Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Review: The Doll People series by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin

When my mom came to visit just before Easter, she brought us paperback copies of all of the Doll People books. I have always wanted to read them, so I decided to just preview them all at once so that I will be ready to hand them to my oldest daughter whenever I think she is ready.

The main character of the series is Annabelle Doll. She and her family belong to Kate Palmer, an eight-year-old girl who is the most recent owner of a dollhouse that has been passed down through several generations. The other members of the Doll family include Annabelle's mother and father, her brother Bobby, Nanny, baby Betsy, Uncle Doll, and, though she has been missing for 45 years, Auntie Sarah. The adults have always been very protective of Annabelle, owing in part to their fear of breaking the oath all dolls take if they want to remain living. Part of the oath is to avoid behavior that threatens dollkind, such as being seen moving around by humans, and the penalty for putting other dolls in danger in this way can be as mild as "Doll State," a 24-hour coma-like state in which the doll is only a doll and not a living being, and as severe as "Permanent Doll State," when the doll becomes inanimate forever. When Annabelle finds Auntie Sarah's diary, however, she begins gathering clues as to where her aunt may have gone. Despite the dangers, Annabelle convinces her family that she must venture out into the Palmers' house to find her aunt and bring her back home.

On the night she leaves her dollhouse for the first time, Annabelle comes upon a box containing a present for Kate's younger sister Nora to receive on her upcoming fifth birthday.  The package contains a Funcraft dollhouse and a family of brand-new, durable, plastic dolls: Mom, Dad, Bailey, Baby Britney, and Tiffany, with whom Annabelle becomes fast friends. With Tiffany by her side, and buoyed by the Funcrafts' less cautious outlook on life, Annabelle is certain she can find her long-lost aunt and bring their family back together again. This quest comprises the plot for book one, The Doll People (2000).

The Doll People is really well-done. The story is similar to tales like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years and The Borrowers, but the authors also add new twists to the concept to make it their own. I love all the descriptions of the ridiculous games Nora plays with all the dolls, including the fragile ones that belong to her sister,  as well as the fun little details, such as the fact that Baby Betsy was sent to the original owner of the dollhouse by mistake, and that she is actually a much larger doll from a different set. Martin and Godwin understand what appeals to the imaginations of little girls who love dolls, and they tell a great story using those elements.

Brian Selzick's illustrations, which I don't always like, are perfect for a book like this. His cinematic changes in perspective, and the immersive quality of his pictures really place the reader in the doll world and keep her there for the duration of the story. He does an especially great job capturing the differences in appearance and personality between the Dolls and the Funcrafts.

Book two, The Meanest Doll in the World (2003), sends Annabelle and Tiffany to school in Kate's backpack. When they climb out to explore the school and inadvertently go home in the wrong backpack at the end of the day, they find themselves in a house full of dolls who live in fear of Princess Mimi, a bully who constantly puts them all in danger by intentionally doing things that can't be undone before the humans discover them. Before they return to the Palmers', Annabelle and Tiffany want to save their new friends from Mean Mimi once and for all.

In book three, The Runaway Dolls (2008), the Palmers are getting ready to go on vacation when a mysterious package arrives. Annabelle discovers that it contains a baby named Tilly May - the baby doll that was originally supposed to come with the Dolls has finally been delivered after all these years! Annabelle is overjoyed to have another sister, but also very nervous. What if the Palmers don't realize what's in the package and return it unopened? Unwilling to take that chance, she and Tiffany carefully open the package, release Tilly May, and take off into the great outdoors. Unfortunately, they don't have much of a plan, and before they know it, all three girls, along with their brothers, are placed for sale in a department store from which no doll has ever escaped!

The conclusion of the series, The Doll People Set Sail (2014), is illustrated by Brett Helquist, and sadly, though he tries to uphold the style established by Selznick, the charm just isn't there. The story, which is about the Dolls and Funcrafts accidentally being donated to charity and shipped overseas, is not as strong as the others to begin with, and the loss of Selznick as the illustrator just contributes to the feeling that maybe this series went on just one book too long. I will have no objection to my kids reading it (I gave it three stars), but it kind of a let-down to end the series on a low note.

There is also a picture book companion to the series, The Doll People's Christmas (2016), also illustrated by Helquist. The illustrations are in color, which makes them work a little bit better than Helquist's black and white ones, but the story is bland compared to the plots of the novels. I'll probably bring it out as a novelty at Christmastime sometime after we have read the rest of the series. 

My oldest daughter who loves dolls and adventure stories is definitely going to love these books. She will not understand some references (the dolls sing "Respect" by Aretha Franklin, which she has never heard, and a couple of the books mention Barbies, which she has played with but has never heard called by their brand name) but the themes of friendship and family will appeal to her, and since there are always consequences for bad behavior, I feel like the series will uphold the values we are currently trying to teach her. I haven't decided yet whether to read the first one aloud to my two older girls or to just hand it over to the oldest for independent reading, but we will definitely be getting to these soon! They are great additions to our shelves, and I'm happy to have them.

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