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The Case for Re-Illustration: William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

WilliamsDoll1 155x300 The Case for Re Illustration: Williams Doll by Charlotte ZolotowI had just the loveliest dinner the other night with some high-falutin’ folks in the children’s literary biz.  Fine conversation and finer memories were tossed all about.  Yet I credit the devil on my right shoulder for suggesting to me the relative wisdom of my bringing up a long-standing belief that had been percolating in the back of my brain.  I believe I must have said something along the lines of this.

Betsy:  You know what would be great?  If Harper Collins had William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow re-illustrated.

To my companions’ credit they did not subsequently pelt me with dinner rolls, though there were a palpable sense of shock in the air.  At long last one turned to me and asked with great calm and presence of mind, “Has there ever been a successful re-illustration of a classic picture book?”

Well.  Um.  That is to say . . . . er.

Stumped!  I haven’t been that stumped since Peter Glassman asked me which Newbery Award winner illustrated a Newbery Award winning book by another author (answer at the end of this post).  I floundered about, then mentioned that I had never quite taken to the W.W. Denslow illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (another horror for some of you, I am sure, for another day).  “Oh no,”  she replied.  “Not a work of fiction.  A picture book.”

For a good ten minutes I sat there as the conversation drifted to other topics.  Eventually I was able to come up with at least one book (my crazed cry of “Never Tease a Weasel!!!” may have caused serious damage to the soup course) before admitting that when it comes to well-known classics, no.  I’ve never seen a successful re-illustration.

Which is not to say it couldn’t happen!  And if it absolutely 100% did have to happen (more on that presently) then it should happen to Charlotte Zolotow’s best known book.  William’s Doll. Copyright 1972.

Some background.

How many of you would count yourselves as members of the Free to Be You and Me generation?  If so, you may remember this old video from back in the day.  I sure as heck do.

It was based on Zolotow’s picture book and I distinctly remember seeing this as a kid and finding it extraordinarily interesting.  This may have had something to do with the fact that the original book sported a very different look.

WilliamsDoll2 The Case for Re Illustration: Williams Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

Bowl haircut?  Check.  Neckerchief?  Check.  Bellbottoms?  Check.  Saddle shoes?  Check and check.  Yes, it seems that even when kids might have sported this look, I was more inclined to be interested in the kid wearing the sneakers, jeans and baseball cap in the Marlo Thomas production than the one featured in an honest-to-gosh book.

Now the illustrations for William’s Doll were done by the great William Pene du Bois, a man probably remembered best today for his Newbery Award winner Twenty-One Balloons (a wonderful video of THAT particular title can be seen here).  No one is going to contest that the man was a master artist.  And if this book were some timeless relic of the past I would have no trouble with the art. But here’s the thing: The book is not a relic.  It is timely.  So timely, in fact, that if you happen to scan through the comments on the above YouTube video (do so at your own risk here) you will note the overwhelming need for this book that continues even today.

Another factor?  We haven’t even entered into 2013 officially and yet I think I’ve read about 14 different bully-related books.  And not one, NOT ONE of those books has the sheer guts of this title.  If you don’t know the story, here’s the long and short: William is a boy who wants a doll.  His older brother and dad pretty much tease him mercilessly about this or try to get him into manly sports and train related things.  Then his grandma goes and gets him one and then explains to dear old dad that the doll has a practical application. After all, someday William will be a dad of his own and he’ll need to know how to care for a baby.  Now admittedly I always felt like this explanation (and the cover image of William doing an aforementioned manly sport) felt a bit like overcompensation.  I mean, why can’t a boy just want a doll because it’s a doll?  Does he absolutely have to have a reason?  But hey, you go with what you’ve got.  And what you’ve got is a book that even today is regularly assigned to kids to read by their schools and yet is losing a lot of its impact because of the art.

You see, here is William:

WilliamsDoll3 The Case for Re Illustration: Williams Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

And he doesn’t look like any kid out there today.  Here is his older brother:

WilliamsDoll4 1024x814 The Case for Re Illustration: Williams Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

Because if you think old William here looks a little dated, those preppy tennis whites are outta sight. Dude totally doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.

So my thinking is that if someone were to re-illustrate the book today with images of kids as they look today, yes it may date in time but until it does the book may be able to get back some of its impact.  Then the ultimate book about a kid bullied for being who he is could be re-discovered by schools and parents all over this great green world.

You might say to me, “Well, sure.  So let’s say we re-illustrate this book.  What next?  Do you want to redo A Snowy Day?  How about finding someone besides Sendak to redo Where the Wild Things Are?  How about Goodnight bloody Moon?!?”  The difference as I see it is that I don’t feel the images in this particular book are, to be frank, William Pene du Bois at his best.  They’re fine. They have their defenders.  But no one has ever assigned this book because the art was so nice.  It’s a book with a message that doesn’t feel didactic (to me anyway) and that should have been given to someone like Mercer Mayer.  Someone who could have given it a shot in the arm.  It’s not like I’m talking about redoing something like Oliver Button Is a Sissy.  I mean THAT is a book that feels fresh every time you read it.  Tomie de Paola is visually incapable of aging.

A deeper issue at work here is the question of use.  I see this as a book that could speak directly to children today if they felt like it was the story of themselves or a fellow classmate.  But that is how I see the book being used.  I’m not talking about how the book can currently be enjoyed on its own merits.  Must every picture book out there with even a tangential connection to bullying now be used as a tool in some way?  Nope.  But the fact of the matter is that this book is already being used, being used all the time, and I want its impact to hit home.  What if you changed William’s race too?  What if you had him living in an apartment or in the country?  The possibilities are endless.  If I were teaching a class on picture book illustration you can bet I’d assign this book as some kind of an assignment.

For all that, it has stayed in print all these years.  Now imagine it came out for the first time today.  In an era where princess stuff is pushed on girls from every angle, and where you can walk into a Toys R Us and find a “Girls” and “Boys” section (marked as such) this book deserves a second life.

Have at it, kids.  Tear me asunder.  Or read James Preller’s fantastic post on the book from two years ago, including much of the text and interior images.  He even links to this in-depth explanation of how Ms. Zolotow was inspired to write the book.

Answer to the Above Stumper: It was Ellen Raskin.  She illustrated the cover to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time before eventually winning her own Newbery for The Westing Game.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Jen Robinson says:

    I actually just read a reillustrated picture book: I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman. I haven’t seen the original (published in 1976), but Random House published it this summer with illustrations by Patrice Barton. I think that Barton’s style works well for the books, which is now a Cybils nominee (valid b/c new illustrations on a picture book counts as a significant change from the original, obviously).

  2. Maria Selke says:

    What a great thought! I love the idea of this book (and I just added it to my list). I think we’re doing a decent job in children’s literature allowing girls to take on active, strong, and independent roles. We are doing a MUCH worse job showing boys take on nurturing roles. If re-illustrating this book helps us make that point with today’s boys – then I’m all for it.

  3. FLAT STANLEY was successfully reillustrated. Though I’m not sure that counts as a picture book. It was a picture book when I read it as a kid, and then it got redone as a chapter book, with illustrations by Scott Nash (who has also successfully reillustrated a DR SEUSS book, and if that doesn’t throw all conventions and sacred cows out the window, I don’t know what does). Also, wasn’t MANY MOONS reillustrated? And that’s a book that won a Caldecott for the first illustrations. So I think the case can definitely be made to reillustrate William’s Doll, which right now kind of looks like the cover of a board game your grandma gave you in 1976, which you never played because it was boring and no one actually won.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh, Julie. Julie I’m gonna steal that board game line from you so fast it’ll make your head spin. You speak truth to power.

  4. Shannon says:

    Didn’t Caldecott-winner Many Moons get reillustrated?

    I’ll nominate Julian Hector for reillustration, based on his rad stereotype-punching work on Monday is One Day.

  5. Shannon says:

    Whoops. Clearly neglected to read the comments.

    http://books.google.com/books/about/Many_Moons.html?id=QKgzdIa0IoIC

    Also, didn’t The Runaway Bunny get reillustrated by the original illustrator a few years after it first came out?

  6. xemilyx says:

    The Little Engine that Could was reillustrated by Loren Long in 2005!

  7. Lauren says:

    Slate just did a terrific set of articles about the creation of Free to be You and Me for its 40th anniversary this year. Turns out they took criticism for being too hetero-normative. Why can’t William play with a doll just because he likes dolls? But they (and probably zotolow) were trying to appeal to a broad audience. It’s a great read with lots of behind-the-scenes stories about putting it together, working with Rosie Grier and Mel Brooks, etc.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Zolotow’s When the wind stops …. was beautifully re-illustrated (in my opinion) by Stefano Vitale, in (1997 ?).
    Yes, there is still a need for this book… after hearing a Dad berate his young son several times in our public library the other day, for picking out “girl books,” I finally made my way into their aisle and said, “oh! you have Olivia! EVERYONE loves Olivia!” “Isn’t it a girl book?” his father asked me. “No,” I said, “you shouldn’t worry about that.”
    I was rather surprised that he was so adamant and concerned about what a three year old was selecting. Sigh.

  9. Kate Coombs says:

    You’re absolutely right. (And it is a case by case question, usually answered by “Not necessary or wise.”)

  10. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    I agree completely. I was part of the Free to Be…You and Me generation. I remember my 6th grade teacher reading us some of the stories in the book, including Williams’s Doll. (I’ve never seen that video before, by the way, and Alan Alda was rockin’ that tune.)

    I appreciate the story of William’s Doll, but as an elementary librarian, I can tell you that Charlotte Zolotow’s books do not get checked out often, and I believe it’s because they have an old-fashioned look that does not appeal to the average child in my library. Re-illustrated, by someone like LeUyen Pham (I’m thinking Alvin Ho, here), I believe it would have much more appeal to kids. Sometimes you have to repackage a product for it to garner the appropriate attention, and I think you’re exactly right in saying that William deserves a second chance.

  11. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    Hey! I just picked up the 2008 edition of Free to Be…You and Me, and it features an abridged version of Williams’s Doll–illustrated by LeUyen Pham! I KNEW it was a good idea! ;)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Pham?! Pham did an abridged version?! This is what I get for not inspecting that William’s Doll more closely. Kristi, you know your stuff, woman.

  12. Laura Wadley says:

    How about James Thurber’s Many Moons? I like the non-Caldecott version better.

  13. Genevieve says:

    LeUyen Pham is PERFECT. I can’t find any images on Google — if you see any, please post them!

  14. Galen Longstreth says:

    Pham is a great choice for reillustrating this book. I adore Pham’s work. But I also love the original illustrations in William’s Doll. It seems to me that instead of re-illustrating a classic book on this subject, a book that already exists, let’s get authors and illustrators to make MORE books like this. We need more books that work against gender stereotypes, that work against heterosexism and homophobia, not just reillustrated ones.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      True enough. Though I think the advantage of re-illustration is that you already have the book appearing on required reading lists. Plus there’s the name recognition with the librarian purchasers. But new books are, as you say, desperately needed as well.

  15. Sara O'Leary says:

    Hey, I was just having a conversation with Julie Morstad and she recommended I go look up Charlotte Zolotow … was trying to think of where I’d heard the name recently and of course it was here. Now I am thinking that a Julie Morstad illustrated edition of William’s Doll might be just what is needed!

  16. Kellogg reillustrated The Mysterious Tadpole, which I had been using for years. I think it’s so, so much better.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Aw. Admittedly I was a little sad by the re-illustration. Partly because of an element that is probably not appropriate in the least but that I loved as a kid. Do you remember when they’re reading through a history book and they come across a story about how a single American Indian sank a nasty pirate ship and its crew? It wasn’t the world’s most P.C. image, but I just loved how calm the guy was, shooting arrows in the bow while these mean and nasty pirates sank to their watery graves. It’s gone now. Not really a surprise.

      • I hear that. The things that stick with us are not necessarily PC.

        In the original, there were pirates on the ship — but in the reillustration, it was beavers. My first graders thought that was freaking hilarious.

      • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

        Ha! Well that’s a good point right there. Beavers are, admittedly, always funny.

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