doesn’t see why Babushka won’t drop everything she’s doing to do it. Babushka decides it is time for Natasha to play with her old doll, the doll she played with just once, and leaves Natasha with the doll while she goes to get groceries. As soon as Babushka leaves, the doll comes to life and starts giving poor Natasha a taste of her own medicine. At first, Natasha is thrilled to play with a living doll, but she is soon worn out by the persistence and insistence of the little doll. By the time Babushka returns, Natasha is exhausted to the point of tears, and insists once was enough to play with the doll. When Babushka puts the doll away again, the doll winks at her before becoming just a doll again, and Babushka’s mission is complete.
The Velveteen Rabbit, by Marjery Williams, illustrated by William Nicholson (1958, early elementary): Because of this story, I spent a good portion of my childhood afraid that my parents were going to torch all my belongings every time I got sick! (I had an over-active imagination and a whole lot of hypochondria…) In it, a simple stuffed rabbit longs to become Real: “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” When the boy loses his usual sleeping companion toy, his nurse gives him his old rabbit, and soon they are inseparable, and the velveteen rabbit becomes what he knows as Real. On one excursion, the velveteen rabbit meets two living rabbits, and they want him to play, but he can’t. Now, however, he dearly wants to do the things they talk about doing–play and hop and dance–but he is content to stay with the boy who loves him. When the boy becomes sick with scarlet fever, the velveteen rabbit is there to comfort and encourage him, but once he recovers, the doctor orders that all the toys and books must be burned to get rid of the germs, so the rabbit is put out with the other rubbish. He mourns the unfairness of becoming Real only to end up in this situation, and a tear falls to the ground. From it grows a blossom, and from the blossom comes a fairy–the nursery magic fairy. She tells him that her job is to take the toys that have been loved and make them Real, really Real to everyone, not just the child who loves them, and she takes the velveteen rabbit to the forest to be Real. He meets the boy again in the spring while he is with the other rabbits, and while the boy is reminded of his old, beloved bunny, he never realizes that is really the rabbit he is seeing.
Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky (2006, elementary): GirlChild found this amusing–her favorite character is Plastic, a rubber ball–but I think that the audience range is pretty wide, particularly if it is used as a read-aloud to a younger group (who might not realize how funny melodramatic StingRay is or how practical under-appreciated Plastic is) and for independent chuckles for older readers. The toys interact with one another and with other household objects (the bathroom towels, the washer and dryer), and their peculiar worldview makes even the most ordinary event extraordinary! GirlChild also read the sequels, Toys Come Home and Toy Dance Party, on the plane and in the car when we were on vacation.
The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, pictures by Brian Selznick (2000, elementary): Annabelle, a 100-year-old 8-year-old china doll, is more restless than usual ever since stumbling upon her missing Auntie Sarah’s hidden journal. Gone for almost half a century, Auntie Sarah recorded things that she never could have seen from inside the dollhouse, and Annabelle starts to have questions–questions the adults in the house don’t really want to answer. When a new doll family moves into the human house (a gift for the younger daughter to keep her from rough-housing with the antique dolls her older sister owns), their carefree, modern ways are just the incentive Annabelle needs to spur her to action (with the help of Tiffany, her plastic counterpart in the other family). The rest of her family is more reluctant, but it’s going to take more than just the two girls to save Auntie Sarah from being lost forever! The endpapers mimic the different ads that would have been contemporary for each dollhouse purchase, highlighting the differences between the two doll families. The first of several in a series.
The Very Little Princess, by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles (2010, elementary): This was not the cute, silly story I expected from the cover and jacket description. That’s not entirely fair–it was that, but it was also a very heart-wrenching story of abandonment and loneliness. (I probably should have expected something sad; this is the author of the most traumatizing Newbery Honor novel of my childhood, On My Honor.) Zoey’s mother unexpectedly tells her to pack to visit her grandmother, a grandmother she never knew she had. They drive for hours before they reach the country home where her mother grew up, and Zoey is greeted at the door by a woman who looks much like her own mother but older. While her mother and grandmother argue downstairs, Zoey escapes to the upper floor of the house and finds her mother’s old room and old dollhouse. A tear–whether of excitement over the doll or from the stress of the argument downstairs–falls onto the doll from the house, and she wakes, startling Zoey. This doll turns out to be Princess Regina, and she considers Zoey her personal servant. Zoey is happy to play along–she’s played this game before with her mother, and she’s eager to avoid the conflict downstairs–but the doll keeps losing her ability to speak and move when she’s left alone too long. While the doll is incapacitated and Zoey is unable to get her to come back, Zoey’s mother leaves, leaving Zoey behind indefinitely, because she “needs to be alone,” and Zoey is heartbroken, weeping on the doll in her sleep. Princess Regina wakes up and fully realizes that Zoey’s tears are what gives her life, so she tries to make her cry more, but in so doing, she comes to understand the deep hurt that makes Zoey cry, and her first feelings of empathy make her cry instead, and she becomes really and permanently real. She, Zoey, and Zoey’s grandmother then work through their fears and pain by taking one day at a time with whatever comes. (I’ve not read it yet, but there is another of these books that is about Zoey’s mother, Rose, and the doll.)
When the Dolls Woke, by Marjorie Filley Stover (1985, middle to upper elementary): You might very well have a hard time finding this title for sale anywhere, and I’m not going to claim that it is a literary masterpiece–only that I loved it as a child (and still have my old copy)! Gail, a shy fourth-grade girl who has just started at a new school, is sent an old dollhouse by her Great Aunt Abigail whose Aunt Melissa had received it as a gift from her sea-faring brother, Abigail’s father. Gail is thrilled until she sees that it has fallen into disrepair, that the doll clothes are shabby and their hair unkempt, and her mother tells her that she just doesn’t have time to help fix it up right then. Soon after the dollhouse arrives, however, Great Aunt Abigail follows for a visit, and she gladly works with Gail to refurbish the house. Sir Gregory, Lady Alice, Maribelle, and Tommy are the dollhouse family, and they have a Dutch ragdoll maid, Becky, who replaced the wooden doll, Martinique, who made the other dolls uncomfortable with the tales of voodoo from her homeland. The family, recently woken from a long sleep in storage, believes that Gail has the gift of being able to “hear” them–get an understanding of their thoughts–when they wish hard enough, just like her great grandmother (the one who stashed Martinique away in anger) and Great Aunt Abigail before her. And when they discover that their beloved Abigail is in dire straits, they work to communicate the secret of the dollhouse…a secret only Sir Gregory knew and is just beginning to remember again. (Rereading it as an adult, I really don’t know why I felt it was even a little scary–maybe just Martinique’s voodoo attempts and the fact that she makes the other dolls nervous? It really isn’t frightening at all, and things work out for Martinique!)
The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks (1980, middle to upper elementary): Set in England in the 1970s, the story begins when Omri receives both a plastic Indian and an old medicine cabinet cupboard for his birthday. His mother gives him an old key that fits the lock, and he puts his toy inside and locks it. When he wakes in the morning, he finds that the plastic toy has come to life. His original excitement over having the ability to bring toys to life dims as he realizes the gravity of having such responsibility for the tiny life, particularly when he realizes that “his” Indian, Little Bear, is a real person from history–an Iroquois from the time of the French and Indian War–who has somehow been brought forward in time as a miniature and deserves respect. His friend Patrick doesn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the situation and, against Omri’s instructions, brings a cowboy to life using the cupboard and key, creating additional chaos. Eventually, the mutual respect between Omri and Little Bear allows him to do the hardest thing–send his new friend back to his own time and place. (There is a little bit of language in the book, and, like many older books, some stereotypical depictions. I feel like Omri’s respect for Little Bear and life in general is a strong positive, however.)
House of Dolls, by Francesca Lia Block (2010, upper elementary to middle school): The dolls in Madison Blackberry’s dollhouse have an idyllic life. Wildflower (a very old doll that had belonged to Madison’s grandmother) has Guy (apparently an army figure), Rockstar has B. Friend (a studious stuffed bear), and Miss Selene (a fairy doll) has a vast and elaborate wardrobe she shares, and they all have each other. Madison envies them. She envies their finery, their companionship, and their happiness. Her grandmother shakes her head at her for her moods, but she doesn’t engage with her. Her father travels the world for work, her mother is a socialite, and her little brother gets all the family attention, so friendless Madison takes out her frustration on the dolls, taking first their boyfriends, then their clothing, away from them. Miss Selene is hit particularly hard because she had always used the clothing to distract her from something else she had lost long ago. Wildflower decides to communicate with Madison’s grandmother to try to get her to show love to Madison like her own mother had shown love to her before she died. When Madison’s grandmother shares her pictures of her mother with Madison and makes Madison a beautiful dress to rival any that the dolls had ever received, Madison loses her resentment and returns the lost companions and clothing to the dolls. The rest of her family somehow seems to feel the need to show love again, too, and things start to look up for them all. This seems to be a simple book, but it isn’t simple to explain. The brevity competes with the seriousness and complexity of the subject matter, and it is clearly much more than a story about dolls.
The Dollhouse Murders, by Betty Ren Wright (1983, upper elementary to middle school): I think I’d consider this one Wait ’til Helen Comes scary. (I should not have started it late at night!) There are some definitely dated things in this book (rugby shirts, cassette tapes, and a complete lack of cell phones), but the use of the word “retarded” in the jacket description is what really threw me for a loop. It was used to describe Louann, the younger sister of the main character, Amy, but the phrases “like a little kid” and “brain-damaged” were the only terms actually used inside the book, if I recall correctly. There are two intertwined story lines in this book: almost-thirteen-year-old Amy being pushed to the brink by her mother’s expectations of her in regards to her sister and a decades-old family murder mystery that is being played out in the replica dollhouse in her great-grandparents’ former home. If you have an easily spooked reader, I’d avoid this one (particularly if there’s a dollhouse in the house…), but older readers looking for a not-too-graphically-gory spine-tingler might be interested. I’d recommend you read it yourself first, but, again, I wouldn’t recommend a late-night reading unless you’re braver than I am!
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop (1929, upper elementary to middle school): Hitty is a wooden doll, skillfully whittled by a peddler who stays the winter with the Preble family of Maine while Captain Preble is out at sea, and the story is told in first person from her point-of-view. (Calculating from the time the book was written, this is likely to have been set in the first half the the 19th century, probably in the 1820s. The date is only mentioned once, near the end of the book, but current events such as wars are mentioned often enough to get a vague sense of the 100-year chronology as the book progresses.) She appears to have limited mobility, and she only is mentioned to use it a few times during the book. (She interprets the other dolls she encounters as being either too rude or too self-absorbed to interact with her, but I got the impression that she was actually the only doll with any life in the book.) When Mrs. Preble and Phoebe join Captain Preble on his next voyage, Hitty begins her worldwide travels and adventures. Through the travels of the doll, the reader experiences life on a whaling vessel, tribal conflict on a tropical island, snake charmers and missionaries in India, higher society in Philadelphia, simple Quaker life, upperclass New York, meeting several artists, musicians, and writers of the time (some of whom appear to be fictional, some real historical people), a Rhode Island mill town, Mardi Gras, a Cotton Exposition, a cargo boat on the Mississippi, a black country family, a railroad station, a home with a vast doll collection, and eventually an antique shop. It really is true that older books have more complex language, and that is part of what makes this Newbery Medal-winning book an upper elementary or middle school title. The other big thing is the need to thoughtfully interpret the events and portrayals of different people in a different era and realize how attitudes of the time might color the way the author characterizes the people Hitty encounters; some of the portrayals are pretty offensive, actually, despite the fact that Hitty is a mostly impartial observer who admirably considers different points-of-view and lifestyles as she changes hands. Could be used in conjunction with a history class on the time between the War of 1812 and the end of World War I.
Doll Bones, by Holly Black, with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler (middle school): The illustrations creeped me out more than the contents did, despite their extensive creepiness–I had to store this book cover down! Middle school friends Poppy, Zach, and Alice have an elaborate game they play together with their dolls and action figures. Zach, who has just discovered a skill for basketball and whose deadbeat father has recently returned to his life, is afraid that Poppy’s brothers will reveal his secret to someone he knows and make his life rougher than his father is already making it, but he is devastated when his dad throws his bag of action figures away while he is at school because he feels Zach’s too old for that kind of play. Desperate to hide what happened from Poppy and Alice, Zach lies and tells them he just doesn’t want to play anymore, and Poppy tries to lure him back in by promising to get the Great Queen (the creepy bone china doll her mother keeps locked in a glass cabinet) out to add more excitement to their play. This, however, sets a series of events in motion that involves horrific dreams about a little girl, a middle-of-the-night trek across the state on a quest Poppy insists is the doll’s demand, and a variety of really, really creepy events. (I am seriously getting goosebumps all over while writing this despite having finished the book itself weeks ago!) Definitely not for the faint of heart, there are layers and layers of story in this book, from the doll’s origins to the current struggles of each of the main characters. While you try not to toss the book away in horror, you’ll struggle not to really feel for the kids in the book (even if you’re still a kid yourself)! Again, depending on your kid, you might want to preview to make sure this “don’t try this at home” book doesn’t inspire behaviors you don’t want your child copying (like taking a midnight train out of town without permission). This book received a Newbery Honor in 2014.
There are, I am sure, many more books in this category–Winnie-the-Pooh, for example! If you have a favorite living toys title you or your children have read, share the title in the comments!