For The Love Of Dolls

It was the true story of the family behind these famous dolls that inspired author Yona Zeldis McDonough to write her most recent children’s book, The Doll Shop Downstairs, about a Jewish girl living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during WWI:

Zeldis McDonough, a self-professed “doll fanatic,” admitted in a recent interview with me that it is “embarrassing to still be one at my age.” Embarrassing or not, her decision to just go with where her interest pointed her has resulted in her enjoying both critical and commercial success with the book. Brooklyn-based McDonough’s visit to the Madame Alexander doll factory in Harlem years ago while on assignment for a doll magazine, and her learning about the company’s beginnings as a doll hospital, have evolved into a juvenile literature hit that has been chosen by The New York Public Library as one of Best Children’s Books 2009 -100 Titles for Reading and Sharing and as a KIRKUS REVIEWS Children’s Book of 2009.

Imports of German doll parts were suspended.

The Doll Shop Downstairs is the story of the fictional Breittlemanns, an immigrant Jewish family of Russian background, running a doll repair shop on Essex Street in the early years of the 20th century. It is told from the point of view of the 9 year-old middle daughter Anna, who is sandwiched between her very capable (and bossy) older sister Sophie and her babyish younger sister Trudie. The family lives above the store in a tenement building, the mother working hard to make their home clean and comfortable despite the crowded conditions. The girls help out in the  shop and become attached to some of the dolls that have been brought in for fixing, but go unclaimed for a long time. The outbreak of WWI is the turning point in the story, with the resultant trade embargo with Germany – the country where most of the world’s dolls were made at the time, and the only one producing spare parts – threatening the Breittlemanns’ livelihood.

Zeldis McDonough loves historical fiction as much as dolls.  As a girl, she favored books that were both set and written in the past. She has always found “the distance of the past fascinating,” making it unsurprising that she is an aficionada of old things and a collector of vintage clothing and antiques. “I am enormously moved by these things that comprised a life,” she explains. Having written other historical literature for children, the author chose to set this book during WWI,  a period she feels is often ignored.

Zeldis McDonough is purposeful to write narratives in which children are agents of change, part of the solution to the plot’s presenting problem. Young Anna Breitelman is the one who comes up with a way to resolve the predicament posed by trade being cut off with Germany, allowing her to feel important and to fulfill the wish that all children have to be powerful.

I found the language of the The Doll Shop Downstairs to be beautifully rendered, and I was equally enchanted by the author’s portrayal of childhood a century ago, with its combination of innocence with resourcefulness and self-reliance that is not as common today. Although the book clearly presents Jewish life, it differs from other depictions of it in that time and place. Rather than Anna and her sisters being surrounded solely by other Jews, they interact with obviously non-Jewish characters who come from all parts of the city to have their dolls repaired by Mr. Breittlemann. When asked about this, Zeldis McDonough said that she did not consciously create the story this way, but that she is not surprised that she did so, given her own background, outlook on life, and preference for inclusion over exclusion.

The Doll Shop Downstairs‘ focusing on dolls, being historical fiction and featuring a young heroine, are evidence that Zeldis McDonough is writing for elementary school age girls – the same set who are likely to own the only Jewish American Girl doll, the one called Rebecca Rubin (who coincidentally also “lives” on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century). But just as she cops to being an abiding doll fanatic, she also admits that, “I am still writing for the girl in me.” True, but she is also writing for many girls today and those of generations to come who will read this book, which, according to Jewish Book World, is destined to become a classic.

Those of you who have already read the book (or more likely have read or given it to a child) and are wondering what happens next to Anna, her family and the dolls, can look forward to the sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop, which is due out in fall 2011. All that is known about it so far is that in it, “the year is 1915, and the Breittlemann family’s new doll factory is doing well. But an unexpected visit from a Russian cousin and the appearance of a stray cat and her kitten create both new problems and new opportunities for Anna, her sisters, and their parents.”

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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