By Holly Hobbie
Little, Brown and Company
On shelves September 1st
Oh this just doesn’t make a jot of sense. It doesn’t. Look, under normal circumstances books with big flashy morals make me cringe. You know what I’m talking about. Books with agendas. The ones that foist some kind of message on you like “be yourself” or “cheating is wrong”. To make a book with that kind of blatant preachifying actually work as a whole you need to be some kind of amazing writer. You need serious skills. And then I pick up Fanny by Holly Hobbie. I pick it up, I read it, I choke up, I read it again, and for the life of me I have absolutely no idea why a book that could have been so messagey and didactic instead ends up sweet, loving, and smart. What the freaking heck happened here? For Holly Hobbie (author/illustrator of those fabulous Toot and Puddle books) to switch gears entirely and write a picture book about a little girl, LET ALONE a picture book that thwaps Barbie and Bratz dolls upside the head, and for that same book to be an overwhelming and utter success.. well, I can’t explain it. By all logic this book shouldn’t work. The fact that it will charm you utterly and completely is a testament to Ms. Hobbie’s mad skillz in the writing and illustrating arenas. Bow before her, people. Then scratch your head in bafflement.
If there is one thing in the world Fanny wants it is a Connie doll. One of those big-lipped designer dolls all her friends already have. And when Fanny’s mom says in no uncertain terms that she will not purchase that toy for her daughter, Fanny comes up with a solution. Why not make her own? The end result is a lovely comfy doll she names Annabelle that looks nothing like the store bought Connies everyone else has. At first Fanny grows embarrassed of her “different” doll. But after a little consideration she decides that even though Annabelle isn’t like the others, she’s still a great doll and worth playing with (particularly when the Connies are nurses and Annabelle’s the doctor). And when she starts making her more clothes, Fanny decides to give Annabelle her own little doll. That doll’s name? Why Connie, of course.
They publisher is sort of toting this with a Holly-Hobbie-Goes-Human angle. Those of us who were children of the 70s and 80s, however, might be surprised to learn that this is not the first time Ms. Hobbie has penned people rather than pigs. If you flip through her illustrated memoir The Art of Holly Hobbie you’ll find quite a few Sunbonnet Sue pictures. The minute I saw these they triggered an immediate response in the spiderwebbed crevices of my memory. Holy cats, I used to read Holly Hobbie when I was a kid! After gasping a little over this revelation, however, it’s clear that the author has refined her art over the years. Where in the past her girls were often be-hatted with faces hidden in silhouette, Fanny’s mug is clear and present every step of the way. If Ms. Hobbie ever sported a reluctance to do people, it’s now impossible to tell.
Let’s go back to Fanny though. Take a gander at this gal. She’s kind of a rare beast, though you wouldn’t necessarily recognize the fact at a first glance. The glasses and headband are cute. Ditto her penchant for black leggings and pink sneaks. And as one co-worker of mine said as she flipped through the book, “Thank GOD she’s not a redhead!” We children’s librarians get a little sick of repetition, and some days it feels like the word “spunky” is synonymous with “flame-haired”. That said I’d almost say that Fanny is less “spunky” than she is inventive and ingenious. I mean, she wants something, her mother says no, and so instead of whining about it she sets about finding a solution to her problem another way. Spunk heck. This kids’ got chutzpah.
I can already hear what some people will say about the book. A kid that age has created a doll that good? Poppycock! Yeah, well sure. That’s probably true. Maybe Fanny’s some kind of proto-sewing machine prodigy for being able to create a doll this good out of her pink pajama top. But I think most people will be willing to overlook that minor detail (and honestly, it’s not impossible that some kids would be gifted in this way) in the face of the story’s tone. Hobbie’s great skill is that she never feels like she’s pandering or even trying to make you feel a particular emotion. Using succinct little sentences we feel Fanny’s frustration, embarrassment, and ultimate confidence without a vast plethora of needless sentences. Plus you can’t help but like a book where the mom explains why she won’t buy her daughter her heart’s desire because when it comes to those kinds of dolls “They’re just too… much.” Parents everywhere will sympathize.
The illustrations themselves are part of the real draw here. Fanny is immediately accessible and sympathetic right off the bat. Something about her feels real. Maybe that’s why the artificial glamour of the Connie dolls look so out of place. Not that Hobbie can’t make a mean Connie doll. A combination (as I’ve said) of Barbie and the Bratz, these vapid supermodels make for a wonderful punch line when Fanny and friends play hospital and Dr. Annabelle is assisted by two over-makeuped nurses. Above and beyond the physical presentation of the objects in this book, Hobbie is also capable of producing an excellent skeptical glance. When Fanny presents her homemade Connie doll the looks on her friends’ faces speak volumes.
The book bears some surface similarities to The Birthday Doll by Jane Cutler in which a glamorous hard plastic doll is eventually eschewed as a bedtime companion for its floppier, sweeter rival. That book might pair nicely with little Fanny, but there’s an emotional tug to this book that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere. Hobbie’s managed just the perfect melding of text and image so that what you end up with isn’t a diatribe against oversexed dolls for girls but a clever story of ingenuity and tenderness. Tone can sometimes be everything in a picture book and the tone of Fanny will sustain it in the memories of children and adults for a long time to come. Sweet in the best sense of the word.
On shelves September 1st.
Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly