William's Doll Review

William's Doll
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An oddly tender tale about a boy and his desire to own a doll of his own. Books that break stereotypes rarely do it as intelligently and simply as Charlotte Zolotow's remarkable, "William's Doll". Usually if a picture book has something to say, it'll announce the fact to you with great pomp and flair, and maybe a little more pomp. It'll take its message and shove it down your throat, attempting to cram every little bit of lesson into you. This is not the case with this book. In "William's Doll" you've a delicate tale told in such a way that its message, while remaining very powerful, is spoken in a small quiet voice.
William is a boy who wants a doll. He wants to play with it and hug it. He wants to tuck it into bed at night and wake it up in the morning and pretend that it's his own child. Needless to say, this plan is met with not a little bit of derision by his peers. His brother thinks it's creepy and the boy next door even goes so far as to call William a sissy. As for William's father, he decides to stem the boy's desires by purchasing manly toys for him. Basketballs, and trains, and tools. The only one who understands William is his grandmother, a wise woman who gives William his heart's desire and patiently explains to his father that there is nothing odd or abnormal about a boy wanting a doll. After all, if girls play with dolls to be good mothers why shouldn't boys play with dolls to be good fathers?
There's a bit of a satirical bite to the end of this picture book that I enjoyed. When the grandmother explains why Williams needs a doll, she tells his father that he needs it so that he'll know how to take care of his own baby, "and bring him the things he wants, like a doll so that he can practice being a father". Which is basically her way of saying to William's pop, "Obviously you never had a doll as a child, so you're not as prepared a father as William someday will be". Nice. The book treads a delicate line as well. Many families today may recognize the fact that it's perfectly possible that William is just as likely to be a boy who wants to be a good father as it is that he may someday be gay (obviously his father's big worry). And there's nothing wrong with that. But whatever William's reasons for wanting a doll, this book makes it plain that gender stereotypes are wrongdy wrong wrong. So I was very taken with the story. The illustrations are rather nice as well. The book was written in 1972, and as such there are some incredibly 70s children here. William looks half a step away from joining the Partridge Family on their bus. His brother and brother's friend look normal enough, but they're fans of wearing tennis sweaters and white shorts, something seen rarely today. Illustrator William Pene Du Bois conveys the tender feelings William wishes to lavish upon his doll perfectly. His pictures are just as adept at placing a sly look into the protagonist's eyes when he beats his brother and pal at basketball as when William stares longingly at the neighbor girl's doll. The result is a perfectly written little work that stands to be remembered today.
It's a little sad that the idea of boys playing with dolls is just as scoffed at today as it was in 1972. Not much progress has been made in that area, I'm afraid. If you don't believe me, just check out the section of Toys R Us labeled "Boys" and the section labeled "Girls". Gender stereotyping is prevalent in our society, and will likely remain so for a long long time. That alone is reason enough for books like "William's Doll" to remain in circulation. As long as a book is capable to teaching both kids and adults an important lesson, it will remain an influential work. So a tip of the hat to "William's Doll". We still have a lot to learn from it.

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Notable Children's Books of 1971–1975 (ALA)Best Books of 1972 (SLJ)Outstanding Children's Books of 1972 (NYT)

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